New Preservation Approach Aims to Save Cultural Landscape Congress Designates `Heritage Areas' to Achieve Environmental, Economic, and Historic-Preservation Goals

Article excerpt

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. …