Essex National Heritage Area

Her quest: bringing the national parks to the people

December 20, 2010, 7:52 am

The Essex National Heritage Area is all about our shared past, but it may have something to say about the future of America’s national parks.

That’s why Annie C. Harris, executive director of the Essex National Heritage Commission, has been appointed to a two-year term on the Planning Committee of the National Park System Advisory Board. The park system will celebrate its centennial in 2016, and the committee is there to offer an overarching vision for the future. She’s the only heritage-area official on the 15-member panel.

“There was a concept that was put together almost 100 years ago of what the parks should be. Let’s look at that,’’ Harris said. “Is it still relevant? Should they look different? Should they be the same? What are the next 100 years going to look like?’’

The big question: Should the National Park Service mission focus just be acquiring more parkland, or on other ways to serve the American people? Harris’s answer: “A lot of focus needs to be on ways they serve their function beyond the park boundaries.’’

There aren’t likely to be any more big national parks anytime soon, Harris said, as big tracts of land are scarce and expensive, and in many places there is resistance to more public ownership of land. Also, she said, much of the public lives in cities and on the coasts, far from major parks. As the country has grown more diverse, America’s minorities and recent immigrants don’t connect with the national parks, either.

“For the Park Service to be relevant and connect with the American public . . . what can they do outside their boundaries to promote that ethic of preservation, education, conservation and recreation?’’ Harris said.

That’s where Essex National Heritage Area — and the 48 other heritage areas around the country — can provide some inspiration.

Essex Heritage (the common name for the commission) is known for everything from its annual Trails and Sails weekends to its support of the Border-to-Boston rail trail. A recent initiative is a Scenic Byway that will connect 13 communities from Lynn to Rockport to Newburyport with a “corridor management plan’’ to both preserve and promote the 85 miles of coastline roads. Numerous “stakeholders’’ will contribute to the plan, including at public hearings throughout the area. (See www.EssexHeritage.org for details.)

Essex Heritage also works in tandem with the Park Service’s Salem Maritime and Saugus Iron Works national historic sites. Among their collaborations are a summer teen jobs program that this year brought 20 disadvantaged minority teens from Salem and Lynn to work in the Park Service sites.

“They’ve been able to do everything from gold-leafing letters in preservation projects to dealing with visitors and tourists, to interpretive programs on the tall ship Friendship,’’ Harris said. “This has been absolutely an eye-opening experience for these kids.’’

“The challenge and the opportunity we have with areas of national significance, whether natural or historical or cultural . . . is to reach out and involve people through education and understanding what they are,’’ Knowles said.

Young people and minorities are underrepresented among traditional park visitors, he said, and new approaches must be taken to get them involved.

Harris has been involved since Congress designated the 34-community Essex National Heritage Area in 1996.

The Essex National Heritage Commission is a nonprofit agency that manages and promotes heritage area programs and works in collaboration with the National Park Service and many public and private groups.

The agency has 10 employees split between full- and part-time and an annual operating budget of about $900,000 from the park service, grants, and donations.

“The concept of heritage areas is building networks of partnerships that use local assets — they can be historic, natural or cultural — using what you have, and (helping) the organizations that are there to build more capacity to promote and use those assets in the 21st century,’’ Harris said. “When that happens, it’s often economically successful as well.’’

By contrast, Harris said, national parks have often been in disputes with their neighbors over conservation issues.

“When I first started doing work with them, it was a minority of the people who saw the potential partnerships,’’ Harris said.

“Many of the people felt, ‘We have parks and . . . who are you guys to come in and try to get us outside our park boundaries? We’re comfortable inside here.’

“That’s been a real switch, and I think it’s going to be a real switch in what is recommended.’’

Essex Heritage also works in tandem with the Park Service’s Salem Maritime and Saugus Iron Works national historic sites. Among their collaborations are a summer teen jobs program that this year brought 20 disadvantaged minority teens from Salem and Lynn to work in the Park Service sites.

Read more at boston.com.