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New Preservation Approach Aims to Save Cultural Landscape

Congress designates `heritage areas' to achieve environmental, economic, and historic-preservation goals

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Based on a National Park Service inventory of the region's natural and historical assets, Congress voted to help preserve the Blackstone River Valley's cultural landscape in 1986. It established the boundaries of the national-heritage corridor, created the commission to be a funding and planning catalyst (but without zoning, eminent domain, or other powers to regulate land use), and provided $250,000 a year - raised to $350,000 in 1991 - for the commission's operations and as matching funds for a variety of conservation, historic-preservation, and economic-development uses. Congress also has given the commission about $4.2 million over the years for bricks-and-mortar projects.

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The annual authorization pays for, among other things, Pepper's five-person staff, which includes a National Park Service ranger and a community planner. The staff works out of a refurbished former depot of the Providence & Worcester Railroad in Woonsocket that was donated by the state of Rhode Island.

But the real development money for heritage-area projects comes from state, local, and private sources. Pepper estimates that he has leveraged federal dollars with other funds on a scale of 15 to 1.

While the commission provides funds for historic preservation, Pepper emphasizes that it is not interested simply in saving isolated structures or ``little vest-pocket displays of historic sites.'' For instance, he says, when the town of Blackstone asked the commission for funds to restore an old church that had been condemned, the commission refused to help unless the town developed a more comprehensive heritage-protection plan, as it subsequently did.

As another example of how the commission tries to spread ripples, Pepper takes his visitors to a small, attractive riverside park where a mill once stood in Valley Falls, R.I. Pointing to signs of refurbishment around the park, Pepper says residents in the run-down neighborhood have become convinced that their community has value.

``We're constantly on the lookout for these little `gene pools' of potential revitalization, where we can make a difference,'' he says.

Pepper says he is heartened by the extent to which many local companies have caught the spirit of the corridor's purpose. For instance, he says, in Slatersville, R.I. (founded by Samuel Slater's brother, John), Polytop Corporation, a maker of container lids and other plastic products, has spent more than $1 million to purchase and rehabilitate a vacated mill and surrounding worker housing. The company is collecting the stories of former factory workers in an oral-history project.

Despite such evidence of success, national-heritage areas have encountered opposition from two directions: some factions within the National Park Service, and the property-rights or so-called ``wise use'' movement.

Skeptics in the park service voice doubts about heritage areas primarily because they fear that money for such areas will detract from funding for national parks. Moreover, Pepper says, many of his colleagues in the park service have what he suggests is a hidebound approach to safeguarding precious national assets.

``They believe that to protect a resource, the government has to own it,'' Pepper says. ``For them, Yellowstone is the model: You put land behind red-velvet ropes and keep people away except under tightly controlled conditions.''

Pepper and other heritage-area supporters like A. Elizabeth Watson, a conservationist and the chair of the NCHA, believe that critics within the National Park Service are shortsighted and are missing an important wave in the future of conservation and environmentalism.

``Americans need more places to go to experience their heritage,'' Ms. Watson says. ``We need to build partnerships to preserve the American landscape, not just lock up land in national parks.''

Both Pepper and Watson see signs that some critics in the park service are softening their attitudes toward heritage areas.

Resistance to heritage areas from the property-rights movement is predictable, since some ``wise use'' activists oppose government involvement in decisions affecting private property.

Heritage-area advocates like Mastran and Watson of the National Coalition for Heritage Areas wonder if property-rights groups understand heritage areas and know that management authorities in the areas lack coercive powers over land use. ``I don't think they have a clue,'' Mastran says. ``They just used the bill as another vehicle for raising their favorite issues.''

Sampson of the Hudson River Valley Greenway Council also is puzzled by right-wing opposition to heritage areas. ``They seem like a very Republican idea: using private planning and investment to improve the quality of life and to revitalize communities,'' Sampson says. ``It's a market economy that makes heritage areas and green ways work.''