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Launching the Maritime Washington National Heritage Area

Watching the development of a successful national heritage area, is a bit like observing the formation of a solar system. Partners large and small are attracted to the heritage area idea like planets around a sun and, if the perceived benefits are powerful enough, its gravitational force will bind them together around a unified vision. With all the interest in the conservation movement on how to build effective large landscape networks examining how this actually happens on the ground might be productive. So, I decide to look at the formation of the Maritime Washington National Heritage Area (MWNHA).

The first thing I was struck by was how long it took. The initial meeting to discuss the heritage area idea was at a Summit in 2004, followed by a workshop in 2007. In 2010 the state of Washington funded a four-year feasibility study with significant stakeholder engagement. A bill to designate the region as a National Heritage Area was introduced in Congress in 2016 and finally passed in 2019. To learn more about this almost two-decade effort see the article by Living Landscape Observer Associate Editor Eleanor Mahoney.

After designation, every new National Heritage Area must complete a management plan to guide its future direction. I asked Chris Moore, Executive Director of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, the organization that serves as the local coordinating entity for the MWNHA, how different the management plan was from the earlier feasibility study. He noted that, in reviewing the plan, the National Park Service recommended a more thematic approach to bind the individual heritage sites together. These contextualizing themes are now incorporated into the final plan and provides unifying storylines. The management plan also shifted the focus from heritage tourism and specific individual sites in the feasibility study to broader sustainability issues, water quality challenges, and climate change. New partners were engaged that reflected these interests such as Washington state parks, environmental organizations, and Washington Maritime Blue the state ferry system.

Developing trust among all partners is another key issue. The MWNHA includes the lands of 18 federally recognized tribes. The plan included the creation of a Tribal Working Group and a commitment to an enhanced role for tribal partners. It also tackled difficult governance issues, such as how to manage a complex network and how to handle the new entity’s staffing and budgeting requirements. Ongoing operational funding is always an issue for networks and Moore told me the organization is looking into grant funding, memberships dues, and other fee generating structures. But he quipped, we need ‘to avoid fishing on our partner’s pier!’

What overall lessons can we learn from the creation of the MWNHA? As we have seen strong partnerships take time and trust building take time. It takes even longer to build strong partnership that go beyond the obvious interested parties. It is important to attract those partners who link together and have a long relationship with landscapes, such as the tribes with their deep connection to place, the many state and national parks, and the ferry system that links the region together. Was this long incubation period and the range of partners the reason that the MWNHA was welcomed by the communities and received no pushback from property rights and other objectors? These were factors that sunk the feasibility study for the proposed Columbia Pacific National Heritage Area to the south. See this article. We may never know, but it is food for thought.

The hard work is not over yet and the heritage area now must deliver on its promises.  With the strong foundation of partnership and the proposed new national heritage area legislation (SB 1942), Chris Moore is hopeful for clear sailing ahead.