A nation built through Montana: Communities rally for first National Heritage AreaSource: Great Falls Tribune
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Drawing the map
The Upper Missouri River Heritage Area Planning Corporation, a group with a hefty acronym and a heftier mission, has spent the past two years building its case for a National Heritage Area along the Missouri River.
A National Heritage Area is a congressionally designated place with historical, cultural and natural resources significant to the country. Heritage areas are not managed by the National Parks Service, they aren’t considered national parks, national monuments or national landmarks, they don’t affect private property rights and don’t require private property owners within the designated area to allow public access.
Instead, they recognize the nation’s special places and substantiate private efforts to develop and maintain tourism in the area.
The group’s proposed heritage corridor would stretch from Fort Benton to the Gates of the Mountains and would include tributaries of the Sun and Smith rivers, Belt Creek and the towns of Belt, Monarch, Neihart, Fort Shaw and Sun River.
“There are stories that we can tell about central Montana that affect the entire country,” said Jane Weber, the group’s board chair. “There are 49 across the country and a lot of those are in the south. We hope to be the 50th NHA in the country.”
The initially proposed boundary was larger and included all of Cascade and Chouteau counties, but after receiving heavy pushback from Fergus County, the committee opted to shrink the border rather than push the issue.
“It has raised a few eyebrows here in Montana,” said Bill Bronson, who serves as legal counsel for the group. “They think it’s just another way for the federal government to get their hands on their land. However, (NHAs) are managed by private nonprofit organizations…there’s no federal ownership and no impact on private property rights.”
Fergus County Commissioner Ross Butcher said the county held a public meeting in Winifred to discuss the heritage area. The meeting was reportedly well-attended and ended with a near unanimous decision to remove the county from the proposed boundary.
“The folks that live out in that area were not in favor,” Butcher said. “Their concern with the NHA was that it would be put under Parks Service-type management. They’re concerned about more regulations on the land and thought it would be more detrimental than helpful.”
Rather than pushing the issue, Weber said she and the group backed away and opted to only work with communities that were interested in the designation.
Fort Shaw and Sun River, for example, asked to be brought on board and included in the proposed boundary after representatives attended initial planning meetings for the area.
The current boundary is still only tentative and could grow or shrink as the committee moves forward and more communities potentially show interest.
Heritage areas can be a major driver of tourism and economic development for the area and surrounding communities and can lead to federal funding — though these funds are not guaranteed. More often, heritage areas present opportunity for community collaboration to develop and promote historically significant areas to drive tourism.
“Heritage tourism is a big deal nationally,” Bronson said. “We see an opportunity to expand on that. Heritage tourism is part of economic development.”
In 2014, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., praised the economic development of his state’s heritage area when he presented legislation to reauthorize the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, the first NHA west of the Mississippi.
“Yuma Crossing NHA has proven to be a central component in a collaborative effort by local, tribal and federal partners to transform the City of Yuma downtown riverfront area and restore riparian habitat along the banks of the Colorado River,” McCain said in a statement. “The NHA designation has enabled the City of Yuma to develop plans to leverage about $80 million in private investments — not federal funding — for the revitalization of downtown Yuma and the historic landmark.”
There’s still a long road ahead before the proposed heritage area will make its presentation to congress. Weber estimates that won’t happen for another two years.
In the meantime, the committee must complete a feasibility study. The study determines whether a proposed heritage area has historic, cultural or natural landscape qualities and significant stories of American heritage. It also determines whether the communities within the proposed boundary support the national designation. Finally, the study proves whether the area will be able to sustain the proposed heritage area into the future.
A statue of Shep the faithful dog stands on Front Street near the Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton. For six years Shep met every train hoping for his master’s return. It’s been 75 years since Shep died.
The group has brought on Point Heritage Development Consulting as consultants for the proposed feasibility study. The consulting team includes Nancy I.M. Morgan from Florida, who has prepared several feasibility studies for other emerging NHAs and August R. Carlino, the executive director of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in the Pittsburgh area.
The $50,000 study will take between 12 and 18 months to complete and has been completely paid for by donations primarily from the private sector with additional funds coming from the business improvement sector.
Weber said the group also needs to develop more community partnerships and secure political support.
“All of our senators are aware and in support, however, (Republican Rep. Greg) Gianforte has not taken a stance yet,” Weber said.
Important stories to tell
A 1.3-mile trail helps visitors and locals enjoy the levee in Fort Benton. A Fort Benton native is proposing extending the trail into a loop around the town.
There are currently 49 heritage areas in the country. None exists in Montana. The Illinois and Michigan Canal National Historic Corridor was the first heritage area and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
The entire state of Tennessee was designated as a heritage area in 1996 because of its numerous Civil War sites.
“NHAs were created so local people, regional people could manage their heritage and protect it, so to speak,” Ellen Sievert, the group’s cultural resource consultant, said. “It’s just an honorary listing. It’s groups locally coming together to promote the history.”
Central Montana’s proposed NHA is bookended by four National Historic Landmarks: Lewis and Clark’s portage through Great Falls, the C.M. Russell studio and house, Fort Benton and First Peoples Buffalo Jump. These areas were designated by the Parks Service and indicate Congress’ existing awareness of the area’s significance.
Within these landmarks, the proposed area needs to establish themes of national significance in the proposed area. As of now, the committee has developed six themes.
“All of the themes we have developed spring from these,” Sievert said. “It’s all interconnected. This section of river has pretty amazing history and all of our history seems to be connected to that river.”
Theme one: Ice Age/American Indian: Highlights of this theme include First Peoples Buffalo Jump and Lost Lake
Theme two: Exploration and Settlement: This theme looks specifically at the Lewis and Clark expedition route along the Missouri River and through Great Falls
Theme three: Transportation: This theme focuses on travel along the Missouri, including the steamboats and Mullan Road wagon trail of Fort Benton
Theme four: Military: Notable points in this theme include Fort Shaw and its history from before the Civil War through the Cold War
Theme five: Industrial and Agricultural: Great Falls’ many dams and history of copper production tie into this theme.
Theme six: Art: This theme recognizes the work of Charlie Russell, O.C. Seltzer, Bob Scriver and the many artists that made Montana known for western art. It also highlights the art still created today in the proposed NHA’s landscapes
The key to each of the themes is their national significance. The proposed heritage area contains keys to the development of the entire nation and everything is interconnected via the Missouri River.
As the Glaciers moved and melted through Montana, the early waters of the Missouri River once flowed over the area now known as Lost Lake, creating falls larger than Niagara Falls. However, the river changed course over time and eventually settled in its current path.
Thousands of years later, but still a thousand years before the West was explored by Lewis and Clark, Native people were driving bison from the top of the cliff at First Peoples Buffalo Jump in the Missouri River Valley.
In the early 1800s, Lewis and Clark arrived and followed the Missouri River through Montana on their expedition west. This expedition also brought the explorers through Fort Benton where Meriwether Lewis became the first person to use the levee.
Built in 1867, the commanding officer’s house is one of few historical buildings in Fort Shaw that are still standing.
Sixty years later, Fort Benton boomed with the arrival of the first steamboat and quickly became the navigational head of the Missouri River. At the same time, the Mullan Road wagon trail was stablished from Fort Benton to Fort Walla Walla.
In 1867, Fort Shaw was built to protect travelers on Mullan Road from raiders.
Between 1870 and 1892, Paris Gibson established Great Falls, copper was discovered in Butte, Tomas Edison invented electricity, the Black Eagle Dam was constructed, Anaconda Copper Company built a smelter in Great Falls and Rainbow Dam was built. It was a recipe for national innovation.
“Every inch of copper wire in the country came out of Great Falls’ Anaconda Company from Smelter Hill,” Sievert said. “It was all powered by dams.”
Water from spring runoff flows through Black Eagle Dam and cascades down Black Eagle Falls.
The Rainbow Dam sent electricity all the way to Butte, too. There were only two dams in country capable of sending electricity that far: the Rainbow Dam and Niagara Falls, Sievert said.
Then, shortly before the turn of the century, Charlie Russell began to make a name for himself recapturing the West before the flux of industry in his paintings.
The significance is there. Now, it’s about garnering support and convincing congress that these stories matter to the grand scheme of the nation’s history.
“What is the story we have to tell here?” Sievert said. “It’s all tied to the Missouri River. I don’t think we will have any problems at all with proving our significance in the nation. The more we learn about it and organize the material, the more we can see our story is very important and it certainly hasn’t been told well. By pulling our resources together and working together, we can better tell the world our story.”