New Preservation Approach Aims to Save Cultural Landscape

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

JIM PEPPER pushes aside brambles, strides across spongy bottom land, and scrambles up a rocky embankment. About 50 yards from the road, he stops and looks around at what appears to be nothing but a patch of Rhode Island woods.

``We're standing in the mill,'' he says. ``The water ran down this trough,'' he explains, gesturing to stone walls and arches under the overgrowth.

Mr. Pepper is a visionary with a twist. Not only can he peer into the future to see what might be, he also can gaze into the past to see what has been. Now he is seeing Mammoth Mill, once a bustling woolen factory on the Blackstone River in North Smithfield, R.I. These neglected ruins are all that remain of the 1836 mill, which was torn down in 1930 - but to Pepper, they are the substance of things hoped for.

Pepper is the executive director of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission. He has guided a pair of journalists to this obscure spot to make a point about his job and the work of the commission.

``Mammoth Mill is symbolic of so many places in this valley that are unknown and unseen. Our job is to make them known,'' he says. Although Pepper has no plans for the site yet, his imagination already is leaping ahead to a day when the plot, tidied up and properly ``interpreted'' through signs and diagrams, may inform tourists about America's early industrialization.

The Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor is one of five regions that have been designated ``American Heritage Areas'' by Congress. Besides the Blackstone River Valley in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, there are the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in Illinois, the Delaware and Lehigh Canal National Heritage Corridor in eastern Pennsylvania, the America's Industrial Heritage Project in southwestern Pennsylvania, and the Quinebaug and Shetucket Rivers Valley National Heritage Corridor in Connecticut, which Congress approved just this fall.

If a bill in Congress that passed the House of Representatives is reintroduced and enacted by the 104th Congress, 10 more zones from Georgia to Washington State will be designated national-heritage areas and become eligible for federal matching funds. The legislation would establish a mechanism whereby additional regions could obtain heritage recognition by Congress in the future.

As important as they are, however, federally sanctioned heritage areas are just the crown jewels of a burgeoning movement to revitalize distinctive but underrecognized parts of the American landscape. Scores of places in nearly every state have acquired or are seeking a degree of official or unofficial classification as heritage sites.

It is primarily a grass-roots movement, explains Shelley Mastran, a program director at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington and the executive director of the recently formed National Coalition for Heritage Areas (NCHA). Referring to a long list of putative heritage areas compiled by the National Trust, Ms. Mastran says, ``These are initiatives that are or have the potential to become heritage areas. Some of them are just self-anointed.''

But many other heritage areas have progressed beyond the gleam-in-the-eye stage, Mastran says. Their proponents are working with state governments and the National Park Service to create programs through which a heightened ``sense of place'' can help achieve environmental, economic-development, and historic-preservation goals.

Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania have their own programs for recognizing heritage areas, though sometimes by other names. New York, for instance, has established the Hudson River Valley Greenway Council, a regional-planning compact among 240 cities and towns in 10 counties from Albany to New York City. Despite its name, the members of the compact are cooperating on a much broader array of initiatives than are implied by the term green way, says David Sampson, director of the Hudson River Valley Greenway Council.

Asked if he thinks that interest in heritage areas and other forms of regional planning is growing, Mr. Sampson says he responds to speaking invitations all around the country, and he has traveled to the Czech Republic twice to consult on green ways.

What, exactly, is a heritage area? ``This question has as many definitions as there are heritage areas,'' the NCHA observed last January in the first edition of its quarterly newsletter, Heritage Links, because ``no two heritage areas are exactly the same....'' But the organization says the ``basic components'' of heritage areas include:

* A sense of place and identity.

* Regional scope and management.

* Large-scale natural or man-made resources that unify the region.

* A variety of land uses.

* Predominantly private ownership of land and resources.

* Local, regional, state, or national significance.

* A common goal or ``big idea.''

One could almost say (although it would make many proponents of the concept wince) that heritage areas are theme parks - except that the theme in each area is not imposed by a Disneyesque developer, but rather grows out of the unique geography, history, and living culture of the region.

In contrast to national or state parks, heritage areas - where most property remains in private hands - are an approach to resource conservation and management that emphasizes partnerships among all levels of government, environmentalists, business people, and citizen groups.

Pepper says that, in the Blackstone River Valley, he has seen the regional cooperation that is fostered by the national-heritage concept start to bridge divides between environmentalists, historic preservationists, and community planners on one side and business people and property owners on the other side.

``If you push the time horizon out a distance, most people all want basically the same things - livable communities, good places for their kids to grow up, places with a mixture of jobs and green spaces and recreation facilities,'' Pepper says. ``Once you have identified common goals, then it becomes a question of, `How do we achieve it?' That's when meaningful planning really begins.''

According to Pepper, planning for community development and resource management is often misunderstood. ``Too many towns just have a permitting process, not a true planning process,'' he says. ``When communities and regions develop real, long-term plans, there are fewer fights over specific permitting issues. And people feel empowered when they have effective planning tools in their hands.''

Pepper was hired by the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission in 1989. A career employee of the National Park Service who previously worked in Alaska, he cheerfully calls himself a ``pro-government liberal'' and says he came to the job with a wilderness lover's distrust of business people.

But Pepper says he has learned a lot about planning from corporate executives. ``Business types often are more skilled than bureaucrats and yuppie environmentalists at establishing long-range goals and setting up implementation schedules,'' he admits.

As Pepper wheels a van along the highways and byways of the Blackstone River Valley, the words rush out as quickly as parts of the waterway that once was called the ``hardest working river in America.'' In nearly every town and village he passes through, indeed, around almost every bend of the road, Pepper points to a historic site, a distinctive piece of architecture or Americana, a scenic vista or significant landmark, a restoration project, new heritage-area signage, or - and there are still many of these - evidences of neglect, disrepair, and pollution.

``The Blackstone River Valley, like many regions that are candidates for recognition as heritage areas, had been largely forgotten,'' Pepper says. ``There are many places in America that have become anonymous, that we don't see, and that have lost a lot of their own self-consciousness as an identifiable place with a history and heritage that are worth preserving.''

The Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor extends 46 miles from the outskirts of Worcester, Mass., south to Providence, R.I., where the Blackstone River empties into Narragansett Bay. The 250,000-acre zone encompasses some 40 cities, towns, and villages, together with forest and farmland.

While the corridor includes wilderness areas like the rugged Purgatory Chasm State Park, its distinctiveness as a heritage area stems from what Pepper calls the ``cultural landscape'' more than from its natural features.

A National Park Service publication calls the Blackstone River Valley the ``birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.'' In 1790 Samuel Slater, an English mill boss, engineered America's first successful watered-powered cotton-spinning mill on the river at Pawtucket, R.I. Over the following decades, manufacturing spread along the swift stream and its tributaries, dotting their banks with textile mills and other factories, each surrounded by clusters of worker housing. These company-owned mill towns are the valley's most distinguishing feature.

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.

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.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.