WASHINGTON, DC – The effort to establish a new national historical park in the Blackstone Valley gained momentum today as a key Congressional panel heard testimony from U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) on his proposal to create a new national historical park within the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor.  Designating this multi-site area as a national historical park has important economic, environmental, historical, and educational benefits for Rhode Island and the region. 

Reed is the Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior and Environment, which oversees funding for the National Park Service.  His proposed legislation (S. 1708) would create a multi-site park that could boost tourism and economic development in the region and preserve as well as protect valuable natural and cultural resources for future generations of Americans.

The U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, chaired by Mark Udall (D-CO), today heard testimony from Senators Reed and John Kerry (D-MA) as well as an official from the National Park Service.  Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who, along with Senators Kerry and Scott Brown (R-MA), are cosponsors of Reed’s bill, also provided written testimony in support of the legislation.

“I thank Chairman Udall and Ranking Member Rand Paul (R-KY) for considering this legislation.  Today’s hearing is an important step toward creating a new national historical park that would preserve the industrial heritage and natural and cultural resources of the Blackstone River Valley, help provide economic development opportunities for Rhode Island, and build upon the solid foundation of the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor,” said Reed.  “Rhode Island is the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution and the Blackstone Valley is a national treasure.  Turning this area into a national historical park is a smart way to preserve our nation’s history and invest in Rhode Island’s future.”

“The importance of the Blackstone River Valley in bringing forth America’s Industrial Revolution is central to our nation’s history and worthy of national recognition,” Whitehouse said in a letter to the subcommittee members.  “In addition to providing greater protection for valuable historic resources, the designation will expand tourism and recreation activities on and along the Blackstone River, and open new economic opportunities for the region.”

The Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor was established in 1986.  It was reauthorized three times by Congress and renamed for John H. Chafee in 1999.  In 2005, Congress directed the National Park Service to conduct a Special Resource Study (SRS) of the existing John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor to determine which areas within the Corridor were nationally significant and whether they were suitable to become part of the National Park Service.

Since then, the project has garnered support from various federal, state and municipal officials, as well as community and business leaders.

After extensive input from local stakeholders and historians, the study recommended the creation of a new national historical park whose boundaries would encompass nationally significant areas in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts, including the Blackstone River and its tributaries; the Blackstone Canal; and the historic districts of Old Slater Mill in Pawtucket, the villages of Slatersville and Ashton in Rhode Island, and the villages of Whitinsville and Hopedale in Massachusetts.

The U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who Senator Reed brought to Rhode Island last summer, signed off on the SRS and transmitted it to Congress last week, officially recommending the creation of a new national historical park in the Blackstone River Valley. 

Today’s hearing is an important step in the process.  The next step would be for the full Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), to markup and approve the bill.  The bill would then go to the floor for consideration by the full U.S. Senate.

“This is a process, but I hope we can build on the momentum from today’s hearing and succeed in creating a new National Historical Park,” concluded Reed.  “The extensive work of the National Park Service and the tireless efforts of federal, state and local officials, advocates, and volunteers -- in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts -- have resulted in the recovery of historic villages, riverways, and rural landscapes throughout the Corridor—a remarkable success story.  Creating a national historic park sets a clear path to preserve our cultural heritage, improve the use and enjoyment of these resources, and protect these nationally significant cultural and natural resources.”

The National Park Service study estimated that the new Blackstone Valley national historical park would over time include expenditures of $6.1 million for construction and rehabilitation of facilities, research, planning, and development of exhibits.  When fully established, the park would have an estimated $3.5 million annual operating cost.

If approved by Congress and signed into law by President Obama, the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park likely would be run collaboratively through a special partnership that would allow the National Park Service to manage and operate the facilities and provide educational services in the park in partnership with regional and local preservation groups who would lead the efforts to preserve the surrounding rural and agriculture landscape within the existing corridor.

Federal support for the Corridor was expected to sunset last fall, at which point the area would have retained its National Heritage Corridor designation, but federal funding would have ended.  However, Senator Reed was able to successfully extend the authorization to October 2012; thus keeping the Corridor eligible for an additional year of federal funding. 

According to the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, to date, more than $25 million has been spent on preserving historic buildings, creating museums, constructing visitor centers, and building permanent exhibits in the Heritage Corridor.  Since 2002, Senator Reed helped secured over $11 million in federal funding for the Corridor and an additional $6.9 million for the Blackstone River Valley Bikeway.