House bill would help preserve historically significant sites

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Northeast Florida Congressmen John Rutherford, Michael Waltz and Al Lawson are hoping this is the year that they can get a key historic preservation bill passed. If they are successful, it will mean, among other things, funding for recovery of underwater historic sites, especially shipwrecks.

Monday, March 29, Rutherford and Waltz were at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum to announce the reintroduction of HB 2107, which would establish the Nation’s Oldest Port National Heritage Area. The bill had been introduced last year and met with no resistance but did not come up for a vote.

“This legislation would designate large areas of Northeast Florida as a National Heritage Area, promoting federal support for historic preservation, natural resource conservation, recreation and heritage tourism,” Rutherford told those assembled for the announcement.

“The goal of the National Heritage Area is to celebrate the unique heritage and natural resources of the region and to recognize this area as a special place in the history of Florida, as well as the United States,” said Bob Buehn, museum board of trustees chair. “The story of this region cannot be told without diverse voices. Our history, traditions, seascape, military heritage, arts and foods are important to share with our many visitors and residents.”

The museum has been working toward the proposed designation for about 10 years.

Nicholas Budsberg, administrative director for the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP), said there were about 500 known historic shipwrecks in the area. That number could reach into the thousands when considering all the watercraft that wrecked offshore but for which there was no record.

“There’s so much below the water, below the sea, below the sand that we still don’t know about,” Budsberg said. “So, this really gives us an opportunity to access resources to continue telling stories here at the lighthouse, to be able to do a lot with this for decades to come.”

Chuck Meide, LAMP director, explained the importance of exploring shipwrecks.

“Through their scientific study, we can understand with great detail the lives of the men and the women who were on these ships,” he said. “The men and the women who lived here in St. Augustine made their lives on and by the sea and relied on these ships to move people, ideas and goods.”

Soon, in fact, LAMP will be conducting the first underwater excavations ever undertaken at Fort Mose State Park.

Waltz pointed out that support for the bill is bipartisan, something that can help its chances of passage.

Still, the bill has to come up for a vote. Toward this end, Rutherford suggested that the museum write to House leadership to emphasize the legislation’s value.

“We’re looking to preserve some very important historical sites,” he said. “They need to hear that. Because the challenge is not getting the support. If we could have gotten the bill to the floor last session, it would have passed. But it’s getting the floor time, to get the bill to the floor, and the leadership controls that.”

The proposed National Heritage Area includes the entire coast from the St. Marys River to the southernmost border of Flagler County. It includes a swath of ocean and extends west to most of the St. Johns River.

A National Heritage Area is a region designated by Congress where the natural, cultural and historical resources combine to form a significant shared landscape. There are 55 such areas in the United States, including the National Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor that extends from South Carolina to Florida.

National Heritage Areas are eligible for up to $10 million in federal matching grants during their first 15 years of designation, though actual cash awards are much lower as the money is divided between recipients.

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