Hearings and Business Meetings

SD-366 Energy Committee Hearing Room 02:30 PM

Dr. W. Michael Sullivan

Director, Rhode Island Department of Envrionmental Management

 Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to appear before this committee to offer my strong support for S. 1387.  This bill would reauthorize the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission for an additional ten years.

 It would also authorize appropriations of operational and development funding for the Corridor, and enable us to carry out a Special Resource Study to examine the potential of long-term responsibilities by NPS in the preservation, interpretation and integration of some of the Blackstone Valley’s nationally significant resources, such as the Slater Mill Historic Site.


Blackstone is the only heritage area to have been evaluated against and fully meet the same criteria for national significance that the NPS applies to units of the National Park System. 


Blackstone is widely recognized as the Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.  It was in the Blackstone Valley for the first time in America that the power of water was successfully harnessed for the industrial production of cotton yarn by Samuel Slater in 1793.  Soon the Blackstone became known as the “hardest working river” on the continent.  Dozens of mill villages sprouted along its banks, drawing thousands of workers from the surrounding New England countryside, Canada, and soon from distant lands as well.  This 46-mile river, and the Blackstone Canal which paralleled it, connected Worcester, MA to Providence, RI, carrying agricultural produce, raw materials, and finished goods to the world.  The Blackstone Valley became the model for the industrialization of New England and beyond.  Its influence shaped the history of American free enterprise, labor, immigration and ethnicity, and management of the environment.  It has worked hard and created a connectedness and linkage for the region.


Mr. Chairman, there is no better place to learn about this critical part of America’s history than the Blackstone River Valley of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  And for nearly twenty years the Blackstone Corridor Commission and the National Park Service have been doing an exemplary job, working through dozens of partnerships to tell thousands of visitors and valley residents about that history.  They have helped the people of a once-vibrant region that sunk into depression regain their self-confidence and a sense of pride in their past.  The rapid decline allowed things to be somewhat frozen in time.  Historic mills and mill workers’ houses have been preserved and rehabilitated for new residences and businesses. Farmscapes, wetlands, forest habitat and open spaces have been protected or restored.  Brownfields and once-polluted waterways are becoming recreational assets.  Migratory fish are again finding their way upstream to their ancient spawning areas.  Against this background, environmental education and heritage tourism programs are flourishing.  Uniquely among heritage areas, all 24 cities and towns in the Blackstone Corridor have been designated by the White House as Preserve America communities.


While we are grateful for the significant federal contribution to this success story, Mr. Chairman, let me suggest that Blackstone’s partners have more than done their job as well.  Since 1986, the federal investment has been matched some 22 times over by state, local, and private dollars—well over $500 million to date.  The Corridor has partnered with more than 75 governmental agencies, not-for-profits, chambers of commerce, volunteer organizations, and individuals to accomplish some 365 projects within the Corridor.  And the great work of the Corridor Commission’s staff of NPS professionals has been more than matched by growing legions of volunteers.  In 2005 alone, these volunteers contributed over 30,000 hours to Corridor projects and programs!  No wonder the NPS has long considered Blackstone to be the leader and model for national heritage areas nationwide. 


It is important to underscore, too, that a unique aggregation of nationally significant historical and natural resources are being preserved and interpreted for the benefit of the American people without the costs of federal ownership and direct management, and without threats to private property rights or state and local regulatory powers.


Mr. Chairman, so successful have the corridor commission’s activities been that its reauthorization is enthusiastically endorsed by the governors of its two states, the governing bodies of all 24 of its cities and towns, and by hundreds of its citizens.  I offer for the committee’s review this volumeous documents containing resolutions and letters of support testifying to the high regard in which the commission and NPS are held by Valley residents.


I want now to address the obvious question:  Why, with this record of progress and achievement for nearly twenty years—why should Congress reauthorize the commission for another ten years?  Mr. Chairman, there are two reasons why this should happen.  First, the commission has served as an extremely effective management entity for a region composed of twenty-four cities and towns in two states.   Though there may be other management models, I do not believe any could have served so well to create an effective forum for bringing so many disparate entities together around a shared agenda.


 Were the commission cease to exist and disappear in November, there is no existing management entity in the Valley, across the States, and municipalities with the stature, breadth, and depth to take its place.  The sustainability of this noble experiment would thus be seriously threatened without the continuation of the federal role in this partnership.


The second reason for extending the commission goes to the heart of the Corridor’s  mission, and our commitment to realize the vision of its namesake and founding father, the late Senator John H. Chafee.  


That vision set ambitious goals for the Corridor.  As we come to the end of our second ten-year management plan, we must conclude that, despite enormous successes, we have not finished the job. 


Few appreciated the magnitude of the challenges faced when the commission started its work in 1988.  Yet in retrospect it should not be  surprising that it has taken only two decades to significantly reverse two hundred years of attitudes and activities that lead to the ecological degradation and a half century of economic decline. 


An action agenda for the next decade will be defined in detail in the management plan called for in this bill.  But we can clearly see at least three major “legacy” tasks ahead of us:


The first of these tasks is in the area of heritage education and tourism development.

With federal seed money and technical assistance, the commission’s partners have built and now operate three of four planned “gateway” visitor centers to the Blackstone Valley, but we must see the last and most ambitious of these completed:  the Northern Gateway Visitor Center in Worcester.  In this project the commission has played and must continue to play the critical role of conceptual planner, convenor, and negotiator to assure coordination among multiple federal, state, local, and non-profit partners.


The second major task is the completion of the 46-mile Blackstone Bikeway, perhaps the most significant joint recreational amenity in the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.  The Rhode Island segment in nearing completion.  Much has been done, but the magnitude of this project will require a continued federal-state partnership effort for the better part of the next decade.


The third major task is to complete the cleanup of the Blackstone River and protect its watershed.  The commission and its partners have launched the “Fishable-Swimmable Blackstone by 2015” campaign.  Governor Carcareri and I will continue to speak about FISHABLE, SWIMABLE, PLAYABLE and SUSTAINABLE.  .Narragansett Bay but as the names suggests, no one is underestimating the scope and scale of the challenge we face.


Mr. Chairmen, I would like to add a special word in support of this bill’s provision for a Special Resource Study.  No other heritage area has enjoyed the benefits of such an extensive relationship with NPS as has the Blackstone.  From the start, NPS has provided critical staff to the commission.  The commission’s Executive Director also serves as Superintendent of Roger Williams National Memorial, an NPS unit in Providence. NPS rangers have led interpretive programs and trained volunteers and docents throughout the Corridor.   They have been the seeding agent of interest by local communities.  The Special Resource Study would examine this unique relationship and permit the Secretary of the Interior to make recommendation to Congress about the future role NPS might play in preserving and interpreting Corridor resources.


I do not come before this committee without having done our homework.  Prior to seeking reauthorization, the commission asked the NPS’s Conservation Study Institute to conduct an independent evaluation of the commission’s record and look at options for sustaining the Corridor’s future.  Such a study would be required by the national heritage area program legislation, S. 243, that passed the Senate last year.  It is also called for by the National Park System Advisory Board in its recently adopted report entitled Charting a Future for National Heritage Areas.  I are proud to say that Blackstone is the first heritage area to follow this process.  I would like to submit for the committee’s review copies of the Blackstone study, entitled Reflecting on the Past, Looking to the Future.  I believe that S. 1387, if enacted, would secure that future for the Blackstone Valley and its people.


Mr. Chairman, that concludes my testimony, and I am prepared to answer any questions that you or other members of the committee may have at this time.