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Push begins for America’s next National Heritage Area

By Nina Selipsky
Crosscut
The Mountains to Sound Greenway is a 1.5 million-acre landscape stretching from Puget Sound to central Washington. And if conservationists get their way, it will join a list of roughly 50 areas officially recognized as unique, historic, and valuable to future generations by the federal government.

 

Winding hiking trails, glistening mountain lakes, and tree-covered valleys that give way to rugged peaks and patches of snow. This is all part of the Mountains to Sound Greenway, a 1.5 million-acre landscape stretching from Puget Sound to central Washington. And if conservationists get their way, it will join a list of roughly 50 areas officially recognized as unique, historic, and valuable to future generations by the federal government.

It has been a busy time of year for the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, which works to conserve and enhance the Greenway. Last week, the Greenway Trust welcomed a new executive director, Jon Hoekstra. Hoekstra has a deep background in conservationism —he spent nearly a decade at The Nature Conservancy, serving as Senior Scientist, Science Director, and Managing Director of the Global Climate Change Program. Most recently he’s served as Chief Scientist and Vice President for Science at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) from 2012 until last month.

Hoekstra’s first major initiative will be to turn the Greenway into a National Heritage Area. The chief aim of this designation is to preserve and promote the region, encouraging collaboration between agencies, enhancing funding opportunities through public-private partnerships, increasing tourism through branding campaigns, and allowing ecological restoration across multiple jurisdictions, property owners, and watersheds.

“We have in Seattle one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and within view on a clear day and within just an hour’s drive, we have access to world-class wilderness areas,” says Hoekstra. “That juxtaposition is something that could be easy to damage, easy to lose, if we’re not thoughtful and committed to protecting the natural spaces at the same time that people are conducting their economic activity.”

A National Heritage Area designation does not actually put any prohibitive measures in place against development. For the Greenway Trust, choosing a project to pursue that didn’t affect private property rights was a prerequisite—they felt it was not their place to tell people what they could and could not do with their land. The National Heritage Area designation, instead of changing any of the land tenures, authorities, or permissions, would hopefully change peoples’ attitudes and approaches towards the land.

“The designation wouldn’t prevent people from doing things that are happening now in the landscape,” says Hoekstra. “There are working forests, farms, wilderness areas, parks—all those things would remain and the activities there would continue. But they would continue in the context of being a National Heritage Area where preserving conservation values is recognized as something important.”

Congressman Dave Reichert and Senator Maria Cantwell have joined Hoekstra in this quest for a National Heritage Area designation, along with long-time advocates Congressman Adam Smith and Senator Patty Murray. Reichert and Cantwell are sponsors for House Bill 2900 and Senate Bill 1609, respectively. In a statement to Crosscut, Reichert says this area “is a key part of both our natural and economic heritage and history, playing a vital role in many of our state’s most important industries.” He added that the area’s great natural beauty is an attraction to all. “To achieve the Heritage Area designation for the Greenway would preserve this legacy for our children and grandchildren and add another gem to our national treasures.”

The designation has been introduced to the House and the Senate, with Senate Bill 1609 having been referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and House Bill 2900 is in the House Committee on Natural Resources. Summer is a slow time of year, as committees are frequently out of session, so a hearing on these bills will likely have to wait until the fall. The committees will then vote on whether or not the bill goes to the floor of the House or the Senate for a vote.

Given that this is a local issue trying to gain national backing, Hoekstra says it will take time to build support among congressional delegations that represent the rest of the country. The effort will likely continue through the end of 2016, he says. While response has been positive so far, obstacles are expected along the way.

“Some of the opposition at the congressional level is almost based on principle,” says Hoekstra. “There are members of Congress who just don’t like the idea of a National Heritage Area designation, period.” He continued that these opponents are mostly conservative lawmakers who favor small government, and a National Heritage Area designation is not small government in their minds.

Describing the benefits of this designation, Hoekstra singles out the fact that it would ease the ability of organizations to work across jurisdictions. “We could construct trails that might start on city land in Snoqualmie, cross state land, and maybe even move through forest service land,” Hoekstra says. “By themselves, none of those entities could construct that whole trail. They need somebody to coordinate them, and that kind of collaboration is how you can have a publically accessible trail network that connects from Seattle, all the way up over the Cascades and all the way to Ellensburg.”

On top of this, Hoekstra’s hope is the designation engages those living in the Greenway to protect it, and gives them pride.

“It’s an empowering thing to say the history, culture, and heritage of where you live is something that’s important,” says Hoekstra. “Not just to you, but to communities in the wider landscape because it has been designated to the country as a whole.”

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