With the passing of the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act on March 12, a local swath of land has joined the ranks of Niagara Falls, the Erie Canal and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Mountains to Sound Greenway received the designation of a National Heritage Area with the passing of the act, making it one of 55 areas of its kind in the United States. A National Heritage Area is designated as an area of historical heritage and value, with the National Park Service providing an advisory role but not managing the areas. Instead, National Heritage Areas are mainly managed by state governments and nonprofit organizations, with the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust providing oversight in this case in conjunction with city, county and state governments. The Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor was the first National Heritage Area designated by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.

PATH TO DESIGNATION

Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust Executive Director Jon Hoekstra said for about 10 years, there has been an interest in finding a designation to apply to the area in order to validate and affirm its importance to the region. He said it was important, however that the designation be non-regulatory.

“We weren’t looking to create a new land manager or new regulations on the landscape,” he said. “We were looking for a way to have it designated as this is an important and special place from a national perspective, but in a non-regulatory way.”

Hoekstra said the National Heritage Area designation fit with the needs of the trust, in bringing attention to the historical, cultural and recreational value of the land while also not creating new regulatory framework. Once the decision was made to move forward in attaining the designation, he said a feasibility study was the next step. The feasibility study needed to demonstrate that the area had a nationally unique combination of culture, heritage and landscape. Hoekstra said the National Parks Service paid specific attention to the history of transcontinental railroads in the region and the land checkerboard that helped give rise to large timber companies, helping fuel the growth of the region. Hoekstra said the cultural value went much farther back than expansion, with local tribes establishing trading routes through the area.

“First there were Native Americans using footpaths over the pass,” he said. “Then there were railroads going over the pass and opening up trade, and now there’s an interstate moving goods back and forth and throughout the landscape has remained kind of a defining and shaping feature of it all.”

Over the course of a couple years, Hoekstra said dozens of meetings took place around the region bringing the public and various stakeholders together to talk about the plan. Hundreds of comments were received on the plan before it was finally submitted to the National Parks Service, which administers the designations.

“That sort of passed the sniff test that this place could be a National Heritage Area,” he said. “The feasibility study sort of validated that.”

From there, the trust worked with area politicians to move the plan forward, working with Congressmen Dave Reichert and Adam Smith and Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell on the plan. Legislation was introduced for the plan in 2013.

“I believe we went through four Congresses before it finally got passed,” Hoekstra said. “It was very much a bipartisan effort.”

LOOKING FORWARD

Hoekstra sees the National Heritage Area providing the opportunity for national exposure for the Mountains to Sound Greenway, with the potential to bring increased tourism and recreation to the area and increasing that economic sector in the region as a result.

“We will literally now get put on the map of the National Parks Service,” he said. “We have the premier parks agency in the world now including our region on maps of National Heritage Areas, communicating to the country as a whole and to people who are looking at where are the special places in the country that they might want to go visit and learn more about American history and see iconic American landscapes. We’re now part of that group.”

Hoekstra said the designation also encourages interpretation and cooperation among local communities, positively impacting public involvement and stewardship of the lands.

“It doesn’t create regulation and sort of put everything into parts, but it says it’s important,” he said. “It encourages all of us that live here through our various government entities and our community groups to participate in taking care of it. I think that’s a really good thing, especially as the communities across our region grow and change so quickly.”

With the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust being named as the coordinating entity in the legislation, Hoekstra said it places responsibility on the trust to work with local government, business and community groups to develop an interpretive plan for the National Heritage Area. The plan could include interpretive signs and events throughout the area, supplementing existing ones like the signage found at Flagpole Park in Cle Elum.

“It could range from kiosks and signs at different notable locations, up to possibility of a visitor center,” he said. “We don’t have any specific plans for that, but it’s an idea that comes up on a regular basis. Places like Snoqualmie Pass or Cle Elum. That idea is out there, so it could be one thing just to help with the interpretation and give people an opportunity to learn and get information.”

Hoekstra said the trust is also charged with creating a cooperative management plan for the area. In doing so, he said an inventory would be created of important places, features and stories that define the region. The management plan would bring various stakeholders together to gain a voluntary commitment to taking care of the area.

“We will be working with the Forest Service and the DNR, and the counties and the cities and the tribes,” he said. “Hopefully having them say, ‘Here’s what we can do in our jurisdiction to help take care of our part of the greenway.’”

Hoekstra said the designation makes the area possibly qualify for federal funding, initially beginning at approximately $150,000, with the possibility of growing to around $300,000. The funding would be subject to congressional appropriations, and he said there isn’t certainty that it will happen.

“It’s possible,” he said. “We have to match that money, so any dollar we get from the federal government for the National Heritage Area we have to match with a local dollar, but we hope that will be a good incentive for philanthropists, for community foundations to step up and help contribute to help this National Heritage Area be successful.”

HARD WORK REALIZED

Hoekstra said the roots of the Mountains to Sound Greenway go back to 1990, when a group of concerned citizens hiked from Snoqualmie Pass to Puget Sound to raise awareness of the importance to protect the area. The Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust was formed the following year as an organization devoted to conserving and protecting the landscape. Since then, approximately 450,000 acres of land have been protected for the public. Hoekstra said the organization has no land holdings, but instead works with local public land agencies and land trusts to match them up with private landowners to transfer high-priority lands to public ownership.

“The Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust owns nothing,” he said.

Hoekstra said the trust has approximately 1,000 individuals who make financial contributions, with the trust’s financial report showing those individuals contributed over $1.8 million in 2017. Beyond that, the trust received over $500,000 in in-kind contributions, where people or organizations provide non-financial support in the form of services or donated time. Government grants and contracts for the trust totaled over $2 million.

“As an organization, the work that we do is supported by a mix of individual gifts, of philanthropic giving from various foundations, support from the business community,” he said. “Corporate sponsorships and also government agencies that provide support in the form of a number of grants and contracts. We do a lot of on the ground habitat restoration and trail construction work.”

Although he was not present on the hike in 1990, Hoekstra said the hopes and dreams of those original participants are being realized in the designation.

“That first group of people who went on that march, they believed that this place was special,” he said. “They stood up and they took action to both protect and take care of the places they really loved. Us today, we get to enjoy many and even more opportunities to enjoy this landscape than were possible in 1990.”

In gaining the National Heritage Area designation, Hoekstra said he is excited for the opportunities the area holds for both residents and visitors in the coming years and decades.

“My hope for the future of this landscape is that a generation from now, kids going to school at Central, families living in Cle Elum, visitors coming from far and wide come to the greenway,” he said. “They have opportunities to visit and experience some of the amazing things that this landscape has to offer because we today stood up and took action to protect and take care of the things that we believe make this place so special so that a generation from now it’s still there.”

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