April 3, 2009

South Park named National Heritage Area
President signs act creating three heritage areas in Colorado

Mike Potter
Staff Writer

Heritage Area - South Park is official a National Heritage Area as of March 30 after President Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act.  The dotted line shows the boundary of the National Heritageage Area.  (Map courtesy of Gary Nichols, Park County director of tourism and community development.)

President Obama signed a bill on March 30 that designated South Park a National Heritage Area, which is likely to enhance tourism and will provide access to $10 million in federal matching funds over 15 years.

The designation was part of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, a collection of 170 separate lands, parks and conservation bills.

South Park is now one of 49 National Heritage Areas across the country and one of three in Colorado.

According to a March 26 press release from the Park County Office of Tourism and Community Development, a National Heritage Area is a "place where natural, cultural, historic and scenic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape arising from patterns of human activity shaped by geography."

The designation means a great deal to the county, said Park County Tourism and Community Development Director Gary Nichols.

"It's something we can be known for nationally, if not internationally," he said. "And at the same time, preserve our resources and quality of life."

South Park will be listed with other national heritage areas and be showcased by National Parks as a spot of interest.

"We have this option to position Park County as a destination," Nichols said.

$10 million possible

The South Park National Heritage Area will also allow the county to apply for federal grants of up to $1 million per year for 15 years, not to exceed $10 million over the 15-year span. The county must secure matching funds for each grant dollar, he said.

"The matching is going to be the most challenging part, but nevertheless, to receive this designation and have that opportunity or availability of federal funding, if we can meet the criteria, it's huge," Nichols said.

The matching money can come from other grants, so the county wouldn't have to provide the money from its budget, according to Nichols.

Congress sets the budget for the money available for National Heritage Areas. In 2007, it had a $28 million budget for 28 National Heritage Areas.

Before any grants can be sought, though, a 10-year master plan must be put in place, and an advisory board must be established.

Nichols said the 10-year master plan will outline the powers of the advisory board, so it will need to be completed before the advisory board is assembled.

The board will be made up of Park County residents who supported seeking the heritage designation.

The Park County commissioners will decide which office would manage the heritage area, and Nichols is confident his office will be named.

More tourism

Historic Ranch Denise Wagner helps to separate cattle at the beginning of a branding at the Salt Works Ranch in July 2006. The ranch was started in 1859 and has been owned by the same family for several generations. It is one of the oldest working ranches in the state, and it is one of five historic sites in Park County where a site development plan has been created. Tag Fanning is the fifth-generation owner and rancher and has his own extensive family library. He wants to create a western ranch heritage center, which would be a great venue for people to come and learn the history of ranching in Colorado. Included in the plan for the ranch are events such as poetry readings, workshops, and outdoor concerts, according to Gary Nichols, Park County director of tourism and community development. (Flume file photo by Cate Malek)

The National Heritage Area designation could also mean more tourism dollars for the county.

According to Laura Libby, the heritage tourism program manager for the Colorado Office of Tourism, 24 million people came to Colorado for pleasure trips in 2007, and 35 percent of those visitors engaged in cultural and heritage activities, such as going to museums and areas with historical significance. An estimated $3.6 billion was spent by tourists engaging in heritage activities in Colorado.

Visitors who seek out cultural heritage areas tend to visit more than just one per trip, she said, and people who come to Colorado for that reason would be likely to come to Park County when the National Heritage Area designation is attached.

Nichols said the South Park National Heritage Area has a number of unique features that would attract travelers.

Park County has ranches that were formed in the 1860s, a number of old mines, and a rich history, he said.

"Combine that with the altitude, climate and the setting, and that really sets us apart," Nichols said.

Linda Balough, director of the Park County Office of Historic Preservation, said one of the unique features Park County boasts is the world's highest mine, at 14,157 feet, on Mt. Lincoln near Alma.

Silver was taken from that mine, the Present Help Mine, from the late 1860s into the 1870s, she said.

She said the heritage area designation could also capture the interest of people who come to Park County for different reasons.

For instance, she said, hikers trying to climb a 14er, a peak at least 14,000 feet in elevation, could learn about the history of the Present Help Mine and appreciate the heritage of the area a little better.

Tourists with information on the history of an area tend to be more respectful of it, she said.

"They start to get excited about it and take ownership themselves, which is the biggest thing," she said. "Heritage tourists stay longer, they spend more money, and they are more respectful."

Colorado Governor Bill Ritter applauded the president for signing the bill.

"The rugged Continental Divide and red-rock canyons help define what makes Colorado special to those who live here and visit," said Ritter in a March 30 news release. "Now these landscapes and the economies that depend on them will be protected for our children's generations to enjoy. I particularly want to applaud the determined efforts of the many diverse groups that worked to protect this land. Future generations will be forever in your debt.

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