Blackstone and Taunton Rivers: Preserving History and Beauty for Generations to Come

This article was originally published in the Narragansett Bay Watershed Counts 2016 Report

Various federal recognitions have helped to preserve waterways across the country. In recent years, the two largest rivers that empty into Narragansett Bay—the Blackstone and Taunton rivers—received particularly noteworthy federal designations from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

In 2009, the Taunton River, in southeast Massachusetts, received the National Park Service Wild and Scenic River designation. Then in 2014, the Blackstone River Valley became a National Historical Park. Less than one-fourth of one percent of the country’s rivers are protected under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and only 50 National Historical Parks have been designated. These two designations were significant achievements for Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

The Taunton Wild and Scenic River and the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park are recognized for very different reasons. The Taunton is an outstanding natural river worthy of protection from future projects that could harm the diverse and intact ecosystem. It is the longest undammed coastal river in New England, over 37 miles without dams, and home to over 154 species of birds and 45 species of fish.

The Blackstone River played an important historical role as the birthplace of America’s Industrial Revolution. Dams along the fast-flowing river powered the first successful textile mills in the United States, and allowed goods to travel to markets from the river’s headwaters in Worcester, Massachusetts, to its mouth in Providence, Rhode Island, to Narragansett Bay and beyond.

Both rivers have one major thing in common: Neither of these important federal designations could have been achieved without the hard work of dedicated individuals and groups in the local communities.

“Right from the beginning there was a good mix of people, and we had good representation and participation from all the towns too, which was key,” said Bill Napolitano, Environmental Program Director at the Southeast Regional Planning and Economic Development District, the organization that spearheaded the effort to get the Taunton River’s designation.

A similar coalition of individuals, nonprofits, and local, state, and federal government officials was instrumental in getting the Blackstone River’s National Historical Park designation, and this group built upon their three decades of collaborative experience.

“Even 30 years ago we were setting the stage for the national park,” said Donna Williams, a watershed advocate for the nonprofit Blackstone River Coalition. The Blackstone River Valley was named a National Heritage Corridor in 1986, and then became the second National Park Service American Heritage River in 1998.

“It’s an incredibly strong partnership park because the heritage corridor had already been here for 30 years,” said Meghan Kish, superintendent of the park. “There’s a web of partnerships, over 60 partners, engaged and connected.”

It took time, incremental progress, and substantial local efforts for both rivers to achieve their current status. After submitting an application, the river must be deemed worthy of study by the National Park Service. Then thorough studies must be conducted and public hearings held. Based on the findings, recognition may be recommended. If so, recognition is crafted into federal legislation and faces the final hurdle of being passed by the U.S. Congress, and signed by the president. Even after all of that work and celebration of success, yet another complicated process exists for the U.S. Congress to allocate funding to the National Park Service to be available for the stewardship of these rivers.

Both rivers’ groups were also fortunate to have receptive elected officials in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Napolitano credits the leadership and perseverance of former Massachusetts Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and John Kerry, (D-MA) current Rhode Island Senators Jack Reed (D-RI) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Representatives Barney Frank (D-MA), Jim McGovern (D-MA), Joe Moakley (D-MA), and Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) as essential to getting the Taunton River’s Wild and Scenic River legislation to President Obama’s desk. Williams singled out Senator Jack Reed and Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) for their sponsorship of the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park Establishment Act.

Despite the numerous steps required, the benefits that accompany the designation are worth the hard work. Federal funds are more readily available for wild and scenic rivers and historical parks than other areas, and local management organizations have more say-so in the projects that occur along these rivers. In addition, the federal designation has the potential to increase the number of visitors to the rivers, which bolsters local economies and spreads the word on the historical importance and scenic beauty of the Narragansett Bay watershed.

“What the heritage corridor did is create this tremendous sense of pride in the Blackstone Valley,” Williams said. “Now people are proud to say they’re from the Blackstone Valley.”

Williams hopes that its designation as a National Park will continue this trend of local pride, while Napolitano is working hard to foster a similar sense of pride in the region around the Taunton River.

“We want to bring people to the river, we want people to understand the resources that they have,” he said. “The Taunton River is the backbone of everything that exists on the river—the cities and towns that grew up around it. We don’t have the textile mills anymore, we don’t have the herring fishery, but we still have the river, and it’s just such a great public resource.”

In addition to public outreach, both groups have made the most of federal resources. The Taunton River Wild and Scenic Stewardship Council uses its federal funding to provide grants for a variety of projects, including land acquisitions to protect riparian zones along the river and projects to make open space accessible to the public for recreational purposes.

Congress also passed the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Protection Act in 2014, which initiated the process whereby the National Park Service will conduct a three-year study to assess whether the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed of southern Rhode Island and southeast Connecticut meets the standards to be included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. With time, hard work, and a little bit of luck, this watershed could add itself to the growing list of federally recognized waterways in the Narragansett Bay region.

But federal designation is just the beginning, and all of these groups will have to continue to work together to preserve and protect the environmental, recreational, and historical resources that make them worthy of such national recognition.

“You can have dreams and you can have ideas, but you really can’t do it without committed partners,” said Napolitano. “It’s that kind of dedication and passion for the river that really makes all of this click.”

SIDE BAR:

Getting out on the River

In September 2000, 30 paddlers set out on a four-day expedition from Worcester, Massachusetts, to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the entirety of the 48-mile Blackstone River. Along the way, they held events, inviting local politicians and the public to join them on land for campfires and stories about the importance of the river and its history.

“It’s a beautiful river, we just really understood the majesty of the river,” said Donna Williams, Blackstone River Coalition.

With a ground support team following along on land to help the group, the trip was a success.

“We felt very accomplished. It was life-changing for many of us,” said Williams. “That trip helped us understand that there was so much interest throughout the watershed for the river, for improving the river.”

The trip inspired the group to form the Blackstone River Coalition, a partnership of nonprofits, as well as state and federal agencies, local municipalities, and businesses.

For Williams, the trip underscored the importance of making the river accessible and getting members of the public out on the river as a key part of her work to protect the watershed. Nonprofits have since, implemented programs to get kids and adults out on the water.

“It’s really about getting people to the river, to the tributaries. Once they see it, they love it, they fall in love with it, and they become advocates,” said Williams.

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