GREAT FALLS – The Upper Missouri River Heritage Area Planning Corporation, a nonprofit comprised of 17 board members from Helena to Great Falls, Cascade and Fort Benton, held a public meeting Wednesday evening in Black Eagle.
Over the past five years, the board has worked on the project of bringing the first National Heritage Area to Montana. The area would celebrate the history of Great Falls all the way up to Fort Benton.
A National Heritage Area is a special place that has a long history where both people and land have had an impact on each other for generations.
The Chair of the Upper Missouri River Heritage Area Planning Corporation, Jane Weber, said the reason for the meeting was to show people who previously attended how their past ideas have been utilized.
The board produced a map of where they will propose the Heritage Area to be with four different themes. The themes are: The Missouri River, First Peoples, The Lewis and Clark Expedition, and A New West.
Each map provides different places and resources and how they relate to each theme.
Only Congress can designate a National Heritage Area. But before going through Congress, a public feasibility study must be done.
Nancy Morgan and August Carlino, who both have experience with National Heritage Areas, were hired by the planning corporation to serve as guides through the process of the study.
Heritage Area Advisor Nancy Morgan said, “You use the stories and the history of a region to help tie the region together and on that build a future, through economic development, tourism, education and interpretation, cultural conservation, historic preservation, all of these things become part of a shared vision that is tied together by the history or the heritage of a region.”
During the meeting, the public was asked to brainstorm ideas on what should be a part of the National Heritage Area.
Weber added, “You know what stuck out to me? People are starting to think regionally. They’re not just thinking of their little community and their little neck of the woods. They’re starting to see that, ‘Hey, what I like connects to what he likes over here, she likes over here, maybe we could start working together and collaborate.’ And that’s what a heritage area is all about.”
Although National Heritage Areas are designated by congress, Morgan added they are not like a National Park or a National Forest where there is federal ownership of land.
Morgan said, “There is absolutely no federal ownership of land. Instead, it’s local people that get the approval that this place is nationally significant. There is not a single credible instance where private property rights have been shown to have been impacted by a National Heritage Area.”
The next steps in this process include: determine and finalize the project area, hold a final public meeting held this summer or fall, write a feasibility study draft report, the public reviews the report, have the public write letters of support, finalize feasibility study report, submit to National Park Service and to Congress.
The same topics will be presented at a meeting in Fort Benton on Thursday from 6-8 p.m. at the Montana Ag Center.
Reporting by Kasey Herman for MTN News