Legislation to protect Great Dismal Swamp introduced in Congress

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A group including Donald McEachin, Elaine Luria and Bobby Scott has introduced legislation to protect the Great Dismal Swamp.

The Great Dismal Swamp National Heritage Area Act would direct the Secretary of the Interior to assess the suitability and feasibility of designating the Great Dismal Swamp and its associated sites as a National Heritage Area.

National Heritage Areas are sites designated by Congress to hold historical, cultural and environmental significance to the American people. Through these lenses, NHAs tell stories that are both regionally unique and nationally significant, helping to recognize and celebrate our nation’s diverse heritage. As a grassroots, community-driven approach to heritage conservation and economic development through public-private partnerships, NHAs support historic and natural resource preservation, recreation, heritage tourism and educational projects.

Selected by Congressman McEachin, D-Va., for consideration as a NHA due to its rich cultural and historical significance, the Great Dismal Swamp is home to the ancestral lands of the Nansemond Indian Nation and the historic lands of the Haliwa-Saponi and Meherrin Tribes; the largest known collection of archaeological artifacts from maroon colonies; one of the only known water-based stops on the Underground Railroad to freedom; and a thriving community descending from early colonial Free People of Color whose families resisted American slavery, finding refuge within the Swamp.

“National Heritage Areas serve for us and future generations as a reminder to remember the stories and places that have shaped America. In addition to safeguarding wildlife populations and their habitats, the Great Dismal Swamp is an American storyteller – preserving and commemorating people, cultures, and events that are key to our nation’s history,” McEachin said. “A natural and cultural beacon of American values, the Great Dismal Swamp has weathered the test of time, inspiring divine reverence in the hearts of Native people who first called this land home; deep resolve in the minds of enslaved Africans and African Americans who endured its hardships as the price for freedom; and imagination in the writings of prolific authors like Harriet Beecher Stowe, committed to telling a more complete American story. I am pleased to introduce The Great Dismal Swamp National Heritage Area Act to provide local and regional communities with the resources needed to ensure future generations can share in its quintessentially American story.”

The Great Dismal Swamp, a National Wildlife Refuge, is one of the most unique and valuable cultural and ecological landscapes on the East Coast. Spanning both Virginia and North Carolina, this indispensable cultural and ecological landscape contains some of the last remains of a massive forest that once spanned more than a million acres. It has served as a home for native people and wildlife for thousands of years.

The Great Dismal Swamp National Heritage Area Act is championed by numerous organizations committed to safeguarding the Swamp’s unique history and resources, including The Wilderness Society, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Nature Conservancy and the Great Dismal Swamp Stakeholder Collaborative, a coalition that includes the Nansemond Indian Nation, the Association for the Study of African American Life & History, the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe, Preservation Virginia, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

“The Dismal Swamp, though a fraction of its original size, continues to be a place where we can encounter the wildness and mystery that shocked and inspired Col. William Byrd II and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write letters and verses about its mystique. In its abundance and beauty, we can envision the thousands of years of Native American hunters and travelers who traversed its unique landscape; in its morass, we can still imagine how freedom-seeking Americans like Moses Grandy and Harriet Tubman found refuge in the forbidding landscape,”  the Great Dismal Swamp Stakeholder Collaborative said in a joint statement.

“Today, the swamp welcomes us to revisit these often-untold histories. It serves neighboring communities as a vast wetland that helps to provide clean air and water, support hunting and fishing, and control flooding, remains a sanctuary for endangered species and contains a National Wildlife Refuge created to preserve an entire ecosystem, rather than a specific species. We are thrilled to see this legislation introduced that recognizes not only the importance of the Dismal Swamp as it is now, but also the role it has played in our history as a community and a country.”

Currently, 55 National Heritage Areas exist across the country, adding billions of dollars to our economy and supporting thousands of jobs. According to research conducted by the National Park Service, National Heritage Areas are vital sources of job creation and economic, cultural, environmental and community development, yielding $5.50 in local economic activity for every dollar of federal investment. National Heritage Areas do not affect private property rights and the National Park Service does not assume ownership or impose land use controls over land inside the heritage area, leaving the decision-making authority in the hands of local communities.

“The Great Dismal Swamp has been a part of the Nansemond ancestral lands since centuries before European arrival on these shores. The Swamp — and the lake at its heart — remain a critical part of our homelands and our culture. Throughout our history, this is a place that has provided us with abundance and safety – a place we have depended upon for gathering, hunting, fishing, travel, and commerce. It has been a refuge for us, as well as for the people who we helped to seek freedom by crossing its waters,” said Nansemond Indian Nation Chief Sam Bass. “We are pleased to support this legislation, which will help to preserve the Swamp and to raise awareness of the long history of indigenous presence in Virginia. We applaud Representative McEachin for his hard work on this bill; for his recognition that Native people have always known the Swamp and have always been stewards of this land; and for taking leadership to protect a place of such importance to so many people.”


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