Building Heritage

While working  at the St. Croix National Park Service I have had the opportunity to watch the park administration help a budding friends organization create a National Heritage Area. While you can read more at the NPS website, basically a National Heritage Area is cohesive region that shares common natural, cultural and historic resources that are nationally important. While NHAs originally had some federal funding  for administration and promotion when they first came around in the 1980s, that aid has dried up. The driving force behind an NHAs success in generating a heritage tourism economy supported by a community, telling a cohesive story about its past to outsiders.

Predictably there are a lot of ins-and-outs to the process especially in getting the NHA approved by Congress, but before that and by far the most fascinating part of the process is community building. This is the stage where the St. Croix Heritage Initiative  is at. The St. Croix Valley Foundation, and the St. Croix River Association, along with several other community partners began initial planning  two-years ago and last winter they began a campaign to generate community interest in the concept. Hiring an outside community-building consultation firm (I know, right?) to facilitate the process, the movement became the Heritage Initiative, building a web 2.0 site to allow participation and launching a feasibility study through public “Discovery Workshops.”

Using the St. Croix Watershed as the study area (and a natural starting point for creating a Heritage Area centered on a river), the Heritage Initiative held these workshops in 10 of the  11 counties that make up the watershed. I attended one of these workshops in late May as part of my job with the Park Service.

The “Discovery Workshop”  led by a community-building consultant. The workshop was an exercise in  shared authority, as is the entire Heritage Initiative concept.

The “Discovery Workshop” was a three-hour meeting in Stillwater, led by the community consultants. First, the consultants explained the idea of the NHA and then discussed the important questions of determining what the national relevant story of the St. Croix valley is and what the geographic boundaries of that story would be. They asked  the 100 (+/-) attendees to first write down why they thought the area is nationally significant about the St. Croix. Then they broke up the room into groups of 6 or so  and had the groups tell each other stories about their personal relationship with the watershed. My group told stories about family recreation, camping and kayaking, raising a family on the river for over 40 years,  community event and the binding history of logging in the region (it was not me, actualy).  After the groups re-assembled with one of the consultants sharing a summary of the attendees earlier writing on national importance before having one representative from each group share what their group had talked about. They also held a general Q&A and asked for people’s reflections on the process. Predictably, there was a lot of support from the self-selecting audience and most had a good-time (including myself) sharing and hearing stories about the river. After the “Discovery Workshops” phase, the Heritage Initiative leaders will pull together the larger strands from the meetings and present them in four Regional Findings meeting.

The  Discovery Workshop and the Heritage Initiative as a whole is a process of community building and shared authority. My initial reaction as a historian to developing a National Heritage Area would be to do the research to find out why an area is nationally relevant and then use that as a starting point. Having done some research of the area,  the relevance is clearly in the story of Native American / European-American interaction as part of the fur trade and national expansion as well as the logging industry. However, that is not the tack that the Heritage Initiative has been taking, probably because it is far more important to incorporate the largest possible breadth of stories to find the most stakeholders.

Instead, the Initiative is determining the specifics of the NHA through involving the people that will be needed to support it. In many ways the stories that are coming out are not the most obvious for showing national importance, but they are  more relevant to living people that are needed to make this concept work. The stories they choose to tell are about farming, Scandinavian immigration, outdoor recreation and environmental appreciation.  Logging also comes up, but only because there has already been so much heritage activism was already done around that concept in the 1950s-60s, when entrepreneurs sought to convert the Northwoods into a getaway destination. The fur trade is similarly recognized, but the cross-cultural interaction amongst Native-Americans and whites is not. I figure this is because those histories are told from a historical lens of mid-20th century and really were never updated. Importantly, these pasts do not have as much currency because they are not directly related to how these community stakeholders came to be in the St. Croix Valley.

A lot of this careful handling of authority was noticeable in the word choices and couching used by the consultants at the “Discovery Workshop.” However, it is also clear in the Heritage Initiative website, which in itself is an interesting work of public history. The site posts people’s shared stories and photographs as well keeping stakeholders in the loop on the process and inviting participation. The theme of the site is about soliciting personal ownership of the river and the concept of the NHA through casting a broad net. The site only offers an authoritarian voice on the meetings and the process. Otherwise, it has left all of the ideas about boundaries and stories open for participation.

I have not been privy to the overall findings of the “feasibility study” or the discussions of the Heritage Initiative leadership. It seems that the story of national relevance is going to be broad based and hinge on the evolution of people’s interaction with the valley’s natural resources from exploitation to appreciation and how that both fits into the nation’s economics and developing environmentalist culture. The Park Service is offering some administrative support and help, but overall an NHA cannot be lead by a federal entity, nor can it be managed by a federal entity once it comes into existence. The process is then about finding grass roots support throughout the valley and building a community-consciousness based on a shared past.

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