By Hayley Young

In 2014, a group of citizens quietly began discussion on how to create Montana’s first National Heritage Area (NHA), which is planned to encompass all of Cascade County and portions of Choteau and Lewis and Clark Counties. It would include all privately owned lands, businesses, and towns within the region. The group makes no claims to have any control over privately owned property. And while it would be overseen by the National Park Service, they would have no power to control the lands.

Since initial discussion almost seven years ago, a non-profit, volunteer entity has been formed and operates under the name Big Sky County National Heritage Area Inc. (BSCNHA). The group is made up of a 14-member, self-appointed board. Most of these members have a similar, urban background with little representation from rural Montanans.

While they have held several open-door and public forum meetings, many have gone unnoticed by the general public, and those in attendance have little opportunity to voice their opinions. So, while this entity makes claims that they want to work hand in hand as a community, even with those who have a differing opinion, their actions indicate otherwise.

The National Park Service does set requirements to establish an NHA. One of these requirements is a feasibility study. BSCNHA completed the feasibility study in 2020 and left it open to public comment for 45 days. They plan to submit the study to the National Park Service early this year. The National Park Service will then determine if the study meets the ten areas of criteria. (The feasibility study can be found at: bigskycountrynha.org.)

The goal for creating an NHA is to spotlight and preserve the cultural, natural, and historic resources found across the Upper Missouri Area in central Montana. According to the National Parks, “NHA entities support historic preservation, natural resource conservation, recreation, heritage tourism, and educational projects.”

Sounds great? Possibly—but things are not always as they seem.

From the outside vantage point, it looks like a government land grab. It adds another layer of government control and influence on how these lands can be used and what can be done with them. It also feels a lot like a foot in the door to include more lands in the BSCNHA. This is a blanket designation, with no flexibility to opt-out.

Many residents are feeling uncertain about what this designation could mean. Private landowners, businesses, and various organizations have come forward to voice their concerns. Several have sounded their non-support of BSCNHA; the Montana Stockgrowers Association state “over 20 organizations have passed resolutions or policies in non-support of the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area.” This includes agricultural organizations, realtor and building associations, and city and county commissioners. A group of private landowners has also formed in an effort to protect private landowners’ rights. The group calls itself: Montanans Opposing Big Sky Country National Heritage Area.

Montanans Opposing BSCNHA

The group was started in 2020 after Rae Grulkowsk of Stockett became aware of the BSCNHA. Since July, she has worked diligently to combat this designation. She and her husband operate a multi-generational business based in Great Falls, and she has strong feelings about the impact of this designation on both rural and urban property owners. Rae has even taken it upon herself to write letters to key partners listed in the feasibility study. Some of these have written her back actually voicing their non-support the BSCNHA.

For more information, follow Montanans Opposing Big Sky Heritage National Heritage Area on Facebook. Or contact Rae at (406) 788-3204 or rae@3rivers.net.

House Bill 554

To address the interests of landowners across the state, the Montana Stockgrowers Association joined forces with lawmakers and House Representative Josh Kassmier to introduce HB 554. This bill would require Legislative approval of National Heritage Areas and National Historic Trails in Montana on lands extending beyond federal lands. It would add an extra step in the checks and balances system.

At the time of publication, HB 554 had passed its third reading on the Montana House Floor. After a small break it will be heard in the Senate Chambers by the Natural Resource Committee. If it passes, it will then make its way to the Governor’s Office. While this bill would not stop an NHA it is a small step for private landowners across Montana.

Non-Supporters of Big Sky Country National Heritage Area Include:

Montana Stockgrowers Association
Choteau County and Hill-Liberty-Blaine County Farm Bureau
Chouteau County Trailblazers
City of Belt, Montana
Town of Cascade, Montana
Hilltop Hutterite Colony of Stockett
Great Falls Association of Realtors
Montana Farm Bureau Federation
Foothills Livestock Association of Great Falls
Montana Grain Growers
Montana Wool Growers
County Commissioners of Cascade County
Great Falls Home Builders Association