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Charting a Future: National Heritage Corridor to become our next National Park?

Interested in the future of National Heritage Areas or in the bigger issue of partnership management in the National Park Service (NPS)?  If so, the proposed legislation to rethink the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor may be of interest.

In the past, one of the selling points for designating National Heritage Areas was offering a model that was   an alternative to a NPS park unit. Within the boundary of a heritage area, the NPS would not own any land, would avoid costly maintenance of historic buildings, and would be able to count on partners and volunteers to make a major contribution to the work.  In return, the NPS would be able to tell nationally important stories of industry, agriculture and cultural heritage on a large landscape scale that would otherwise be impossible to imagine. This was certainly the idea in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan signed into law the first national heritage corridor along the Illinois and Michigan Canal. This model was also fresh in Congress’s mind when they created the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor two years later.

For a quarter of a century the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Commission, in partnership with the NPS, has managed a 550 square miles corridor that spans two state and 24 communities. The landscape of the Blackstone Valley illustrates an arc of the nation’s industrial history stretching from sites of early industrial innovation to environmental exploitation, then abandonment, and finally regeneration. The mission of the Blackstone Valley Commission included both natural and cultural resource conservation. It boldly tackled issues like water quality, local land use and even leadership training for residents and government officials. The commission was recognized as a model for partnership management of a living landscape.

Despite these successes, the community, political leaders and the NPS seem to have taken a new path and are proposing to create a new National Park unit. A recent NPS Special Resource Study (2011)  recommended a more traditional approach – the creation of the Blackstone River Valley Industrial Heritage National Park. The sweeping ideas of the original heritage corridor – partnership management of the valley – have been reduced to NPS staff preserving a collection of industrial heritage sites. And this is not just a study; Congress has introduced legislation to make it a reality. (See SB 1708 and HR 3191).

So why is this happening? One reason is clear just look at the NPS budget for National Heritage Areas. Unlike national park units who have predictable annual funding, the heritage areas funding has been shrinking just as the program has expanded. For the last decade the Blackstone Commission has had to lobby for adequate funding every year, making long-range planning, implementation of multi-year projects, and staff retention very challenging. However, the proposed solution is not necessarily more cost effective.  A comparison between the current Blackstone Heritage Corridor and the proposed new Blackstone park unit make a compelling case for the benefits of collaborative management:

Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor encompasses an entire watershed with a broad mandate for the preservation, redevelopment, and interpretation of the regional landscape. The Blackstone Commission has a current annual operating budget of approximately $1 million and 14 full-time employees.

Proposed Blackstone River Valley Industrial Heritage National Park would encompass four historic districts, the Blackstone River and Blackstone Canal with an annual operating cost of $3.5 million not including proposed planning costs, construction, rehabilitation and exhibits at four sites.

With 49 National Heritage Areas from Alaska to Alabama, these numbers are thought provoking. More problematic for the NPS are the implications for management based on partnership, community engagement and working at a landscape scale, rather than the traditional, ownership model.

A 2005 NPS study identified the critical ingredients for the Blackstone River Valley’s’ future success as: (1) strong collaborative leadership to carry forward the vision; (2) an ongoing relationship with the NPS; and (3) secure, sustainable funding. In 2012 two of those critical ingredients may be on the way, but the first and most important one remains uncertain.  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.

Is this an overreaction?  Some of the longtime leaders of the Blackstone Corridor see the new legislation as a positive approach. They point out that the new park unit will have grant funding for continued partnership work in the region and they remain hopeful for the future. Let us know what you think.

2 Responses

  1. The reality of low funding levels for the National Heritage Area program is what’s driving this move to make a new national park. So to fix the problem for Blackstone, Congress will most likely spend more money than what it would cost to maintain it as a heritage area.
    But it should be recognized that from the beginning, Congress was unwilling to commit to permanent funding for a heritage area. And that was no secret plan-it is reflected in the legislation of nearly every heritage area beginning with Illinois and Michigan. Rather than accept that intent, the leadership of successive heritage areas were always thinking that some how they would make the case with Congress to reverse that course.
    It is still unclear as to whether there is a consensus within the heritage area community that permanent funding is needed, particularly with those heritage areas most recently designated. There’s no debate however, that every heritage area should be adequately funded in accordance with its enabling legislation. Those ongoing discussions have distracted the leadership of all the areas from making the case for the exceptional value that heritage areas represent to the taxpayers who will foot the bill for new national parks.

    1. Thank you Tony for this valuable overview, although some may not apply directly to the Blackstone River Valley.

      On your point about the Congress being “unwilling to commit to permanent funding,” it seemed to me watching the legislation go through at various stages there were often multiple and even conflicting motivations of Members of Congress and their Staff, various people and offices within NPS, individuals in OMB and sometimes the Heritage Areas themselves. The “sunset” provision by itself cannot mean Congress had a unified intent to stop funding heritage areas, because there are MANY pieces of legislation (such as Endangered Species, Clean Water, Highway Bill, etc etc that are fully expected to be reauthorized after evaluation and tinkering. It is true that some Members of Congress that opposed any park or heritage area new authorization seized on the ‘sunset’ to declare it was congressional intent to shut them down.

      I was involved when the first heritage area went through the Congress, and the ONLY deal on structure or provisions between Governor Thompson of Illinois and Sec. of the Interior James Watt, was Mr. Watt’s insistence that the federal Illnois and Mich. commission have no authority to own land. The sunset had nothing to do with that agreement, that became the first “NPS” legislation supported by the Reagan Administration.

      But at that time the I&M was understood by Washington to be a sort of “land banking” and recreation way initiative that at the time was not seeking permanent authorization.

      It may be different for several of the cluster of heritage areas authorized in the mid-1990’s. I am told reliably by a senior NPS legislative official that he was told by a visible advocate of that effort that they were seeking a revenue-generation model and long term federal funding would be eclipsed and not needed.

      That was certainly never true at Blackstone, if for the others. (Congress actually provided in Shenandoah Valley Battlefields for a permanent authorization, and had deliberately extended funding mechanisms for Cane River (LA) and Ohio and Erie (OH).

      I was at Blackstone at the time, we were not about revenue generation fantasies. For a two-state, 20 township preservation strategy like ours, we understood the federal government needed a seat at the table, primarily to coordinate regional priorities and timing and build a sense of public value for the resources at stake. Small amounts of federal funds were leveraged hugely and some revenue was generated for partners, but it was always more about environmental agenda-setting than visions of dollar signs dancing in anyone’s head.

      At one point I was tired of the constant reauthorizations and unstable funding, and went to Senator Pell’s office — at that point Pell was doing the leading among the Delegation — and was told the value of the Sunset was to get the communities to recommit to the goals; if you had no point of recommitment it would stop being a partnership and people would begin to wait for the NPS to do it all.

      I asked a Deputy Director of the NPS about sunsetting, and that DD’s comment was: Congress will reauthorize most of them that work well, and the advantage of a short term authorization is only that Congress does not have to show to full cost on the books for perpetual funding as it would do with a national park. So, it is a way to appear to be fiscally prudent, and says nothing about whether or not congress intended in the first place to seek reauthorization.

      But the record of successive reauthorizations certainly leans the other way. Some heritage areas, like Blackstone and Shenandoah Valley Battlefields, were only authorized as heritage areas after national historical park proposals did not move forward.

      Each heritage area has its own, free-standing legislation. Each is one of a kind. There is not law that treats them as a system. The proper way to develop mechanisms for individual NHAs and National Parks for that matter is to make sure each has appropriate provisions so that the preservation strategy for that particular resource meets the needs of that resource.