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Protecting America’s Long Trails

By Guest Observer November 1, 2018

Aerial view showing the Werowocomoco archeological site along the York River in Virginia along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake NHT. Photo courtesy PNTS

October, 2018, marks the 50thanniversary of two remarkable federal laws: the National Trails System and Wild and Scenic Rivers Acts.  Both laws set up ways that the federal government can assist in protecting and operating “long, skinny corridors” for recreation and heritage resource preservation

My background is with the trails, and their challenges are tough because some of them are very long – thousands of miles.  The two flagships of the National Trails System are the Appalachian and Pacific Crest National Scenic Trails, both well over 2,000 miles in length, both spanning numerous states, both highlighting mountain chains.  Both take advantage of hundreds of miles of corridor on federal or state public lands.  To fully protect both as continuous corridors of “superlative recreation,” the federal government had to acquire lands from private landowners to fill in the gaps. For long stretches, both trails are “tunnels in the woods,” where a corridor of 1,000 or 2,000 feet wide may be sufficient.  But in other places where there are magnificent views, it is hard to know how wide the protected corridor should be.

In 1978, 40 years ago, a new category of trail was added to the National Trails System – national historic trails.  In fact, between 1983 and 2009, that was the only category of trail added to the System. Today there are 11 national scenic trails and 19 national historic trails together totaling more than 50,000 miles in length and crossing 49 of the 50 states.  National historic trails do not need to be continuous – rather, they commemorate important routes of travel from the past by featuring the remnant ruts, grave sites, structures, etc., that are left, linked together when possible by signed auto tour routes.  Many of them – and especially in the West – feature large landscapes that are difficult to preserve.

For the trails, it is useful to distinguish between “management” and “administration.” Management relates to the ownership and jurisdiction of the land (or water) where the trail route occurs. Administration relates to the agency carrying out the coordinative authorities of the Trails Act.  Sometimes they are the same agency – this occurs, for example, where the Appalachian Trail crosses national park units, since the National Park Service administers that trail and manages those units.  Most often, though, one agency administers a trail while another manages specific segments – and they need to work together for any success to occur.  This can be difficult when these agencies have different missions, distinct traditions and operating laws, varying staffing and budget priorities, and conflicting attitudes about trails, recreation, and heritage conservation.

President Lyndon Johnson signing the National Trails System Act. Image: LBJ Presidential Library

When the Trails Act was first passed, thanks to special pleading by then Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, the first two trails had access to eminent domain as a last resort, and it has been used effectively and sparingly.  Then in amendments passed in 1978 and 1983, Congress severely limited the use of eminent domain for all subsequent trails established under the Act. This has led to some very creative alternative ways for protecting trail-related land resources: state protection programs, land trusts, cooperative agreements, site certification, etc.

The National Trails System Act was one in a long suite of environmental and recreational laws passed in the 1960s and 1970s.  It was piloted to passage by Secretary Udall and Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI). President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law just before the end of his term as president.  Over five decades, times change, political dynamics change, budgets come and go.  Amazingly, the National Trails System has endured and grown.  And the key is citizen involvement and advocacy.  From the start, it set in motion conservation through partnership, inspired by the decades-long chain of agreements between the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trail organizations and federal agencies through whose lands those trails were routed.  Amendments to the Trails Act in 1983 expanded and defined the many roles volunteers could play in planning, building, maintaining, promoting, and operating the trails.  Since then, a variety of national advocacy organizations have been founded (American Hiking Society, American Trails, and the Partnership for the National Trails System).  And, modeled on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, citizen-based volunteer organizations have been founded to help support almost every one of the trails created under the Trails Act.  In addition, nationwide land trusts – such as the Conservation Fund, Trust for Public Lands, etc. – have all stepped in to help where needed.

The key to successful national scenic and historic trails is partnerships.  These occur at many scales and for many purposes.  One authority that fostered landscape protection was the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), first established in 1965. Thanks to these funds – derived from the sale of public lands and federal off-shore oil and gas leases — $200 million has been used to protect the threatened gaps along the Appalachian Trail.  Other LWCF funds have filled in gaps in national parks and forests as well as aided states and local jurisdictions with park and recreational facilities.

During the Obama Administration, a special LWCF program called “Collaborative Landscape Planning,” made $50 million available for dozens of corridor and viewshed protection projects along many of the national scenic and historic trails.  However, the basic LWCF authority expired on September 30, so if it is not re-authorized soon, the future of the national trails will be in jeopardy.

America’s national scenic and historic trails offer unparalleled opportunities to experience our Nation’s natural and cultural dimensions.  Many sites along these trails deserve special attention as irreplaceable cultural landscapes.  Some are places sacred to indigenous peoples.  Some offer spectacular and fragile scenery.  And others may look plain and unremarkable, but from them spring stories of heroism, social change, and transformation.  I invite you this anniversary year – in fact every year – to explore America’s national scenic and history trails and see what a remarkable legacy they offer.

Steve Elkinton was trained as a landscape architect (University of Pennsylvania, 1976) and worked with the National Park Service for 36 years, 25 as program leader for the National Trails System.  In his retirement he has written an illustrated history called A Grand Experiment – the National Trails System at 50.

 

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Blackstone River Valley: Policy Without Money is just Talk

By Brenda Barrett April 27, 2015
Credit: National Park Service

Map of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor. Credit: National Park Service

The Blackstone River Valley has always been a hotbed of innovation from its earliest industrialization to experimentation in protected area management with the creation of the national heritage corridor in 1986. Recently, the conservation possibilities of the region have been re-imagined yet again. In 2014, Congress authorized the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park with a dual purpose to preserve, protect and interpret the industrial heritage as well as its urban, rural and agricultural landscape that provides the overarching context for the region.

Along with individual industrial sites, the park boundaries include the Blackstone Canal and the Blackstone River and its tributaries. The legislation also recognizes the role of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor (BRVNHC), which was re-authorized to the year 2021. And to top it off the park legislation permits the National Park Service (NPS) to work outside of the park’s boundaries and enter into agreements with the BRVNHC. This offers an unprecedented opportunity for the NPS to conserve the Blackstone Valley on the landscape level – a living laboratory for NPS’s signature Scaling Up Initiative.
There is also a pressing need for the new park unit and the corridor to work closely together. The proposed 2016 NPS budget, known as the Greenbook, moved $650,00 in funding for the BRVNHC out of the National Heritage Area category and reassigned it to the agency’s operations budget for the new Blackstone River Valley NHP. So is this bad news for the corridor? Not according to Charlene Cutler, corridor’s Executive Director “In broad-brush, the plan for 2016 is for the heritage corridor to develop a cooperative funding agreement with the new park. The corridor will work within the larger landscape on projects that are outside the scope of the national historical park such as community planning, economic development, tourism and education/interpretation about the environment and watershed, as well as historic preservation. This work will be mutually beneficial to the region and to the new national park.”

This is smart thinking, as a former NPS director George Hartzog said “Policy without money is just talk.” At the same time, there are some real concerns that this action diverts scarce dollars from the National Heritage Areas (NHA) program. The 2016 Greenbook already proposes to cut the NHA funding in half from the 2015 appropriation and the $650,000 for the Blackstone Valley would be deducted from that limited pot. It also brushes aside the NHA funding formula that has been painstakingly negotiated over the past several years. Finally, what if park units continue to dip into the NHA funding? Seems a bit unfair considering the NPS overall budget is approaching three billion and the proposal for the NHAs in 2016 is under $10 million.

Credit: NPS

A former textile mill along the Blackstone River in the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor. Credit: NPS

On the other hand, some veteran national park observers think that this allocation could be an exciting opportunity to jump-start the planning process for the new park. Unlike many newly created parks that languish for years with no capacity and no money, this park in the Blackstone Valley would have a huge advantage. It would have some dollars and just as important a built-in partnership with BRVNHC, an organization with thirty years of successful community engagement and service delivery. What a great opportunity to take advantage of the wholeness of the valley. Charlene Cutler, for one, is optimistic that this is a win-win for the NHAs along with the parks. “Perhaps national heritage area funding would become less volatile if it was coordinated through park operating budgets in a true heritage area/park partnership.”

In an article last year, Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park Next Step up for Heritage Areas?, the Living Landscape Observer posed a number of questions for the park and the heritage corridor. Looking back these queries are more critical than ever.

  • Will the new national park fashion a management strategy that takes advantage of these sweeping authorities?
  • Will the heritage corridor be made a full partner in preserving and interpreting the larger landscape?
  • Can the permanent presence and sustainable funding of a park unit serve as home base to continue the innovative holistic approach to the Blackstone Valley?

Stay tuned: Only time and hard work will tell if this might be the new model that will put the Blackstone Valley back on the map as one of the most innovative models for landscape conservation in the country.

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Special Update: Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park next step up for National Heritage Areas?

By Brenda Barrett December 30, 2014
Credit: National Park Service

Map of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor

Interested in the future of the heritage movement? Concerned that the program has had to invest so much of its political capital on re-authorization and just hanging on to a flat line budget? Then the recent legislation establishing the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park might be one way forward – offering stability and just possibly a new kind of partnership to conserve landscape scale resources.

A little background, the Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor has always been a special case. Created in 1986 as the second of a new kind of National Park Service (NPS) designation, the area was the poster child for this new approach to managing a living landscape. However, in recent years the NPS seemed to retreat from this bold strategy. A special resource study for the Blackstone Valley recommended creating a traditional park around a cluster of historic sites – a very reduced footprint indeed! See Blackstone River Valley: Sounding a Retreat from Landscape Scale Work?

So it is very good news that as part of the recent National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, Congress authorized the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park with some very expansive language.

The park was created with a dual purpose to preserve, protect and interpret the industrial heritage as well as its urban, rural and agricultural landscape that provides the overarching context for the region. Along with individual industrial sites, the park boundaries include the Blackstone Canal and the Blackstone River and its tributaries. The legislation also recognizes the role of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor. It authorizes the park to enter into cooperative agreements with the heritage corridor and to offer a range of technical assistance to resources outside the official park boundary.

Credit: NPS

A former textile mill along the Blackstone River in the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor. Credit: NPS

The new park along with the re-authorization of the heritage corridor to the year 2021 in the recent Omnibus Budget Bill provides a new opportunity to conserve the Blackstone Valley on a landscape scale. Charlene Perkins Cutler, the executive director of the Blackstone River Valley Heritage Corridor certainly sees the new designation this way, saying “This gives recognition to the importance of the entire watershed and the heritage corridor as the birthplace of the industrial revolution,”

Many people have worked hard to pass legislation that ensures that the tools for landscape scale work are at the ready. The next three years will be critical. Will the new national park fashion a management plan that takes advantage of these sweeping authorities? Will the heritage corridor be made a full partner in preserving and interpreting the larger landscape? Can the permanent presence and sustainable funding of a park unit serve as home base to continue the innovative holistic approach to the Blackstone Valley? Only time and more hard work will tell if this is the new model for heritage development.

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Blackstone River Valley: Sounding a Retreat from Landscape Scale Work?

By Brenda Barrett September 29, 2014

Fair warning: Insider discussion coming up…

Charting a Future for National Heritage Areas

An image of Slater Mill in the Blackstone River Valley NHC on the cover of the 2006 report “Charting A Future for National Heritage Areas.”

Not so long ago the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor was the pride of the National Park Service (NPS) – the poster child of the new approach to managing a living landscape. It was lauded in publication after publication and was a regular stop for visiting dignitaries looking for models of intergovernmental partnerships in action. The corridor was a prime example of the NPS extending its reach to the landscape scale using a Federal Commission that included government at every level and private citizens to care for a 550 square miles corridor spanning Massachusetts and Rhode Island and 24 communities. Non-profit and private sector partners also played a key role in corridor planning and management, whether as the stewards of key sites like museums or as co-promoters of tourism and preservation initiatives.

The story of the Blackstone Valley illustrated an arc of the nation’s industrial history stretching from sites of early industrial innovation to environmental exploitation, and then abandonment. Through its the expansive mission, the Blackstone River Valley Commission, was able to interpret the whole landscape – the connection between cities and rural areas, industrial innovation, and the regeneration of the region’s natural and cultural values.

But somewhere along the way, the NPS changed its direction in the Blackstone Valley. Perhaps it was the lingering effects of the great recession or the inborn desire to care more for resources that one owns in fee. An NPS special resource study that was originally planned to create the next level of innovation for the region’s future inexplicably rejected the continuation of the heritage commission. The study devolved into a preferred alternative that would create a traditional national park. The sweeping ideas of the original heritage corridor – partnership management of the valley – were reduced to the NPS preserving a small collection of industrial heritage sites. It certainly was not about the money as the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the new park as $26 million dollars (between FY 2014-2018).  The 2014 annual appropriation for the corridor program is only around $500,000. However, some argued that this was the best deal that could be crafted to keep a NPS presence in the valley. After all it was thought that a new park unit could partner with the heritage corridor and provide a stable base of operation.

Two years ago in reporting on the Blackstone situation, I noted the irony in this proposal…”Just as the NPS’s most recent strategic plan, calls for scaling up its work and promoting large landscape conservation to support healthy ecosystems and cultural resources, one of the best examples of collaborative lived-in landscape management may be headed for a down sizing.” (see full post here)

Recent congressional action on the proposed park bill for the Blackstone Valley is even more alarming than a mere down sizing. In September of 2014 the House Natural Resources Committee amended HR 706, “to establish the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park” to strip out every reference of a partnership with the heritage corridor (along with other language that makes even establishing a traditional park problematic). This would end the innovative approach that has been in place for almost three decades.

So what is next? The Senate companion bill S. 371 still has the right stuff. But as is sometimes the case at the end of a two-year congressional session, the bills could be included in a last minute omnibus bill. If this bill rumbles down the halls of power, there will be little time to make the case for landscape scale thinking and try salvage what was once an exemplary partnership.

Credit: Brenda Barrett

Roger Williams National Memorial. Credit: Brenda Barrett

Another possibility is that nothing will happen. Then legislative process would have to start all over in 2015, the same year that the funding authorization for the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor ends. If that happens what will be the NPS’s role in the Blackstone Valley? Well the agency will still fly the flag over the Roger Williams National memorial a 5-acre park in downtown Providence – a long way from the landscape scale vision that once animated their work.

 

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