Monday, August 24, 2009

Does the Northwest Need a Heritage Area?

Why are there no federally-designated National Heritage Areas in the Pacific Northwest? And if we were to propose some, what would they be?

I came to these questions after reading Carroll Van West's nice article in the current Organization of American Historians newsletter: Historians and the Opportunities of National Heritage Areas: "National Heritage Areas are a significant development in the United States’s national parks system. Since 1984, Congress has created forty-nine National Heritage Areas, stretching from the Essex National Heritage Area in Massachusetts to the newly designated Kenai Mountain-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area in Alaska."

National Heritage Areas have been around for 25 years now but I think it is fair to say that they are little-understood. Van West does a nice job of explaining the heritage area concept and practice and suggesting ways that historians can become more involved. "For public historians and scholars who wish to take their research and classes into historic settings, National Heritage Areas are potentially valuable avenues to explore," Van West writes. "With justification, historians have long decried the incomplete history, out of step with prevailing scholarly research and interpretation, which they encounter at local and state parks and museums. The same criticism may be launched at heritage areas, but this federal program also offers opportunities for engagement between universities and communities that potentially gives historians a way to bring new questions, sources, and understandings to large public audiences." Amen!

So with these ringing words echoing in my head, I went to the NPS Map of National Heritage Areas to find the ones in the Pacific Northwest. There aren't any! OK, there is that one in Alaska, but none at all in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming. Friends, we wuz robbed! And since the heritage areas seem to be organized from the bottom up, it is no one's fault but our own. Let's fix this, shall we?

Fortunately, the National Park Service has a handy set of resources title Becoming a National Heritage Area. These include the very-objective-looking "Suggested Criteria" which include:

"1. The area has an assemblage of natural, historic, or
cultural resources that together represent distinctive aspects of
American heritage worthy of recognition, conservation, interpretation, and continuing use, and are best managed
such an assemblage through partnerships among public and private entities, and by combining diverse and sometimes
noncontiguous resources and active communities;

"2. The area reflects traditions, customs, beliefs, and folk life that are a valuable part of the national story;

"3. The area provides outstanding opportunities to conserve natural, cultural, historic, and/ or scenic features;

"4. The area provides outstanding recreational and educational opportunities;

"5. Resources that are important to the identified theme or themes of the area retain a degree of integrity capable of
supporting interpretation . . . "

There are five additional criteria, mostly addressing planning and cooperation.

So what broad historic themes are uniquely illustrated/supported/preserved by historic sites, institutions, and peoples in the Pacific Northwest? My quick thoughts include:

A heritage area based around the continuing historical interactions between Indians and whites on the Columbia Plateau with emphasis on the fur trade, missions, and military conflict. I sketched it out by creating a custom Google Map (which for some reason is not centering properly!):

View Cultures in Collision National Heritage Area in a larger map

Some other possible PNW heritage areas include one focused on mining along the Silver Valley in Idaho, a maritime heritage area in the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound, and a pioneer Oregon heritage area in the Willamette Valley.

Does anyone have additional ideas? Would anyone like to work on this?

1 comment:

James Stripes said...


I think it's an interesting project. My first thoughts fall into the realization that I'm not up to speed on the differences among National Heritage Areas, National Scenic Byways (Coulee Corridor), National Historic Trails (Nez Perce NHT), and an unknown (to me) number of other possible national history designations that bring attention and money into Pacific Northwest history.