By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News Staff
PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Stakeholders recently gathered with staff from the National Park Service (NPS) at Old Slater Mill to discuss future plans for the year-old Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park. The NPS is undergoing a years-long process of converting the park's eight geographically dispersed sites into one operational park.
The two-state park focuses on the birth of the Industrial Revolution, which began at Slater Mill in 1790, when the Blackstone River was harnessed to power the nation’s first successful cotton-spinning mill. From there, mills spread up the river to Worcester, Mass., and sparked the nation's transition from farms to factories.
The sites chosen to tell the story include: the Blackstone River State Park in Lincoln; Old Slater Mill National Historic Landmark District in Pawtucket; Slatersville Historic District in North Smithfield; Ashton Historic District in Cumberland; Whitinsville Historic District in Northbridge, Mass.; and Hopedale Village Historic District in Hopedale, Mass. The Blackstone River and its tributaries and the Blackstone Canal are also included in the park's enabling legislation.
The unusual, multi-site geography of the park offers the NPS more latitude than it commands in other National Parks, according to Meghan Kish, superintendent of the park, who spoke at the recent meeting. The NPS will operate in its traditional manner within the specific locations named in the park’s enabling legislation, but that legislation also grants the NPS permission to extend its educational, interpretive and technical assistance throughout the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, a preexisting NPS boundary encompassing all of the park’s sites.
Throughout her remarks, Kish noted the importance of partnerships between local groups and the NPS. The park’s enabling legislation requires the NPS “to support and enhance the network of partners in the protection, improvement, management, and operation of related resources and facilities throughout the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor.”
“The legislation is set up to make us do things together,” Kish told the gathered stakeholders. “We are here to support you as much as you are to support us.”
A strategic plan outlining the goals of the NPS and stakeholders during the next five years will be developed, she said. The plan will explain where available resources will be spent, and where additional resources are required.
The park will share NPS staff with two other National Parks in the region: the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park in New Bedford, Mass., and the Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence. Many park advocates had hoped staff would be designated specifically to the Blackstone River Valley park, but Kish said sharing staff expands the resources from which the park can draw, including cultural interpretation and administrative assistance.
Staff has already submitted internal project requests to the NPS. These requests will lead to studies of structures and landscapes within the park, which will determine what improvements and projects need to be undertaken.
“We are the government; things do take time, but at least we are in the queue,” Kish said with a laugh.
NPS staff is currently negotiating land easements for Slater Mill and Blackstone River State Park. The park's enabling legislation requires the NPS to have a “sufficient interest in land” before it can be considered a “manageable park unit.” NPS staff also is crafting agreements with the other park units, but the NPS will not hold land or easements in those areas.
Ranger presence and programming is ramping up throughout the park. To mark the National Park Service’s centennial, rangers will be present at at least one of the park’s six sites daily between May 28 and Sept. 5 — a hundred days in a row. Daily locations will be posted to the park's facebook page and website.
A series of ranger-led walkabouts is also planned for the summer, beginning June 2 with “Slatersville: An Engineered Landscape of Waterpower.”
During the meeting, stakeholders were invited to voice concerns and provide feedback. Conservation, tourism and historical preservation groups, municipal officials, and political staffers attended the meeting.
Pieter de Jong, director of the Blackstone RIver Watershed Association, requested clarification as to whether the river and its tributaries would be included within the park's boundaries.
Kish said a final decision hadn't been made, but explained why drawing a boundary around the river could be problematic. According to Kish, if the NPS includes the river in the park’s boundaries, other federal funds and support, such as is provided by the Army Corps of Engineers, could disappear. She also noted that it could tie up much of the available NPS staff time managing abutting property owners, an experience Kish witnessed firsthand at Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., where two full-time staff members were dedicated to managing boundary issues during her tenure there.
Instead, Kish said, the NPS is likely to assist and enhance the efforts of groups already protecting the river, but not include it in the park’s boundaries. “The boundary may hinder us more than help us,” she said.
Anne Vanhaaren and Mike Jenkinson, residents of Uxbridge, Mass., and a couple that enjoys spending time in the National Parks, said they believe that the National Park Service designation for the Blackstone River Valley park brings more prestige to the region, and should be leveraged to boost the local economy.
Jenkinson said outdoor opportunities, such as hiking, paddling and bicycling, should be incorporated into the park experience. He said there should be a mix of cultural, historical and recreational activities available to visitors.
A topic of concern was attracting people from beyond the region to the park. Joshua Boles, chief of interpretation and education for the park, said visitors immediately understand the purpose of visiting Wright Brothers National Memorial, an advantage the Blackstone River Valley park doesn’t necessarily have. He said determining how to quickly explain the impact the Industrial Revolution had on the American landscape and the Blackstone River's key role in that transformation is a challenge he has embraced. One advantage the Blackstone River Valley park has is that it has layers that make it more interesting as visitors dig in, he said.
Other topics that arose during the meeting included restoring water quality in the river so it's fishable and swimmable; how best to travel to and through the multi-site park; signage placement; making connections with students from elementary school to college.
Kish said she wants the NPS and its partners to have a shared vision for the park. She said the little decisions being made now will have a big impact on the park’s future and how the NPS operates in the valley.
Another stakeholder meeting is scheduled for May 25 at Alternatives, 50 Douglas Road in Whitinsville, Mass.