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U.S. Department of the Interior - Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs
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Parks, Trails and Heritage Sites Legislation: S 2892










MARCH 17, 2010

Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to present the views of the Department of the Interior on S. 2892, a bill to establish the Alabama Black Belt National Heritage Area, and for other purposes.

The Department recommends that the committee defer action on S. 2892 until program legislation is enacted that establishes criteria to evaluate potentially qualified national heritage areas and a process for the designation and administration of these areas.The Administration anticipates submitting such a legislative proposal to you in the near future, and we recommend that Congress enact national heritage area program legislation this Congress. In addition, we recommend deferring action on S. 2892 until the National Park Service completes its final review of the feasibility study for the proposed Alabama Black Belt National Heritage Area.The Administration's FY 2011 Budget proposes to reduce funding for national heritage areas to focus resources on those park activities that most closely align with its core mission and encourage areas to become self-sufficient, consistent with a FY 2010 Congressional directive.

There are currently 49 designated national heritage areas, yet there is no authority in law that guides the designation and administration of these areas.Program legislation would provide a much-needed framework for evaluating proposed national heritage areas, offering guidelines for successful planning and management, clarifying the roles and responsibilities of all parties, and standardizing timeframes and funding for designated areas.Program legislation was introduced in the 109th and 110th Congresses, and we look forward to continuing to work with Congress on this very important issue.

The feasibility of the Alabama Black Belt area for designation as a national heritage area is the subject of a study now being finalized by the Alabama Black Belt Heritage Area Task Force. Since the creation of the task force in 2006, it has grown from a group of ten people into an active organization with over 65 members across 19 counties. The organization has worked closely with the National Park Service and the Alliance of National Heritage Areas to demonstrate a strong basis for seeking potential national heritage area status. The task force has also implemented several successful projects in the Black Belt region.

The draft feasibility study includes an extensive inventory of cultural and natural resources of the region; identifies four interpretive themes; describes the plans for management, preservation, and interpretation of the region; and, contains a detailed environmental assessment. It indicates that the proposal for a national heritage area has strong support from the public and a myriad of state, local, federal, and non-governmental partners throughout the area that are essential for successful planning and implementation of a national heritage area.It recommends that the Center for the Study of the Black Belt at the University of West Alabama serve as the local coordinating entity for the proposed national heritage area, as provided for in S. 2892. The center was identified as the preferred management entity based on its ability to provide a sustainable foundation for the implementation of a national heritage area, promote an integrated vision and leadership, engage ongoing community participation, build reciprocal partnerships, and facilitate programs across all 19 counties included in the proposed Alabama Black Belt National Heritage Area.

Geographically, Alabama's Black Belt is part of a larger crescent-shaped area known as the Southern Black Belt, which extends from Virginia to Texas.The term refers to the fertile black soil of the region.This soil drew pioneers to settle the lower-central portion of Alabama in the 1820s and 1830s where they established and operated a network of cotton plantations using the labor of enslaved African Americans.

During the Antebellum era, the Alabama Black Belt became one of the wealthiest and most politically powerful regions in the United States. Thriving commerce elevated Montgomery, Selma, and Demopolis into some of the nation's most affluent towns. The architecture that grew out of this plantation culture produced some of the finest churches and rural residences in the state, including Rosemount and Thornhill in Greene, Countryside in Camden, and Gaineswood in Demopolis. When the Civil War began, Montgomery was chosen as the first capital of the Confederacy. The region's distance from the front lines saved it from much of the ravages of the war.

During the Twentieth Century, this area gained fame as the site where the Tuskegee Airmen trained during World War II, and as a center of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.Montgomery County was the site of the 1955-56 bus boycott that challenged segregation of public transportation. Highway 80 in Dallas, Lowndes, and Montgomery counties shaped the route taken by participants of the historic march for equal rights from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. The Lowndes County Freedom Organization, later the Black Panther Party, was an outgrowth of that march.

Rivers and streams from several large basins—the Sipsey-Warrior, Coosa-Tallapoosa, Alabama-Cahaba, Tombigbee, and Chattahoochee—flow through the Alabama Black Belt. When cotton was the dominant crop grown in the region, the Black Belt's many navigable waterways enabled growers to transport their harvests to the docks in Mobile for shipment abroad. Row crops are less prevalent today as more of the rural Black Belt land today is now used for livestock or aquaculture.

While largely viewed as a region of hardship, the Alabama Black Belt has produced a rich variety of artists, musicians, writers, and other public figures. Notable figures from this region include Booker T. Washington, Rosa Parks, Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Three sites in the region managed by the National Park Service commemorate nationally significant history: the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site and the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, both units of the National Park System, and the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.

If the committee decides to move forward with S. 2892, we would like to work with the committee to provide the appropriate map reference for the national heritage area and to ensure that the language of the bill is consistent with previously enacted national heritage area designations.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared remarks.  I would be pleased to answer any questions you or any members of the subcommittee may have.