The U.S. Senate voted Friday to approve a $577 billion defense bill which includes a provision establishing national historical parks in Cayuga County and Maryland honor abolitionist and civil rights icon Harriet Tubman.
With Senate passage of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act and the House's approval of the bill last week, the measure will head to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Language establishing the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Cayuga County and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park on Maryland's Eastern Shore was attached to the NDAA bill, an annual defense spending measure.
Some members of Congress, though, opposed adding the Tubman parks bill and other parks measures to the NDAA. U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, was one of the leading critics of the move. He said establishing more national parks is a "disastrous idea."
Ultimately, Coburn's attempt to block the bill failed. The Senate passed the NDAA by a bipartisan vote of 89-11.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who cosponsored the Tubman parks bill in the Senate and voted for the NDAA, said the creation of the Tubman park in the Auburn area will honor the abolitionist's legacy.
"I am pleased to announce that this long-awaited recognition has passed both the chambers in Congress and is now headed straight to the president's desk," Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement Friday. "Harriet Tubman left an indelible mark on America, and this national park will be a true testament to her life's work — and all that is best about our country."
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, an original cosponsor of the Tubman parks bill who visited the Tubman Home in 2011, called Tubman "one of American history's greatest heroes."
"With this new national historical park designation, Harriet Tubman's life and legacy will continue to live on, and her story will continue to inspire so many people for generations to come," Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said in a statement. "She led countless others in the journey for freedom and equality, and I am pleased there will now be a national park in her honor, where people from across the country can reflect on her life and legacy."
The inclusion of the provision in the NDAA immediately raised the likelihood that after three failed attempts, the Tubman parks would become reality.
The Tubman parks bill was first introduced in 2008 and reintroduced in 2009, in the Senate in 2011 and the House in 2012. Each time, the bill failed to advance to the floor in either house.
But the effort to establish the Tubman national parks picked up momentum in 2013 — the 100th anniversary of Tubman's passing. Rep. Dan Maffei introduced the legislation in the House and 101 cosponsors, including the entire New York congressional delegation, signed on in support of the measure.
A House subcommittee held a hearing on the bill in June 2013. On the Senate side, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee advanced the measure.
The Tubman parks legislation took a major step in July when the Senate passed it by unanimous consent. It was the first time the full House or Senate voted on the bill.
Now that the NDAA has been approved by both houses of Congress, Maffei, D-Syracuse, said he's proud to see the Tubman park in Cayuga County will come to fruition.
"In this nation's great history, the life of Harriet Ross Tubman is certainly a life worth recognition by this Congress and this country. Harriet Tubman lived for freedom, and worked hard to extend freedom to hundreds of others," Maffei said.
"A century after her death, I am proud to have worked so hard to establish a fitting memorial to her. This national park will preserve Harriet Tubman's legacy, educate current and future generations about her life and work, and also be an economic boon for our region, creating new jobs and attracting much-needed tourism dollars to central New York."
Once Obama signs the defense bill, the National Park Service will move forward to make the Tubman properties part of the park system. The federal share of the cost to implement the parks must not exceed 50 percent, according to the text of the NDAA provision.
There is a $24 million offset attached to the language which was first included in the Senate version of the Tubman bill. The offset will be used to cover the costs of creating the parks.
A review released by the Congressional Budget Office in 2013 estimated that it would cost $12 million over a five-year period to establish the two Tubman parks. Most of the expenditures would come in the first year the parks are established.
The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park will consist of Tubman's home in Fleming, the Home for the Aged and the Thompson Memorial AME Zion Church in Auburn.
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park will include sites in three Maryland counties — Caroline, Dorchester and Talbot. Land in Dorchester County is already part of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, which was designated by Obama in 2013.
Federal, state and local leaders have touted the economic benefits of the parks. The Auburn-area park would create 70 new jobs and increase tourism spending by $3.12 million, according to the Cayuga County Office of Tourism.
Once established, the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in Cayuga County could draw as many as 20,000 visitors each year.
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