Highlighting Western heritage

  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.

“National heritage 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 a burden.”

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.

While 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.”

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For more information on national heritage areas, visit the National Park Service Web site.
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