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 National Heritage Areas

Images from Erie Canal, Yuma, and Hudson Valley NHAs


Ranger Chuck Arning

Ranger Arning with a group of visitors

Blackstone River Valley NHC Paddle Club

Interview with Chuck Arning, Ranger
The John H. Chafee
Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor

February 13, 2009

As someone who has been involved in the Heritage Areas Program on both the state and national level, how do you perceive it has evolved over 25 years?

The unique thing about the Heritage Area program is that each area differs so widely from each other. Their stories are different and their approach to engaging their partners and the public differ as well. I see, through the eyes of the cradle of America's industrialization, that the heritage area's are truly entrepreneurial. They have developed a whole new approach to preservation and stewardship that fits the different parts of the country. It is local folks finding creative solutions to local problems that have a national context.

In my opinion, the National Heritage Areas program has had its greatest impact in the fostering of partnerships. In the past, an NPS site would stand on its boundaries and look inward, dealing with the problems and issues that were under its control. Today, enlightened Park Service management and staff fully understand that to be successful managers of their park, they need to build a strong partner base outside the park. The positive role that having a NPS park as an active member of a broader community brings a whole new dimension to the park's ability to build strong community bonds. This enables them to deal with emergency preparedness issues, to share their stories, their management practices, communication channels and sites with the many partners and partner sites in the area. This change in perspective is the main benefit that the Heritage Area movement has brought to the National Park Service.

How has designation as a National Heritage Area changed your region? Your community? Your area's landscape?

While the people of the Blackstone Valley always knew they had a special place, the historically intense mill and mill village competition for workers and resources prevented them from collaborating during difficult times. The state boundary between Rhode Island and Massachusetts, as artificial as it is, was also a significant barrier. What the designation as a National Heritage Area has done for the region is to connect the dots: connecting stories, connecting preservation issues, connecting the need to clean the river that flows through both states, connecting the patterns of immigration and life in the mill villages. All these things and more were developed and connected by the Heritage Area because it moved freely between states, between communities and engaged the local organizations in the sharing of their stories.

There is a great movie that many people probably didn't see called "The Spit-Fire Grill" that is another example of what positive energy and a new perspective can do for a community and a region. Ellen Burstyn stars as the owner of a small diner in upstate Maine. A young girl from Kentucky, just out of a Maine prison, gets employed there. She starts talking about how beautiful the area is, what a wonderful little village they have, how lucky they are to live there. Initially, people scoff, make jokes about the crazy new girl, but slowly, almost under the radar, things start changing in the town. Someone paints an eye-sore of a picket fence. Someone else puts up a nicely painted flower box with an array of colorful Maine flowers. A fence gate gets fixed and a series of individual acts begins to make a major difference in not only how people see their community, but how they feel about it as well. That's what the Heritage Area Program has done. We're that crazy new girl who begins to tell everyone what a great story they have, how cool the old architecture is, how much wildlife lives around that creek that is hidden by buildings and garages, how what they made here in their mills and in the coal mines made America a powerful industrial nation. Without owning the property, the Heritage Area has done a remarkable job in providing communities with a new set of glasses through which to view the world.

Please give an example of one activity/event/item produced by your heritage area that you are most proud of.

We have just completed a book ready to be published this summer, entitled, "A Landscape of Industry - an Industrial History of the Blackstone Valley" (University Press of New England). The book really ties together this marvelous industrial landscape into a national story and many of the images we were able to use came from the people of the valley who were more than willing to share their family pictures with us. This project highlighted the collaborative aspect of partnerships where we could never have undertaken the publishing of a major history book alone, but with the help of one of our partners, the Worcester Historical Museum, we'll see the hard copy book available this July.

And this is really just one example, there are many others:
" The water quality testing program developed by Mass Audubon that brings many high schools in both states (RI & MA) to the river banks to systematically test the water and share their findings with state and federal agencies.
" Our Summer Ranger Walkabouts where different NPS Rangers conduct walking tours in a different community every Thursday night throughout the summer. This sharing of stories and spaces really works to connect the different communities to this national story.

Do you think the heritage area model of land stewardship is one that holds potential for the future? Why?

Yes! It is a benevolent (i.e. no taking, no re-zoning) way of supporting cultural and environmental preservation. It also gives residents a new set of glasses to view the place they live. It engages the public and brings disparate groups together as partners with a shared goal.

Getting different groups and communities to collaborate together is not an easy task. A lot of history gets in the way. In the Blackstone Valley each town, each mill and the connected mill village viewed the world through a very competitive set of glasses. Blackstone Valley baseball was a major factor in this region from numerous perspectives, it unified mill teams made up of many different nationalities, it allowed a work force that worked under extremely difficult conditions to enjoy the fresh air and slower pace of a baseball game and it was a major source of community entertainment. The downside were the fierce competitions that matched one town against another, one mill complex against another, so when economic downturns occurred and the mills began to move south, there was not a collaborative model that could bring these industries together, pool resources, and continue on. The collaborative model that the Heritage Areas have worked at, and believe me it is working, has transformed the communities. It has really energized diverse groups to come together for a common purpose.

Describe your experience with National Heritage Areas in one word.

Collaborations and partnerships, no question.

It is not always a smooth process, we are talking about relationships. But the key is that the communities know who the Heritage Area staff people are (in our case NPS Rangers and staff) and they constantly engage us in the stories of their community, new preservation initiatives and environmental concerns. There is a common vision now. Positive energy attracts people who want to make a difference and then, good things happen.