Funding woes block heritage corridors

Angelia Manigault of Huger hangs a basket at her stand on U.S. Highway 17 as afternoon traffic speeds by.

Gullah-Geechee trail one of dozens on hold

Right now, the birth of the vaunted Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor is in the hands of one man. But his job is to run education programs for the Fort Sumter National Monument. That disconnect has the park service screaming "Hold it!" just as the corridor and two dozen more programs like it get going.

The corridor could be in jeopardy because the money for it just doesn't seem to be there. Congress is dickering over paying for new corridors, even as its members push to create them. The National Park Service headquarters is posturing, calling for a moratorium.

"My work, my time, my labor is really coming out of (park) expenses," said Michael Allen, educational specialist for Fort Sumter, Fort Moultrie and the Charles Pinckney Historic Site.

"The reality is, here at the park area there is no financial support to set aside park time" to staff the corridor effort, said Bob Dodson, the monument superintendent.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who pushed legislation to approve the Gullah-Geechee corridor last year, said he hoped the moratorium wouldn't create a Catch-22 for the park service.

"They're right to be concerned about it. But there's a (time) separation between authorization and appropriation," he said.

Clyburn put the first $1 million for the Gullah-Geechee corridor in a 2008 appropriations bill that's stalled in contentious politics over federal budgets and paying for the Iraq war, he said.

"It seems everybody in the federal bureaucracy is faced with the same problem — doing more with less," Clyburn said. "The only contentious part is an administration that seems to veto everything that's not war-related."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., will continue to advocate for the corridor, as well as a Revolutionary War corridor now being studied, said communications director Kevin Bishop in an e-mail.

"He understands and appreciates the concerns expressed by the National Park Service. He also knows how important our heritage corridors are to tourism in our state. When properly constructed and operated, heritage corridors can be great examples of the public and private sectors working together to benefit the community," Bishop said.

Cultural heritage corridors are essentially tourism promotions of "trails" linking preservation sites through a region, managed by local groups rather than the government. They're considered one of the least-expensive and most cost-effective methods of conservation and preservation — helping to pay for themselves in tourism dollars and job creation.

South Carolina already has a historic and natural trail running the length of the state. The Gullah-Geechee corridor would run through four Southeast coastal states where the culture developed its singular African, Caribbean and European blend and where it continues on more rural sea islands.

Park service officials in Washington called for the moratorium to try to leverage a bill now in the Senate that lays out how the areas are to be managed and paid for. The move came after Congress created 10 corridors last year, including the Gullah-Geechee effort, and six in the past month alone.

About $1 million per year for 10 years in federal money was supposed to be budgeted for each authorized corridor group to pay for staff and conservation start-ups — as an example, giving a grant to a nursery to grow sweetgrass, the disappearing reeds used to make the signature baskets of Gullah-Geechee communities.

But, "very rarely does any heritage area get the full authorized amount," said Michelle McCollum, South Carolina National Heritage Corridor executive director. That effort has received $700,000 per year for the past two years despite being one of the largest efforts now under way.

There are now 37 corridors and only $13.4 million per year budgeted for them, said John Cosgrove, Alliance of National Heritage Areas director. "It doesn't work. There's a huge, huge gap."

No money is set aside to get new corridor programs — usually grass-roots, volunteer efforts — on their feet. The surge in new corridors has stressed staffs and budgets of federal parks programs, who oversee the efforts at the cost of park programs they say already are under-budgeted.

Allen has to do the legwork organizing and training a four-state, 15-member commission so the commission can apply for funds. Right now he doesn't even have money for travel vouchers. He also answers inquiries and gives speeches about the effort.

Asked how much more he can do, he said, "I don't know the answer to that."

"Something has got to give for the people who are going to carry out that face-to-face work," Dodson said.