Honoring Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, Maryland's heroic conductor on the Underground Railroad and early leader for women's rights, may soon get the recognition she deserves if President Barack Obama accepts a proposal by Gov. Martin O'Malley, U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, and Rep. Andy Harris to create the Harriet Tubman National Monument.

The state's formal request for consideration of a national monument, sent to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar last week, followed a public meeting held in Cambridge and attended by more than 80 people. During the meeting, every speaker expressed support for the national monument designation and demonstrated the collaboration among landowners and local, state, and national agencies to conserve the landscape that embodies Tubman's story.

Establishing a Harriet Tubman National Monument complements state plans to create the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and further the vision of a dedicated group of citizens, historians and elected officials who have long wanted a Tubman national historical park.

In 2008, a study by the National Park Service recommended that two national parks should be created, one on Maryland's Eastern Shore — where Tubman was born, escaped slavery, and returned to lead others to freedom on the Underground Railroad — and the other in Auburn, N.Y., to focus on Tubman's later years, when she was active in the women's suffrage movement and provided for the welfare of elderly African-Americans.

Following the study, Senator Cardin introduced legislation (S.247), co-sponsored by Senator Mikulski and New York's senators, to establish the national historical parks. The Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed the legislation, but it remains unclear when the full Senate and the House will vote on it.

The Harriet Tubman Organization and the Chesapeake Conservancy have been fortunate to play a significant role in this effort, having helped write the initial legislation for a Harriet Tubman National Park and garnered the support from organizations involved.

The proposal to create a national monument is an interim measure to protect sites within the Tubman historic area in time to honor the 100th anniversary of Tubman's death in March 2013. If the national monument is created, The Conservation Fund would give the National Park Service a historically significant, 480-acre property that could serve as the monument's initial core.

We hope the monument designation will propel congressional approval of legislation creating the Harriet Tubman National Historic Parks. National monuments and national parks are similar in many ways: Both conserve and interpret some of our nation's most valuable historical sites. Only Congress can create parks, while the president, under the authority of the Antiquities Act, can create national monuments.

The proposed national monument and state park together would create a place to explore Tubman's extraordinary life in the setting where it began. In many ways, the landscape in southern Dorchester County appears similar to when Tubman's story unfolded there in the mid-19th century.

Conservation of these landscapes, and creation of the new national monument and state park, would encourage tourism and education along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway and in Dorchester County.

A study prepared by independent consultants for the NPS in 2010 found that national parks and monuments in Maryland attracted more than 3.5 million nonlocal visitors who added almost $165 million to the state's local economies and created an estimated 2,500 jobs. Individual parks have strong local impacts. For example, Fort McHenry, a relatively small national monument, attracted 613,000 visits and $39.5 million in spending.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is adjacent to the proposed national monument. The refuge, the state park and the national monument together protect one of the nation's premier waterfowl habitats and bird-watching destinations.

The Harriet Tubman Organization and the Chesapeake Conservancy strongly support this way of bringing together the modern community's needs, significant local and national history, and unique ecological elements as the model for conservation of landscapes.

In establishing a national monument to honor the legacy of Harriet Tubman, President Barack Obama would ensure that this extraordinary American, who did great things to affect the world's social struggles, is long remembered for her humanitarian work. This proposed unit of the National Park System would also fulfill a dream of conserving an important historical landscape in the Chesapeake Bay for the benefit of our state and our nation.

Donald Pinder is president of the Harriet Tubman Organization, a nonprofit committed to education about the history of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. Joel Dunn is executive director of the Chesapeake Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to conserving the region's historically and ecologically significant places.