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Blackstone River Valley: Policy Without Money is just Talk

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.