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Mountains to Sound Greenway seeks federal recognition

By Warren Kagarise
Issaquah Press
National Heritage Area is meant to highlight environment, history.

The 100-mile-long Mountains to Sound Greenway — greenbelt stretched along Interstate 90 from the Seattle waterfront and across the Cascades — is often heralded as a national model for conservation and land use.

Now, 20 years after citizen, conservation, corporate and government interests formed the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust to act as a shepherd for the corridor, officials intend to seek recognition from Congress to designate the greenway as a National Heritage Area — a federal designation meant to highlight a unique feature or local history.

Though the National Park Service oversees the National Heritage Area program, state governments, nonprofit organizations or other entities handle day-to-day matters for each area. Existing areas highlight the 16th president — Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area in Illinois — and transportation in the early United States — Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor in New York. The greenway could be the only National Heritage Area in Washington; no other region is designated as such.

What to know

Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust leaders announced a plan to gain National Heritage Area designation for the corridor.

What is a National Heritage Area?

Congress designates a National Heritage Area if cultural, historic and natural features form a cohesive and “nationally important” landscape. Officials at the agency responsible for oversight, the National Park Service, describe the areas as “lived-in landscapes.”

How does a National Heritage Area differ from a national park?

Though the National Park Service oversees the National Heritage Area program, the areas do not qualify as national parks. Instead, agency staffers provide technical assistance and distribute federal matching funds to National Heritage Area-affiliated entities. The park service does not assume ownership of land inside the area or impose land-use restrictions.

What happens inside a National Heritage Area?

Some National Heritage Areas offer opportunities for hiking, biking, paddling and walking — familiar activities for greenway users. Some feature festivals to attend and museums to visit. Many areas offer volunteer opportunities, group tours and multiple-day excursions.

How many National Heritage Areas exist?

The program encompasses 49 heritage areas from coast to coast. The areas range from the Northern Plains National Heritage Area in North Dakota to the Mississippi Gulf Coast National Heritage Area. National Park Service officials administer the sites from Washington, D.C., and regional offices in Seattle; Anchorage; Atlanta; Denver; Oakland, Calif.; Omaha, Neb.; and Philadelphia.

Sources: Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, National Park Service

Officials said a National Heritage Area designation for the greenway could strengthen the framework underpinning the corridor agreement and increase public awareness. The designation does not add land-use regulations or more regulatory authority for lands inside the 1.5-million-acre greenway.

The nonprofit organization released a draft feasibility study about the National Heritage Area designation last month. Officials announced the campaign in a message sent to supporters Feb. 13.

“Together, these places tell an important story of our nation’s pioneer history, of how we interact with our natural world, and the way a rugged landscape has shaped livelihoods, cultures and characters,” the study states.

Starting in 2009, greenway trust leaders embarked on the study. Officials hosted more than 140 public meetings attended by more than 1,000 people as part of the effort.

The process started as the greenway neared 20 years old. In 1990, citizens, led by the Issaquah Alps Trails Club, march from Snoqualmie Pass to the Seattle waterfront to dramatize the need for a greenway plan. (The greenway trust formed the next year.)

The local trails club is a major supporter in the effort to gain National Heritage Area designation for the corridor. Other nonprofit groups and government officials signed on to support the proposal, too.

Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger supports the campaign. So do City Council President Tola Marts, longtime Councilman Fred Butler and former Councilman John Traeger. Former City Administrator Leon Kos, a figure instrumental in the greenway’s formation and expansion, is another proponent.

Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery and the Issaquah Salmon Days Festival organization back the effort.

The campaign to add a National Heritage Area designation is the latest superlative meant to set the greenway apart.

In 1998, Federal Highway Administration officials designated the 100-mile greenway as a National Scenic Byway. Under the program, certain roads receive recognition from the U.S. Department of Transportation based on archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and scenic qualities.

Officials noted the earlier distinction in the National Heritage Area feasibility study.

“You’ve traveled just over 100 miles along a major interstate highway — the first interstate highway in the country to be designated a National Scenic Byway — and the journey took you a little more than 90 minutes,” the study states.

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