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GUEST COMMENTARY: Partnerships set stage for National Park Service status

Two Kentucky Civil War sites may soon attain National Park Service (NPS) status.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Senator Mitch McConnell are reportedly introducing legislation to make the Mill Springs battlefield near Somerset part of the NPS system.

Moreover, on June 5 the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument Act, a step toward placing that Jessamine County site under the NPS.

Both sites are of national importance. Mill Springs was an early Federal victory that kept Kentucky in Union hands at a critical point. Camp Nelson was one of the nation’s largest recruiting grounds for African American Union soldiers.

If Mill Springs and Camp Nelson become part of the NPS, more visibility and visitation will follow. This means more tax dollars for our communities and the commonwealth.

NPS status for these historic sites is only possible because Kentucky has been a national leader in preserving our Civil War sites.

In addition to Mill Springs and Camp Nelson, battlefields at Perryville, Richmond, Munfordville, Middle Creek (Prestonsburg) and more are shining examples for how local entities should protect and interpret our history.

This success is due to partnerships and decades of hard work.

When considering Mill Springs and Camp Nelson, partnerships between visionary local residents, forward-thinking fiscal courts, local not-for-profit preservation groups (the Camp Nelson Restoration and Preservation Foundation and the Mill Springs Battlefield Association), key state legislators, members of Congress and the Kentucky Heritage Council (the state historic preservation agency) has been a formula for success. It has also made NPS status possible.

Both sites, following this partnership model and using a mix of private, state and federal grants, have preserved and interpreted hundreds of acres of historic property. They have also built excellent museums and research facilities.

So why is this important?

First, we know historic preservation makes our communities unique places. Understanding and protecting these sites builds community pride and helps make our towns vital places to live and work.

Second, Kentucky’s statewide success in preserving Civil War sites has converted these places into important educational centers that teach the public about issues that we face today. This includes lessons about the legacy of slavery at Camp Nelson and the critical importance of good leadership at Mill Springs.

Furthermore, tourism is the Bluegrass State’s third-largest industry, and visitors who go to historic sites pump millions of dollars into Kentucky’s economy. If Camp Nelson and Mill Springs become part of the National Park Service, the added visibility will undoubtedly provide an even greater economic benefit.

Kentucky communities and organizations can also duplicate Mill Springs, Camp Nelson and other Civil War sites’ successful model in order to tackle challenges that we face today. Take, for example, Save Our Appalachian Heritage (SOAR), which is taking a similar approach. In doing so, they are well positioned to meet their important goal of regional economic revitalization.

The success of Camp Nelson and Mill Springs is due to local residents who loved their history and had a vision. They rolled up their sleeves, created partnerships, engaged citizens and got to work.

These dedicated residents laid the foundation for National Park Service status at their sites, which, if approved, will provide long-term educational and economic benefits for the commonwealth.

Stuart W. Sanders is the History Advocate for the Kentucky Historical Society. He is the former executive director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association.