Group defines region’s national significance as quest for National Heritage Area designation continues

There’s months of work still to do, but the group pursuing a National Heritage Area are nearing completion the feasibility study process.

On Wednesday, the  Upper Missouri River Planning Area Planning Corporation held a meeting in Black Eagle to update the community on their progress at at least 100 people attended. Another meeting is planned for Jan. 31 at 6 p.m. in Fort Benton.

Informational meetings on proposed national heritage area planned for next week

The meeting included time for attendees to discuss ideas for projects within the proposed heritage area, which would encompass a National Historic Trail and four National Historic Landmarks.

national heritage areas map MPS

Map of National Heritage Areas. National Park Service map.

According to National Park Service testimony to Congress in 1999, “these patters make National Heritage Areas representative of the national experience through the physical features that remain and the traditions that have evolved in them. Continued use of National Heritage Areas by people whose traditions helped to shape the landscapes enhances their significance.”

There are 49 NHAs in 32 states currently and to receive the designation, an area must “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.

National Heritage Area project gaining momentum in Great Falls region

More public meetings are planned and once the study is completed and a draft plan is written, the document will be available for public review and comment.

The finished document would be submitted to Congress, which must vote to approve the NHA designation.

The planning group raised the funds needed for the feasibility study and last fall hired August Carlino from the Rivers of Steel Heritage Area in Pittsburgh, Penn., and Nancy Morgan, of Point Heritage Development Consulting, as the consultants to help conduct the local feasibility study. The consultants have been visiting the area for the last year to work on the study.

The consultants have interviewed 25 stakeholders, which include government agencies, businesses, community groups and more. They’ve also had their work reviewed by experts including: Carrol Van West, Ellen Baumler, Jay Buckley, Gerald Gray, Sr., Micheal Duchemin and others.

Efforts to create National Heritage Area in Great Falls region continuing

The effort to pursue NHA designation for the region started in January 2015 and on Wednesday, the group revealed their statement of national significance, which is what NHAs are developed around:

“The vast Upper Missouri River landscape is where a pivotal transition occurred from the lifeways of Indigenous peoples to the settlement of an expanding American nation. Following 10,000 years of human history in the region, the vanguard of this transition was the Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who followed the Missouri in search of a northwest passage to the Pacific. North America would never be the same. The Great Falls of the Missouri created a physical barrier to river navigation, resulting in the historic portage for the Corps. This natural impediment resulted in Fort Benton becoming the head of navigation on the Missouri. Fort Benton emerged as an outpost of the American nation in this still-contested land, a hub for overland trade and new settlement. In less than a century, the Upper Missouri River region witnessed the transformation of millennia-old tribal society to a landscape that supported the rise of a New West.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Carlino and Morgan explained the refined themes for the NHA which include the Missouri River, First Peoples, the Lewis and Clark Expedition and a New West.

NHAs tell the story of a region and can also drive tourism, recreation, education and economic development.

According to the The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, Cascade County ranked fifth in the state with $20 million in tourism last year, Morgan said.

According to the Alliance of National Areas, an independent 2012 study by Tripp Umbach found that NHAs’ overall annual economic impact in the U.S. is $12.9 billion, significantly exceeding the amount of federal funding provided to NHAs by as much as 5:1. The economic impact is primarily in tourism, operational expenditures and grantmaking activities; with the majority, 99 percent, is generated by tourism spending.

The economic impact was significant in two ways, according to Umbach’s study:

  • $4.6 billion in direct impact, which includes tourist spending, NHA operational expenditures and grantmaking activities
  • $8.3 billion in indirect and induced impacts, which includes employee spending and businesses supporting the tourism industry.

In 1984, the first National Heritage Area, Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Area, was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

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

In some states, NHAs have spurred downtown revitalization efforts, restoring canal tow lines that created trail systems, creating educational programs and preserving cultural resources, Carlino said, listing examples of projects and programs in other states.

No NHAs exist in Montana and some have been established in Utah, Colorado, Nevada and Alaska.

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.