New heritage area is like Cool Whip: A tasty froth

Fireworks over Lake Union

Fireworks over Seattle’s Lake Union, which is part of a new King County maritime heritage area. Image courtesy Northwest Seaport.

Politicians love symbolic actions, especially when they’re sending a message to Congress without any cost at home. That’s the most realistic way to interpret a move by the King County Council (which governs Seattle’s home county) this week to create a county maritime heritage area. The action covers all of the county’s saltwater shore on Puget Sound and the freshwater shoreline on Lake Union and the Lake Washington Ship Canal. All the freshwater shore is within Seattle’s city limits. The county action a good thing, but only as far as it goes.

The new ordinance takes particular pains to head off any cries of “takings” or other property-rights nonsense by Tea Party fanatics or otherwise ignorant property owners. An email by King County Councilmember Larry Phillips, whose entire district is inside liberal Seattle’s city limits, says the ordinance “carries no regulatory, procedural, or property management constraints. It is intended solely to support heritage and tourism potential.” In other words, it does nothing concrete; it’s symbolic only, and even then, it only touches “potential,” a philosophical construct for something that doesn’t exist, but might. Wrap your head around that logic. Continue reading

A New Heritage Area in Washington State?

Maritime Heritage Area announcement

Congressman Derek Kilmer of Washington State discusses a proposal to create a Washington Maritime National Heritage Area on Puget Sound and nearby waters.

I’ve been monitoring efforts to create a maritime heritage area in Washington State that would cover Puget Sound (including Seattle), the Strait of Juan de Fuca between the U.S. and Canada, and the Pacific Coast of Washington State. This week, two Washington State congressmen, Derek Kilmer of the 6th district and Denny Heck of the 10th district, announced their intent to introduce a bill to designate the region’s shoreline as the Washington Maritime National Heritage Area. During an event at the Foss Waterway Seaport museum in Tacoma, Washington State’s historic preservation officer, Allyson Brooks, said Sen. Maria Cantwell would sponsor a version of the bill in the U.S. Senate.

Maritime heritage enthusiasts and scholars have pushed the idea of a national heritage area in western Washington for about 10 years. If enacted, the area would fall under the National Park Service’s Heritage Area program, which oversees 49 similar areas across the U.S., mostly east of the Mississippi River. The areas promote local economic growth and preserve sites and landmarks with cultural and historical significance. Each area is managed by local officials, with no new regulatory authority over management or preservation given to the National Park Service. Washington State supporters see a heritage area as a major tourism draw, especially to rural counties. A small amount of money for promoting the area comes with the designation.

The Kilmer/Heck/Cantwell proposal raises the profile of a heritage area in Washington State, but the legislation’s immediate prospects in Congress are dim. The Republican-controlled House opposes any new law perceived as an extension of federal power, no matter how benign. A heritage area is mostly an honorific, and as Brooks pointed out several times, carries no new regulatory authority.

Opponents have prevailed so far. For example, a proposal to create a similar area around the mouth of the Columbia River failed after conservative local residents used the weak, but effective “slippery slope” argument: If you let the feds declare a heritage area, what’s to stop them from confiscating your land, taking your guns, making you sign up for Obamacare, and similar silliness. The GOP wants to reform the law governing heritage areas, but a bill to do just that is stuck in committee, and the website GovTrack.us gives that measure an 11 percent chance of passage. Even state lawmakers are leery of the idea of a heritage area; A measure in the Washington Legislature to designate a state version died in the state senate earlier this year.

Despite the good a maritime heritage area would do for local communities, DC politics will likely keep the idea on the back-burner for a long time. Cantwell might be able to push a bill through the Senate, but the House is another matter entirely. Kilmer and Heck are Democratic newcomers to Congress, and their influence is limited. It’s going to be a case of introducing legislation every year until the Congress moves left or the supporters get lucky enough to find a majority.

Disclosure: I’m communications director for Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, which could benefit from a maritime heritage area. Opinions expressed here are my own.

2nd Call from Heritage Groups for New Law

Virginia V, Arthur Foss, and Lightship No. 83

Virginia V, Arthur Foss, and Lightship No. 83 in Seattle. These vessels could be part of a new heritage area, if Congress passed HR 445.

Museums, historic ship owners, and preservationists in Washington State have called on the state’s congressional delegation to support a bill that could lead to a special maritime heritage area covering the coast and Puget Sound. Thirty-two members of the House–21 Democrats and 11 Republicans–are co-sponsoring HR 445, the National Heritage Area Act of 2013. The bill would authorize a National Heritage Area Program, which may include a new Maritime Washington National Heritage Area celebrating the maritime history of the state. None of the bill’s co-sponsors are from Washington State.

National Heritage Areas are designated by Congress to highlight the historical importance of specific geographic locations in the U.S. Although 39 National Heritage Areas already exist, HR 445 would formally define heritage areas and set out a formal process for creating one. The areas are administered by the National Park Service; most are located east of the Mississippi River. A similar proposal to create a heritage area near the mouth of the Columbia River died after local property owners argued the law might infringe on their property rights. Continue reading