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Op-Ed: National Monument Status for Camp Nelson Good for Kentucky Tourism

This past Saturday, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Congressman Andy Barr announced that Camp Nelson Heritage Park in Jessamine County has been designated as a national monument.

Years in the making, this makes Camp Nelson the first national monument in the Bluegrass State. Importantly, this designation will be good for business in Kentucky.

National monuments are similar to national parks, except that presidential orders create them, rather than congressional action. They may also have a different management structure. The Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore are national monuments, as are the U.S.S. Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, Booker T. Washington’s birthplace in Virginia and Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

Like those national monuments, Camp Nelson also has a unique story to tell that is of importance to all Americans.

Established in 1863 as a supply depot, the site played a critical role in Civil War and African American history. During the conflict, Camp Nelson was one of the nation’s largest recruiting grounds for African American Union soldiers. More than 5,000 black troops eventually enlisted at the site.

Today, Camp Nelson encompasses nearly 600 acres of preserved land and includes Civil War earthworks, a museum, interpretive trails and research facilities. The Kentucky River palisades on the south side of the camp also allow visitors to explore the area’s incredible natural history.

Designating Camp Nelson as a national monument will increase the site’s importance as an educational resource. Challenges faced at Camp Nelson during the 19th century—including a major refugee crisis during the Civil War—allows the site to serve as a crucible to teach leadership and to help us better understand complex issues that we face today.

The designation will also positively affect Kentucky’s tourism economy by drawing thousands of additional visitors to the commonwealth each year.

In 2016, tourism made a $14.5 billion economic impact on the state, supported 193,000 jobs and produced more than $1.5 billion in tax revenue. Having a central Kentucky site that is equivalent to a national park will bolster these numbers.

Furthermore, the cachet of having a national monument in central Kentucky will shine additional light upon other historic sites in the region, from the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington to the Perryville battlefield in Boyle County. These other sites will certainly benefit from the increased visitation that national monument status will bring to Camp Nelson.

The National Park Service logged more than 330 million visits to national parks in 2016. If Camp Nelson can capture just a fraction of that number, it will provide a positive economic impact in central Kentucky as visitors buy gas and souvenirs, eat in restaurants, stay in hotels and visit other sites. This, ultimately, means more jobs.

Visitors already flock to central Kentucky in order to have authentic experiences at bourbon distilleries, horse farms and historic sites. Studies have shown that these cultural heritage tourists spend more time and more money than visitors who are only seeking recreational opportunities.

Tourism already contributes a great deal to Kentucky’s economy. This national monument designation for Camp Nelson will draw more visitors, create jobs and have a positive economic impact.

Simply put, national monument status for Camp Nelson will be good business for Kentucky.

Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s History Advocate.