Big Sky Country National Heritage Area – Boon Or Boondoggle? Part 1

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two part series the effort to have Cascade County designated as a National Heritage Area

When I first learned of a plan to create a National Heritage Area (NHA) in Central Montana, I initially wasn’t opposed to it. At that time, I heard inklings that the proposed area was mainly located along the river in Cascade and Chouteau counties and perhaps into Lewis and Clark County to the Gates of the Mountains. The NHA would supposedly create economic development through historic and cultural tourism and would showcase our historic sites. That didn’t sound concerning.

But I felt I didn’t have enough information one way or the other about National Heritage Areas to make an informed decision. I decided to do some research. What I found on National Heritage Areas was alarming, to say the least.

I discovered that National Heritage Areas are pork-barrel programs, managed by non-elected groups under the auspices and guidance of the National Park Service, with the very real potential of impacting the private property rights of those  landowners located within the NHA boundaries.

During my initial research, I also discovered the proposed NHA area here in Central Montana had expanded from a narrow river corridor in two or perhaps three counties, to include ALL OF CASCADE COUNTY and parts of Chouteau and Fergus counties.

I found it difficult to get information and straight answers from the group promoting the NHA—Upper Missouri River National Heritage Area Inc. That group has since changed it’s name to Big Sky Country National Heritage Area Inc (BSCNHA).

Most people that I’ve talked to know nothing about this proposed NHA, or have even heard of it. I attended what I thought was a public meeting in early 2019 in Black Eagle about the NHA, only to find that the public wouldn’t be allowed to comment or ask questions at the meeting for all in attendance to hear. Friends who attended the NHA meeting in Belt last Fall reported the same.

The chair of BSCNHA Inc is Cascade County Commissioner Jane Weber and the group’s attorney is former Great Falls City Commissioner Bill Bronson. Other current board members can be found here: https://www.bigskycountrynha.org/about.html, and include Bret Doney, President of Great Falls Development Authority.

WHAT ARE NATIONAL HERITAGE AREAS?

According to the National Park Service, “National Heritage Areas (NHAs) are designated by Congress as places where natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape….NPS partners with, provides technical assistance, and distributes matching federal funds from Congress to NHA entities. NPS does not assume ownership of land inside heritage areas or impose land use controls” National Park Service website.

The first NHA. the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor located in Illinois, was signed established in 1984. There are currently 55 National Heritage Areas scattered throughout the country. Each NHA receives funding under the National Park Service.

H.R.1049 – National Heritage Area Act of 2019 would allow appropriations of up to $700,000 per NHA per fiscal year, which is typical. For example, the National Heritage Areas Act of 2006 established ten new National Heritage Areas, each authorized to receive millions of dollars (ten million was common) over a ten or fifteen year period, depending on the enabling legislation.

National Heritage Areas have sunset provisions, meaning they are to become self-sustaining and no longer dependent on federal funds. So far, none of the 55 NHAs have become self-sustaining and instead are a perpetual drain on the federal budget, with the older NHAs receiving reauthorization for more years-worth of our tax dollars.

National Heritage Areas are created through Congressional designation, so Senators Tester and Daines, and Representative Gianforte would be responsible for introducing and supporting this in Congress.

“National Heritage Area designation follows a two-step process: completion of a feasibility study (rather than an application) and introduction of authorizing legislation in the U.S. Congress…

National Heritage Area legislation typically requires the development of a management plan within three years of designation….The NPS provides assistance to Heritage Area entities on the development of management plans to ensure that they address all Federal requirements”  National Park Service website.

Most, if not all, NHA enabling documents contains language that, according to proponents, is designed to protect private property rights by allowing property owners to refrain from participating in any planned project or activity within the heritage areas, not requiring any owner to permit public access to property and not altering any existing land use regulation, approved land use plan, or other regulatory authority.

In practice however, local government officials can and are pressured by the NHA management group to pass zoning laws and regulations not otherwise needed in order to support the NHA management plan. This is called regulatory taking. In some ways, it’s more insidious than eminent domain. In regulatory taking, you still own the property and pay taxes on it, but you aren’t reimbursed for any loss of use through restrictive zoning and ordinances passed to support the NHA management plan.

“National heritage areas are preservation zones where land use and property rights can be restricted. They give the National Park Service and preservation interest groups (many with histories of hostility toward property rights) substantial influence by giving them the authority to create land use “management plans” and then the authority to disburse federal money to local governments to promote their plans.” National Center for Public Policy Research, 2007 letter sent to congressional leaders and pertinent committee members.

One astute Chouteau County rancher I spoke with pointed out to me that even though landowners aren’t required to allow public access to their private land within the NHA, once the border for the NHA is drawn on a map and your land is included within that border, it is realistic to think that a tourist, not knowing any better, would think the whole area within that border is open to them. I had to agree with him.

I also learned that Fergus County at one time was included in the BSCNHA, but due to public outcry over concerns about bureaucratic overreach and private property rights,  the county commissioners unanimously voted to oppose inclusion in BSCNHA and the county was removed.

Watch for Part Two of this series this week.

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Jeni Dodd
Jeni Dodd is a creative, multi-faceted, multi-talented, knowledge junkie. She currently utilizes her skills in a variety of business and artistic endeavors. Liberty, integrity, truth and critical thinking are among her most important precepts.

5 COMMENTS

  1. The proposed Big Sky Country National Heritage Area will include approximately 2,000,000 acres — substantially all of which is privately owned — without notice to or the consent of the private property owners who will be affected by the designation. The establishment of BSCNHA would add an unnecessary and duplicative layer of federal oversight through the National Park Service on top of the numerous local, state and federal regulations and programs already in place to promote the economy and preserve the history and heritage of Central Montana. Why is yet another taxpayer funded program necessary? And why are we diverting national park funds and services when we have an $11 billion deferred maintenance backlog in the national parks? Let’s use some common sense and nip this one in the bud.

  2. Well done, totally factual article about the NHA. I hope people in these counties will wake up to the fact their properties are under attack. It would appear that any good that needs to happen in Cascade county can certainly be done by the plethora of other government and private organizations designated to do so. Remember folks that G-R-A-N-T simply means, your tax dollars . I’d like taxes to go down, not up.

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