GREAT FALLS — Cascade County Commissioners will consider a resolution opposing the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area (NHA) at a meeting on Tuesday.
The meeting will be conducted at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, December 8, via Zoom. Please click here if you would like to participate. For the best interaction during this public meeting it is recommended that you use a computer and the Zoom client. If you need dial in access: 888 788 0099 (Toll Free) or 877 853 5247 (Toll Free). Webinar ID: 863 9661 9503; password: 834210
The resolution is the latest in a string of regional efforts to derail a years-long project to create an NHA in Cascade and Chouteau counties. In September, the Belt City Council voted to formally oppose the NHA. The town of Cascade made a similar decision soonafter. Proponents of the NHA were able to negotiate with members of the Fort Benton City Council and the Great Falls-Cascade County Historic Preservation Advisory Committee to not take a stance either way.
The federal government does not own any land under an NHA designation. An NHA frees up federal money to drive tourism and economic partnerships in areas of the country with special historical significance. In Cascade County, there’s the Missouri River, the Lewis and Clark Portage Road, the Monarch Depot, and First People’s Buffalo Jump, among other historical sites. There are 55 NHAs in the U.S.
Big Sky Country National Heritage Area, Inc (link to website), formally known as the Upper Missouri River Heritage Area Planning Corporation, began laying the groundwork to create Montana’s first NHA in 2015. By August 2019, the group says it had support from more than 250 residents in Fort Benton, Black Eagle, and Belt to move forward with the project.
But starting this summer, opposition to the NHA ramped up, primarily from private landowners in rural areas, even though the Big Sky NHA has signed a resolution protecting private property rights. “I am not a person that tends to get involved and be really vocal on issues, but this struck a chord,” said Janet Thayer, a landowner in Belt.
Thayer and her husband own around 400 acres, and a house that has been in her husband’s family for more than a century. She said she and her neighbors have been “good stewards” of their land. She and her husband even bought a conservation easement to keep their land from being subdivided, or used for anything other than agriculture. “An NHA designation is really not necessary to protect our culture or to protect our history,” she said.
At issue for many private landowners is whether an NHA infringes on their property rights, either directly or indirectly — or simply by creating unwanted red tape. Supporters cite a 2004 report from the Government Accountability Office published 20 years after the first NHA was created which says NHAs “do not appear to have affected individual property rights.”
“We wish that some [opponents] would do some better research so they would find out more about it, and maybe it would assuage some of their concerns,” said Richard Ecke, vice chair of Big Sky Country NHA, Inc.
Opponents say the GAO study is outdated. The most up-to-date, unbiased information now available on NHAs is a report from the Congressional Research Service updated in August. It doesn’t say definitively whether NHAs infringe on the property rights of private landowners, only that opponents often fear the National Parks Service exerting "a degree of federal control over nonfederal lands by influencing zoning and land-use planning.”
“There is no evidence that any of the country’s 55 national heritage areas ever impinged on the rights of owners of private property in the 36-year history of heritage areas," Ecke wrote in a news release.
The report cites only two instances of federal acquisition of land through NHAs, one in Louisiana and the other in Massachusetts. But it notes that in most cases, "the laws establishing NHAs do not provide for federal acquisition of land.” A 2007 report often cited by opponents of NHAs from the Heritage Foundation cites other examples of what it calls “restrictive zoning.” The Heritage Foundation has come under fire for some of its controversial research, including questioning the validity of climate change.
Regardless of the merit of either sides’ claims, Ecke said the NHA board has no interest in encroaching on private property owners’ rights. “We’re just trying to fix up old buildings,” he said.
Only Congress can officially designate an NHA, and lawmakers in Washington, D.C. could write up special protections for private landowners in legislation, on top of the ones that already exist. Those steps would take place after the group's feasibility study is submitted to the National Parks Service and Congress — but legislation could still be years down the line.