January 23, 2009

Senate passes bill that creates South Park National Heritage Area
By Tom Locke and Debra Orecchio

The United States Senate passed a bill Jan. 15 that would establish the South Park National Heritage Area in Park County, and the bill, or some form of it, is expected to pass the U.S. House of Representatives and be signed by the president.

The Senate passed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (Senate Bill 22) by a vote of 73-21. The act is actually a package of 160 lands bills that includes one bill targeting the South Park designation. It had broad bipartisan support in the Senate and is expected to have broad bipartisan support in the House.

Edward C. Nichols, president and chief executive officer of Colorado Historical Society and the state historic preservation office, said in a press release that the passage of the bill marks an important moment in Colorado history. The National Heritage Area designation is vital to maintaining Colorado's natural beauty, heritage and historic character, Nichols added.

Como Roundhouse Tourist-site development of the Como Roundhouse, about 10 miles northeast of Fairplay, may be enhanced wtih National Heritage Area money. (Photo by Debra Queen-Stremke) Paris Mill The Paris Mill is one Park County historic site that is targeted for development as a tourist site. It is three miles west of Alma. (Flume file photo by Lynda James/The Flume)

The bill would create national heritage areas in two other parts of Colorado: Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Cache La Poudre River Corridor.

The legislation authorizes the federal government to provide up to $10 million in matching funds over 15 years for a particular area, according to a press release from the office of former U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) who is now Secretary of the Interior. The funds would be used to rehabilitate historic structures, protect cultural and natural resources, develop tours, establish exhibits or programs, and increase public awareness of the South Park National Heritage Area.

"This is probably the single most important thing for Park County for helping protect historic properties," said Linda Balough, director of the Park County Office of Historic Preservation. She noted that natural resources as well as cultural resources will be protected.

She said she expects passage by the House of Representatives and a signature from President Barack Obama.

The $10 million in matching funds is "tremendously" important, she said. "We finally can start to make things happen that we've been planning for the last 20 years."

Gary Nichols, director of Park County Tourism and Community Development, is cautiously optimistic that the bill will be passed by the House; he's trying to temper his excitement in case it doesn't pass the House.

But he is glad that this major hurdle has been overcome.

"My head's spinning about everything that needs to be done," he said.

It would be a multi-step process, but first he would need to prepare a 10-year management plan for the area, including priorities with the funding, before any money would be released. He is planning on taking six months to a year to complete the 10-year plan.

The plan would entail the implementation of plans, goals and objectives that his department has been developing over the last three years, including implementation of the five site plans that have been developed as part of the Park County Heritage Tourism Program (see Jan. 9 Flume story, Page 2).

In order to trigger the matching funds, Park County would not necessarily have to use its own funds, Balough said. It might be able to use funds from the State Historical Fund or from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), for instance.

Nichols has been skilled in getting funds from various sources and has spearheaded the efforts for the county to get national heritage area designation, she said.

Nichols said that he has been working on this for the past five years, but that he began doing background work on it about 12 years ago.

Salazar, who was confirmed as Secretary of the Interior by the U.S. Senate on Jan. 20, also deserves credit, according to Balough. "He's been a champion for the county."

Indeed, Salazar spokesman Michael Amodeo told The Flume that Salazar had been working on getting national heritage designation for South Park for four years.

"This was high on the priority list for Senator Salazar," he said on Jan. 15.

South Park offers one of the beautiful open areas of Colorado and can be a driver of economic growth by drawing people to view that beauty, said Amodeo.

Balough also stressed the importance of the designation to Park County's economy. "The mom and pop businesses can do nothing but prosper [from the designation]," she said, because of the upswing in tourism that is expected to follow.

Corrie Stiles, president of the South Park Chamber of Commerce, said she is grateful and excited. She thinks that tourists to the area are looking for "more of a participatory experience" and Park County "is in a unique position to be able to do that." She added that visiting the county is "a unique experience you can't get anywhere else."

Balough noted that she expects the prestige of the designation to open doors for funding from a variety of sources, including private foundations.

Nichols said that the designation will put Park County on the map in a way that he could never hope to achieve with his limited resources.

"It finally recognizes in a formal and official way our identity," he said.

Once the bill is signed, Park County will be ready to act, said Balough.

Nichols is pretty much poised and "ready to go."

Salazar views South Park as a treasure that Americans across the country should know about.

"The working ranches, clear streams, and frontier stories of South Park are a national treasure that more Americans should have the opportunity to experience," he said in the Jan. 15 press release. "This national heritage area designation will help local communities build on already-successful efforts to protect South Park's open spaces and rich cultural traditions, while spurring economic development at an important moment. I am proud that South Park has met the National Park Service's criteria for becoming an NHA and hope that this bill will land on the President's desk in the coming weeks."

Salazar first introduced the South Park National Heritage Area Act in the 109th Congress and worked to move it through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with unanimous support in 2008, said the press release.

A lands bill package that included South Park's designation passed committee last year, but the full Senate never got around to considering it because other issues, such as the economy, became more pressing.

The bill ensures that private property rights and water rights are in no way affected by the creation of the National Heritage Area.

Nichols said that businesses and property owners who are not willing to participate will not be affected. Also, he added, the money cannot be used to purchase any real property.

The National Heritage Area would be managed by local citizens and organizations, said the press release, but the National Park Service will provide administrative and technical support.

It states in the bill that the Park County Tourism and Community Development Office, in conjunction with the South Park National Heritage Area board of directors, will be the management entity. Members of the board will include representatives from a broad cross-section of individuals, agencies, organizations, and governments that were involved in the planning and development of the heritage area before the act was passed, it further states in the bill.

Amodeo said he thought the process of getting the bill, or one similar to it, passed by the House and onto the president's desk for signature would be a "pretty straight-line process."

And it's expected to be signed. "We don't expect any opposition from the White House," said Amodeo.

Once the bill goes to the House of Representatives, it could be altered, although Amodeo doesn't expect that to happen. If it is altered, then it would go to conference committee for ironing out a compromise bill.

The heritage designation will be important in providing credibility for Park County, according to Balough, because entities thinking of providing funding will think "these must be people who know what they're doing and can follow through."

Reference:  US Senate Press Release - January 15, 2009

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