WASHINGTON — — President Barack Obama set aside 480 acres on the Eastern Shore on Monday as a national monument to honor Harriet Tubman — a victory for advocates who have long sought to memorialize the abolitionist's role in leading dozens of slaves to freedom.
Relying on a century-old federal law, Obama expanded a smaller park the state recently broke ground on in Dorchester County, where Tubman was born into slavery in 1822. The new designation places the rural land in the National Park Service's control, protecting it from development.
Advocates and a bipartisan group of lawmakers described the rare presidential proclamation as a significant step in what has been a long and often grueling campaign to pay homage to Tubman, who escaped slavery but returned to the Eastern Shore 13 times to free others.
"We've driven a stake into the ground with the monument," said Bill Crouch, Maryland director of the Conservation Fund, which donated the land to the federal government. "On a national scale, it's very exciting."
Presidential authority to designate national monuments under the 1906 Antiquities Act has been exercised about 130 times to protect sites such as the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty. In addition to the Tubman site, Obama added four properties to that list on Monday — in Ohio, Delaware, New Mexico and Washington state.
National monuments are different from national parks in that they are designed to protect something of historic, prehistoric or scientific interest, while parks are set aside because of some scenic feature or natural phenomena, according to the National Park Service.
The designations occasionally stir controversy, and several Republicans on Capitol Hill criticized the move, noting the potential long-term costs associated with creating parks at a time when Washington is focused on deficit reduction.
Utah Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, who chairs the House subcommittee on public lands and environmental regulation, said that use of the act "promotes a certain type of unilateral governance and sets a dangerous precedent" and that "the costs associated with these new designations ought to be considered openly."
Lawmakers attended the signing of the proclamations at the White House, but the ceremony was not open to reporters or the public.
The only Republican in Maryland's congressional delegation, Rep. Andy Harris, supports the designation. He signed a letter to the Interior Department last year requesting it, along with Gov. Martin O'Malley and the state's Democratic senators, Ben Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski.
Harris, who represents the Eastern Shore, described Tubman as a "role model for all Americans and someone who deserves to be honored." The initial cost of maintaining the site is likely to fall within the federal park service's existing resources, a Harris aide said.
Tubman fled to Pennsylvania at 27. Her return trips to free friends, family and others made her among the most prominent conductors of the Underground Railroad. The land donated by the Conservation Fund once was home to Jacob Jackson, a free black man who used coded messages from Tubman to coordinate the escape of her brothers.
Advocates have been keen to see progress on the park this year, the 100-year anniversary of Tubman's death.
The area is "nationally significant because of its deep association with Tubman and the Underground Railroad," the proclamation Obama signed reads. "If she were to return to this area today, Harriet Tubman would recognize it."
Clara Small, a history professor at Salisbury University who has studied black history on the Eastern Shore, said the monument designation is also culturally significant and sends a powerful message to young African-Americans. It is one of the only parks in the nation to honor a black woman.
"I am so proud," Small said. "A lot of work went into this."
Maryland lawmakers have pushed for years for a park. Congress directed the Interior Department to study options to commemorate Tubman 13 years ago.
Cardin and other lawmakers introduced legislation to create two national sites — one in Maryland and another in western New York, where Tubman moved after the Civil War — but the effort failed to gain traction for years.
Advocates said they will continue to press for a law that could expand the scope and funding for the park.
"This designation is an important step in honoring this true American heroine," Cardin said in a statement. "Today's action from the president will help us achieve our goal."
In 2007, the state of Maryland acquired 17.3 acres of land for a state park, located about 10 miles south of Cambridge and near the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. State and federal officials broke ground this month on a $21 million, 15,000-square-foot visitors center that is expected to open in 2015.
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Officials ultimately envision walking trails as well as driving tours with markers placed at historically significant locations. That experience would likely begin at the visitor center.
The federal proclamation addresses the 480-acre site, but it creates the possibility of expanding the size of the park to 11,750 acres. The document allows the federal government to accept additional donations of private land and to negotiate easements to limit development with landowners who opt in to such agreements.
Dorchester County officials said they hope the designation will boost tourism, which represents one-fifth of the county's employment. Amanda Fenstermaker, director of Dorchester County Tourism, said the county already benefits from people who visit to learn about Tubman's life.
"That was one of the reasons why we knew that expanding on the theme of Harriet Tubman would be something that would capture the imagination and attention of visitors," Fenstermaker said. "She's a national hero."