The National Park Service is seeking public comment in a feasibility study regarding whether the U.S. Congress should designate the Finger Lakes as a National Heritage Area.

A National Heritage Area is a one with nationally distinctive natural, cultural and historical resources. There is no doubt that the Finger Lakes Region has very important natural, cultural and historical resources. Of course, there are the lakes themselves and the wonderful trails and hills surrounding them, many iconic cultural sites such as the Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion, the Women’s Rights Historical Museum, Cornell University and the Seward House Museum, and all the wineries surrounding the lakes and historically significant sites of both indigenous peoples, for example, the Haudenosaunee Confederation, which was one of the most organized native political organizations in the United States, and the rich history of the canals and railroads making the region the hub of the nation’s industrial growth in the 19th Century, among many other things.

One of the most exciting aspects of this sort of designation is that, unlike a national park, a National Heritage Area is managed by local people rather than the National Park Service, whose role is limited to managing the designation process. Though its designation is controlled by national law, a National Heritage Area is a grassroots, community-driven program that uses public-private partnerships to support historic preservation, natural resource conservation, recreation, tourism, and education. It does not affect private land ownership. Thus, such a designation is a win-win for the region.

Since 1984, 55 of these areas have been established, each one by an act of the U.S. Congress. Each one is a lived-in landscape and each one tells a nationally important story that celebrates that area’s role in our national heritage. The designation has both tangible and intangible benefits. Heritage conservation efforts are grounded in a community’s pride in its history and traditions, and in residents’ interest and involvement in retaining and interpreting the landscape for future generations. It offers a collaborative approach to conservation that does not compromise traditional local control over and use of the landscape. Designation comes with limited financial and technical assistance from the National Park Service.

Why utilize the heritage areas strategy?

The heritage area concept offers an innovative method for citizens, in partnership with local, state, and Federal government, and nonprofit and private sector interests, to shape the long-term future of their communities. The partnership approach creates the opportunity for a diverse range of constituents to come together to voice a range of visions and perspectives. Partners collaborate to develop a management plan and implement a strategy that focuses on the distinct qualities that make their region special.

In addition to many intangible benefits, the long-term benefits of the designation as a National Heritage Area can be substantial:

• Sustainable economic development. Most National Heritage Areas are authorized by Congress to receive up to $1 million annually over a set period of time. Although the actual annual appropriations range from $150,000 to $750,000, the areas historically leverage an average of $5.50 for every dollar of federal investment.

• Healthy environment. Restoration projects of National Heritage Areas improve water and air quality in their regions and encourage people to enjoy natural and cultural sites by providing new recreational opportunities.

• Education. National Heritage Areas connect communities to natural, historic, and cultural sites through educational activities, which promote awareness and foster interest in and stewardship of heritage resources.

• Improved Quality of Life. Through new or improved amenities, unique settings, and educational and volunteer opportunities, NHAs improve local quality of life.

• Community Engagement. By engaging community members in heritage conservation activities, NHAs strengthen sense of place and community pride.

Partnership is the key component of a National Heritage Area program, which envisions communication, coordination, and distribution of decision making among local organizations, businesses, and volunteer groups.

The beginning of these partnerships is the National Park Service’s invitation for citizen comment. The park service has sent that invitation to the counties projected to be included in the new area: Cayuga, Chemung, Cortland, Livingston, Monroe, Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Tioga, Tompkins, Wayne, and Yates counties.

We have the invitation and we have the people and talent to power a National Heritage Region. The invitation is open until June 1. If you live in one of the 14 counties above we encourage you to investigate the proposal and to weigh in with your opinions. Our opportunity is now.

Anyone interested in the project will find information and the opportunity to comment at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectId=91275. The comment period will remain open until June 1.

Robert Meek is a retired civil rights lawyer and a member of the Seneca County Democratic Committee and a member (non-voting) of the Cayuga Lake Watershed Intermunicipal Organization.

Holly Bailey is a writer and a member of the Seneca County Democratic Committee.

Robert Meek is a retired civil rights lawyer and a member of the Seneca County Democratic Committee and a member (non-voting) of the Cayuga Lake Watershed Intermunicipal Organization.

Holly Bailey is a writer and a member of the Seneca County Democratic Committee.

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