The cottonwoods, willows, mesquites, and palo verde trees that once towered over the banks of the Colorado River near Yuma, Ariz., have returned. These native trees once again shade hikers and shelter wildlife, thanks to a massive wetlands restoration effort in the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. Since the area was officially designated in 2000, the groups working within its boundaries have also restored a historic bridge and created an $80 billion riverfront development plan to revitalize the heart of the town. Now, the West may soon get its sixth national heritage area, in the Santa Cruz Valley of southeastern Arizona.
area” is an unusual designation currently applied to only 37
sites across the country that have been nationally recognized for
their unique cultural and historical resources. Unlike national
parks or monuments, these areas are not managed by a federal
agency. Instead, a local group is assigned to coordinate projects
that tell the area’s story, and local government agencies,
nonprofits and private firms work together to raise money and carry
out preservation and education efforts. The Interior Department
approves a management plan for the area, and the National Park
Service assists the local groups and offers matching project funds
for a few years.
All activities are voluntary with a
heritage area designation; no land changes hands, and no property
restrictions are added. Many heritage areas are large – the
entire state of Tennessee received a designation for its Civil War
landmarks – and they encompass both private and public lands.
Generally, heritage areas face less opposition than other federal
designations. “But there is a boundary involved, and people
fixate on that: ‘Oh my God, you drew a boundary around where
I live,’ ” says Bill Doelle, executive director of the
Center for Desert Archeology, a Tucson-based group supporting the
new designation. “That boundary signifies an opportunity, not
The Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage
Area cleared its first hurdle on Oct. 24, when the U.S. House of
Representatives passed the Celebrating America’s Heritage
Act. The bill designates six new national heritage areas, including
the Santa Cruz Valley. “We’re thrilled,” says
Vanessa Bechtol, programs manager for the Santa Cruz Valley
Heritage Alliance, the group that will spearhead activities for the
area. “It’s been four years in the making, so
it’s very exciting to see it get this far.”
Supporters describe the new 3,300 square-mile heritage area as a
place of streams in the desert, high biological diversity, and an
intriguing mix of Anglo, Spanish and Native American cultures. It
includes private land inside communities, part of Saguaro National
Park and Coronado National Forest, state historical areas, and
tribal land. In addition to the Santa Cruz River, the valley
encompasses cactus forests, grasslands, marshes and sky islands
– tall forested mountains that are home to distinctive
ecosystems. Dozens of unique and threatened plants and animals,
including the agave, peregrine falcon, Gila chub and Sonoran tiger
salamander, live within the boundary of the proposed heritage area.
And the area’s cultural resources include everything from the
trolley line down 4th Avenue in Tucson to brick Army cottages in
Nogales dating from the Mexican Revolution to ancient ruins left by
the Hohokam and early Tohono O’Odham peoples.
they wait for national recognition, local groups have already
started projects highlighting the area’s native foods and
landmarks. An official designation would boost these efforts with
an opportunity for matching funds and, perhaps more importantly,
national publicity that will bring visitors to the area.
“There’s a heritage niche now for tourism,” says
Bechtol. “People are actually seeking out places to learn
about new stories that are part of the American story.”
And those tourists will infuse new life into the economy.
Bechtol cites a study from the Michigan State University, which
found that on average, national heritage area designation doubles
revenue and jobs related to heritage tourism within 10 years.
If the bill becomes law, as proponents expect it to
eventually, the Santa Cruz Valley will join Yuma Crossing and four
other Western heritage areas: The Cache la Poudre River Corridor in
Colorado, the Great Basin National Heritage Area straddling the
Nevada-Utah border, the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area
in New Mexico, and the National Mormon Pioneer Heritage Area in
Utah. “Some people in the East have said, ‘You
don’t have the heritage,’ but a lot of their areas are
related to European settlement,” Bechtol says.
“We’re going back much further than that. We’re
honoring the Native American cultures.”
For more information
on national heritage areas, visit the National Park
Service Web site.