County Commission adopts resolution of opposition to proposed heritage area
County Commissioners voted 2-1 during their Dec. 8 meeting to adopt a resolution in opposition to the creation of a National Heritage Area that encompasses Cascade County, as currently proposed.
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.
The commission’s vote does not prevent the group from submitting their feasibility study to the NPS. The group is finalizing their study and expect to submit it by January, according to Vice Chair Rich Ecke. There’s no set timetable for NPS review or Congressional consideration.
Another group of locals have banded together to oppose the proposed heritage area, largely over concerns related to private property rights.
During the three-hour commission meeting, many of them said that they hadn’t been consulted about the proposed NHA and hadn’t been given the chance to opt out. They expressed concern over the impact the NHA could have on their private property rights.
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.
Commissioner Joe Briggs said that early on he’d suggested making the heritage area’s boundaries to include only public lands to avoid the concern about private property, but that the heritage area group included all of Cascade County and some of Chouteau County. Briggs said he was fine to work on the heritage area, but wanted groups to work collaboratively.
Briggs said that there were no findings of NHAs influencing private property rights, but that he thought such designations could be used to influence property rights. Briggs said that the Lewis and Clark Portage through Great Falls, which is part of the National Park Service’s Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, had been used as a reason to deny zoning changes or reject development.
Commissioner Jane Weber said she didn’t remember the Portage Route being used to deny zoning or development during her time on the commission. Weber is also the chair of the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area Inc. volunteer board.
Commissioner Jim Larson, who drafted the resolution of opposition, said that as a private land owner in the county, he was opposed to the heritage area.
“If there’s just a smidgen of a doubt that anyone could do something to our lands, it raises the hair on the back of our necks,” Larson said. He said that rural people had been treated as an “afterthought” in the planning process over the years.
The potential threat to private property rights has been a criticism of NHAs for much of their existence. Since the first NHA was created in 1984, the program has grown to include 55 federal heritage areas nationwide in 34 states.
There has been some interest over the years, by members of Congress and the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, “in establishing a standardized process and criteria for designating NHAs. However, the absence over the decades of such a systemic law has provided legislative flexibility in the creation of new NHAs and the modification of existing ones,” according to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report. “Heritage areas consist mainly of private properties, although some include publicly owned lands. In most cases, the laws establishing NHAs do not provide for federal acquisition of land, and once designated, heritage areas generally remain in private, state, or local government ownership or a combination thereof. Many laws establishing national heritage areas contain provisions intended to address concerns about potential loss of, and restrictions on use of, private property as a result of NHA designation. For example, P.L. 111-11, which established the nine newest NHAs, stated for each area that the law does not abridge the right of any property owner; require any property owner to permit public access to the property; alter any land use regulation; or diminish the authority of the state to manage fish and wildlife, including the regulation of fishing and hunting within the NHA. P.L. 111-88, the Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2010, contained a more general provision allowing any private property owner within an NHA to opt out of participating in any plan, project, program, or activity conducted within the area.”
A 2004 study of the 24 heritage areas that existed at the time by the U.S. General Accounting Office found no evidence of a heritage area directly affecting private property values or use.
One opponent said during the Dec. 8 meeting that a lawsuit was filed in Wheeling, West Virginia related to their heritage area and went to the Supreme Court. She said that the lawsuit had been filed because the heritage area was impacting local business by trying to build a Victorian-themed retail center in downtown. The court records from the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeal state, “at the center of this dispute is the statutory method for selecting the membership of the Grant Committee,” which gave an economic development grant for the development of the outlet mall.
Supporters of the NHA said the designation could promote tourism and economic development in the region and allow access to some federal funding.
Rebecca Engum, director of Great Falls Montana Tourism, said that in 2019, overnight visitors pumped $160 million in to the local economy.
“I do implore you to not say no and close the book on this opportunity,” she said, and instead consider options to make it work and allay fears about private property rights.
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.
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.
The feasibility study was funded with $15,500 from NorthWestern Energy and $10,000 from ARCO, as well as other donations and the nonprofit received $10,000 in CARES Act funding from the state that they used toward the consultant fees for the feasibility study.