National Heritage Area project gaining momentum in Great Falls region

Plans for the proposed National Heritage Area initially included a significantly larger area, but after pushback from Fergus and Phillips counties, the group has refined its proposed boundary.

“We didn’t want to pick that fight,” said Jane Weber, a Cascade County Commissioner and chair of the board of directors for the Upper Missouri River Heritage Area Planning Corporation, Inc.

Weber and Bill Bronson, city commissioner and legal counsel for the project, gave a presentation on Thursday about their efforts with the proposed NHA designation.

The effort to create a National Heritage Area in the Great Falls region started in 2015 with community meetings attended by more than 100 people.

National Heritage Areas are designated by Congress as “places where natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape. Through their resources, NHAs tell nationally important stories that celebrate our nation’s diverse heritage. NHAs are lived-in landscapes. Consequently, NHA entities collaborate with communities to determine how to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs,” according to the National Park Service

NHAs are a grassroots, community-driven approach to heritage conservation and economic development and typically involved public-private partnerships.

There are 49 NHAs currently, none of which are in Montana. According to NPS, the designation often results in sustainable economic development as NHAs can leverage federal funding to create jobs, generate revenue for local governments and sustain local communities through revitalization and heritage tourism. An effort to explore an NHA has started in Bozeman, but it’s in the preliminary stages.

NHAs in no way restrict individual property ownership rights, impose restrictions or require additional taxes.

Weber said both Montana senators support the initiative and the Rep. Greg Gianforte has been briefed.

“It’s a pretty long road,” Weber said and that she expects that the group won’t approach Congress for approval for another two years.

The current working border of the proposed NHA is the Gates of the Mountains to Ft. Benton in the Missouri River corridor, plus parts of the Smith River, Sun River and Fort Shaw is very interested in being part of the NHA, Weber said. The proposed boundary also includes Belt Creek up to Neihart and Monarch.

“We can bookend our boundary with four national landmarks,” Weber said of the proposed area. That includes Ft. Benton, the Lewis and Clark Portage, the Charlie Russell studio, and the First Peoples Buffalo Jump.

“We already are embedded in the minds of Congress as a place of national significance,” Weber said.

Since those initial meetings in 2015, the group has established a federally recognized 501(c)3, created a board of directors, developed a board governance policy and raised the funds for the feasibility study.

They’ve created a database of historical sites and images with the help of GIS mapping and Weber said that even if they don’t get the designation, “we’re just going to do it and act like one.”

All NHAs have one or several themes and so far the group is working with six possible themes: Ice Age/American Indians; exploration and settlement; transportation; military; industrial and agriculture; and art.

Since Congress determines NHA designations, Congress could adjust the boundaries or themes.

The group has raised the $50,000 needed to conduct a feasibility study and is currently negotiating a contract with a team of consultants. The consultants they’ve selected are Point Heritage Development Consulting, LLC with Nancy Morgan, who has prepared feasibility studies for other NHAs and August Carlino, the executive director of the Rivers of Steel NHA in the Pittsburgh area.

Weber said that the NHA program manager for the intermountain region told the group to be careful not to water down their story and to focus on points of national significance.