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Town of Belt rejects National Heritage Area project

Posted at 7:51 AM, Sep 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-03 20:57:57-04

BELT — The town of Belt is no longer on board with a years-long effort to create a National Heritage Area (NHA) in Cascade County.

The City Council on Wednesday moved to oppose the NHA during a contentious meeting at the Belt pavilion, after a citizen made a formal request to oppose the heritage area.

The vote comes after a similar decision was made by the Fergus County Commission in 2017, when private landowners expressed similar concerns. Fergus County is no longer a part of the proposed NHA after boundaries were redrawn.

Tensions were running high on Wednesday. Jane Weber, Cascade County commissioner and chair of Big Sky Country NHA, Inc., took much of the heat. Weber has been leading the effort to designate the heritage area since 2014.

Wednesday’s meeting was one of many held over the past year, after a feasibility study was published in June. Despite multiple attempts at community outreach by proponents of the NHA, Belt landowners still felt sidelined by a process they said is moving too fast.

NHAs are similar to national parks -- but there are significant differences. NHAs free up federal money to drive tourism and local 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, and First People’s Buffalo Jump, among other already designated historical sites.

The NHA, if passed into law by Congress, would be the first of its kind in Montana, and one of 55 across the country. NHAs are primarily composed of private land, but unlike with a national park, the land under the NHA would not be immediately acquired by the federal government.

There are certain private landowners who think that's a falsehood. Alyssa Knaup, who owns 3,600 acres in Montana, said she’s worried about what she sees as federal encroachment on her property. Knaup and other private landowners showed up to oppose the NHA on Wednesday.

The National Parks Service says “NHA designation does not affect private property rights.” But Knaup and others aren’t convinced after reading a report, updated August 20, from the Congressional Research Service.

“In most cases, the laws establishing NHAs do not provide for federal acquisition of land; once designated, heritage areas generally remain in private, state, or local government ownership or a combination thereof,” the report says. “However, in a few cases, Congress has authorized federal acquisition of land in heritage areas.”

Only two such cases have been reported since the first NHA was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. Weber said although she understands why private property owners would be concerned, the Big Sky Country NHA would not interfere with their rights.

“It’s simply not true,” she said.

Ultimately, the responsibility would fall to Montana’s congressional delegation to ensure that the NHA would protect the private property rights of landowners in places like Belt. Only Congress can officially designate a NHA.