Opposition to heritage areas rises to County Commission

A local group has been working to establish a National Heritage Area in the region since 2015 and are in the final stages of developing their feasibility study that will be submitted to the National Park Service for review and then to Congress for consideration.

The group established a nonprofit, Big Sky Country National Heritage Area Inc., and released the draft feasibility study for a 45-day public review over the summer.

There are 55 NHAs in 34 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.

Draft feasibility study for region’s national heritage area now available for public comment

There have been dozens of public meetings about the proposed heritage area over the last five years in Great Falls and other communities that were being considered to be included within the boundaries.

The feasibility study must prove that the proposed National Heritage Area has distinctive natural, historic, and cultural resources; as well as strong customs, folklife and traditions that represent our American heritage.

The study was conducted with the help of two consultants: Augie Carlino, president and chief executive officer of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Nancy Morgan of Tallahassee, Fla., a former co-director of the Cane River National Heritage Area in Natchitoches, La.

NHA designation requires congressional approval and if granted, the region would be the first in Montana to receive the designation.

Feasibility study nearing completion for Big Sky Country National Heritage Area

Over the last year, opposition to the heritage area began and during the last few months, a group has coalesced and been going to various town councils and other organizations seeking resolutions of support.

Thirteen organizations have submitted resolutions of non-support as of Dec. 2, according to a release from Rae Grulkowski of Montanans Opposing Big Sky County National Heritage Area.

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

Those groups include: Chouteau County and Hill-Liberty-Blaine County Farm Bureaus; Cascade County Farm Bureau; Chouteau County Trailblazers; City of Belt; Town of Cascade; Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America; Hilltop Hutterite Colony, Stockett; Great Falls Association of Realtors; Eden, Montana Community Hall; Montana Farm Bureau Federation; Montana Stockgrowers Association; Foothills Livestock Association, Great Falls; and Montana Grain Growers Association.

The group argues that the heritage area would impede private property rights. Grulkowski told The Electric that they do not want the feasibility submitted to NPS or Congress.

National Heritage Area project gaining momentum in Great Falls region

This week, two County Commissioners added a resolution of opposition to the heritage area to their agenda for Dec. 8. Commissioners Jim Larson and Joe Briggs worked on the resolution that was mentioned in their Dec. 3 work session. Commissioner Jane Weber, who chairs the heritage area group’s volunteer board, said during the meeting that it was the first she became aware of it.

Larson told The Electric that he “wrote most of the resolution from information that has been gleaned from meetings that I have attended and my own perspective as a rural landowner. Commissioner Briggs reviewed and made recommendations. Commissioner Briggs provided information of hinderances to economic development, then I made the final edits.”

Efforts to create National Heritage Area in Great Falls region continuing

In the resolution, Larson writes, “a national heritage area designation has possibilities of disrupting normal operations of private property within the boundaries of the NHA and will likely be used to influence local land use regulations. Whereas, a congressionally designated “Big Sky Country National Heritage Area” that encompasses all of Cascade County would include all of those private properties. Owners of those properties have no recourse to opt “in” or opt “out” of participation in the BSCNHA, whereas, since there is a fundamental interdependence that exists between individual liberty and the ability to own property the citizens of Cascade County are very concerned that a NHA
designation would deprive landowners of their ability to use and enjoy their property as they see fit,” that “the majority of the Cascade County Commissioners oppose the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area designation as proposed and does not wish to confer upon an unelected regional management entity , the ability to dictate land use policy within the boundaries of Cascade County.”

The heritage area group has not yet submitted the feasibility study to the National Park Service, but expect it to be finalized and submitted by January, according to Vice Chair Rich Ecke.

The NPS review takes time before it can be submitted to Congress for consideration, a process that also includes public comment periods, Ecke told The Electric.

Larson told The Electric that he decided to bring the opposition resolution forward now because the commission office has been receiving letters, emails and calls about the heritage area this year.

“A common theme in these communications is the mistaken belief that this project is a commission driven action. Given the heightened level of concern exhibited by citizens and groups regarding this proposal and the need to correct the misinformation, I felt this is the appropriated time,” Larson told The Electric.

Officials from the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area group are refuting claims that the proposal will harm owners of private property in Cascade and Chouteau counties.

“Nothing is further from the truth,” Ecke wrote in a release. “There is no evidence that any of the country’s 55 national heritage areas ever impinged on the rights of owners of private property in the 36-year history of heritage areas. These opponents have provided no proof of their claims.”

“Instead, the critics have done limited research, going to questionable websites to raise doubts and stoke fears about what would be the first national heritage area in Montana,” Ecke continued. “They are using innuendo and supposition instead of citing facts. In fact, National Heritage Areas are very popular across the United States, including one that encompasses the entire state of Tennessee.”

A 2004 study of the 24 heritage areas that existed at the time by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that there wasn’t a systematic process for reviewing and designating heritage areas, but that, “heritage areas do not appear to have affected property owners’ rights. In fact, the designating legislation of 13 areas and the management plans of at
least 6 provide assurances that such rights will be protected. However, property rights advocates fear the effects of provisions in some management plans. These provisions encourage local governments to implement land use
policies that are consistent with the heritage areas’ plans, which may allow the heritage areas to indirectly influence zoning and land use planning in ways that could restrict owners’ use of their property. Nevertheless, heritage area officials, Park Service headquarters and regional staff, and representatives of national property rights groups that we contacted were unable to provide us with any examples of a heritage area directly affecting—positively or negatively—private property values or use.”

In his release, Ecke wrote that Congress is considering legislation late in this 2020 session that would create more guidelines and structure for heritage areas, “including offering specific private property protections to assuage people’s fears. We think it’s premature to pass resolutions regarding this heritage area before Congress finishes its work.”