Photo by Hayley Young

By Hayley Young

Like most areas of the Big Sky State, central Montana, along the Missouri River, is layered with natural beauty and historical wonders. It’s also home to acres and acres of rural land that is owned by private land owners. Over the last several years, a small group has assembled to discuss and develop the beginning stages of a National Heritage Area. The group operates under the name Big Sky Country National Heritage Area, Inc.

The Big Sky Country National Heritage Area would be the first of its kind in Montana, with promises of community partnerships and outreach, improved economy, transparency, and no control over private property. But is it really as good as it sounds?

Many who live in the projected designation area would quickly answer no. They find that there are a lot of falsehoods in what is being promised in the feasibility study.

Partnerships

Partnerships with organizations, businesses, citizens, etc. are a cornerstone to getting the BSCNHA approved. A growing number of organizations and businesses have stepped forward in opposition of the designation (some of which were listed as supporters by BSCNHA, Inc., including the Montana Grain, Wool, and Stock Growers).

Cities within the designation area, such as Cascade and Belt, have also stated opposition, and the Cascade County Commissioners signed a resolution opposing the establishment of BSCNHA.

Per the feasibility study that has been created (although not yet submitted) BSCNHA, Inc. states that community members from each city within the designated area helped to develop the study. Yet, it seems that community members did not begin learning about the BSCNHA until more recently. Those who would stand in opposition were not—and continue to not be—included in the planning of the Big Sky County National Heritage Area. When members of both sides don’t share an equal voice, it can’t be called a partnership.

Improved Economy

BSCNHA, Inc. has promised economic growth through tourism. A boost to Montana’s economy sounds like an excellent plan. But how would a rebranding of current tourist spots draw in new tourists? If tourists are not already attracted to the area, it would seem unlikely that tourism would grow just because it’s now a National Heritage Area.

Most, if not all, of the sights that are going to be protected and promoted are already managed by a Montana agency that can be found in a Montana tourism directory.

The Opposition

Upon hearing about the plans for an NHA in central Montana, her home, Rae Grulkowski set out with a mission to stop the creation of BSCNHA. She has fought diligently for the last year by sending out letters, starting a Facebook page, making contacts with state and federal officials, contacting claimed partnerships—whatever would help propel her mission…to stop the establishment of BSCNHA.

Immediate concern that her private property rights would be infringed upon set in; many private property owners share the belief that this is another government overstep on private property rights. If the goal is to protect and preserve historical and natural resources, why does the designation need to blanket all lands, including privately owned lands, if it gives the organization no control? Why can’t landowners opt-out if they’d like? According to BSCNHA, Inc.’s feasibility study (page 7), the group is “fully engaged with all members of the community, to enlist support from willing partners, to be transparent and answer questions of individuals or groups concerned about NHAs.”

Rae has found that there is almost no transparency. She has written letters stating interest to attend meetings, with no response. Their website doesn’t offer any information for upcoming meetings, nor does their Facebook page.

With limited public involvement, this endeavor is being guided purely by the vision of a few. Despite public meetings, which have had limited attendance from opposition due to a lack of information, the general public is relatively uninformed about National Heritage Areas. It might be better to put NHA approval or denial on a ballot.

To get involved, visit Rae Grulkowski’s Facebook page (Montanans Opposing Big Sky Country National Heritage Area), call (406) 788-3204, or email rae@3rivers.net.