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Virginia, North Carolina leaders introduce legislation to protect the Great Dismal Swamp

Great Dismal Swamp
(© James – stock.adobe.com)

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 area is also home to the largest known collection of archaeological artifacts from maroon colonies, and is one of the only known water-based stops on the Underground Railroad to freedom.

A thriving community descending from early colonial Free People of Color whose families resisted American slavery found refuge within the Swamp.

Reps. A. Donald McEachin (VA-04), Elaine Luria (VA-02), Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (VA-03) and G.K. Butterfield (NC-01), joined with Sens. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Mark R. Warner (D-VA), have reintroduced the Great Dismal Swamp National Heritage Area Act, bicameral legislation directing 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.

“A natural and cultural beacon of American history, the Great Dismal Swamp has served as a home for people and wildlife for thousands of years and remains one of the most unique landscapes on the East Coast,” McEachin said. “Designating the Great Dismal Swamp as a National Heritage Area will move our nation one step closer toward preserving for all generations the often untold stories of our nation’s underrepresented communities, from the Native people who first called the Swamp home, to the deep resolve of the enslaved African Americans who later endured it’s hardships as the price for freedom. I am pleased to reintroduce 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 is one of Virginia’s natural treasures, and we must do more to protect it,” Kaine said. “I’m proud to introduce this legislation to work towards designating the Dismal Swamp as a Natural Heritage Area and help conserve the land and its wildlife, while highlighting the rich cultural history tied to the area.”

“I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing this legislation to begin the process of designating the Great Dismal Swamp as a National Heritage Area,” said Warner. “The Great Dismal Swamp has a unique geography and place in Virginia and our nation’s history. The Great Dismal Swamp once served as a home for Native Americans fleeing the colonial frontier and later as a refuge for escaped slaves. Designating the swamp as a National Heritage Area will further help the community’s efforts to tell these important stories essential to understanding American history.”

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,” said the GDSSC in a joint statement.

“Today, the swamp welcomes us to revisit these often-untold histories,” the GDSSC joint statement continued. “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.”

“The Great Dismal Swamp has been a part of the Nansemond ancestral lands since centuries before European arrival on these shores,” said former Nansemond Indian Nation Chief Sam Bass. “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. 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.”

“It is our understanding that a Heritage Area designation for the Great Dismal Swamp would bring a community-driven approach to economic development and conservation, leveraging federal funds to create jobs and generate revenue for local governments,” said Ray Powell, chapter president of the Suffolk-Nansemond Izaak Walton League of America. “Furthermore, as a local, grass-roots conservation/environmental organization, we are hopeful that the feasibility study being authorized by this Heritage Area Act legislation will enlighten us about opportunities for improving conservation of resources, enhancing air and water quality, managing wildlife migration corridors, and increasing recreational and educational opportunities for our local citizens, throughout the Great Dismal Swamp.”

“The Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge fully supports the proposed legislation and is excited about the possibility for an NHA study and designation,” added Chris Lowie, Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge manager. “If found suitable, an NHA designation can provide new opportunities for stakeholders to educate and emphasize the ecological, natural, and cultural significance of the dismal swamp area as a refuge for wildlife and a refuge for people.”

fact sheet on the Great Dismal Swamp National Heritage Area Act and a full list of supporting organizations can be found here.


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