What does the new Santa Cruz National Heritage Area mean to Southern Arizona?

In 2007, Vanessa Bechtol began her eight-year tenure as executive director of the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance. Twelve years later, and now the president of its board of directors, she joined others in cheering a public lands bill signed in March designating the Santa Cruz National Heritage Area in Santa Cruz and Pima counties. She talks about the journey, the designation and what it all means for a 3,300-square-mile swath of land in Southern Arizona. To learn more, go to: www.santacruzheritage.org.

A public lands bill signed into law in March created the Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area. Why is this important?

The Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area (NHA) is a non-regulatory designation made by Congress to honor and celebrate the region’s contribution to America’s history, while also stimulating heritage-based economic development and geo-tourism in the region.

The Santa Cruz Valley is a natural and cultural landscape that has been shaped by many generations of people from diverse cultural origins, and the NHA designation provides a unique opportunity to promote these heritage resources and educate the community about our shared heritage.

Although National Heritage Areas are designated by Congress, they are different from National Parks and other types of federal designations because they do not impose federal zoning or regulations on land use, and do not involve land acquisitions. Because the Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area is locally initiated and coordinated, it is a community-based conservation strategy that recognizes that the people who live here are uniquely qualified to preserve and promote its resources.

What are the benefits of a designated heritage area?

National Heritage Areas stimulate local heritage-based economic development by marketing regional heritage tourism, and promoting place-based foods, arts, crafts and other traditional products. By forming collaborative partnerships throughout the region, as well as with the National Park Service, the Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage will support a variety of locally selected heritage preservation, promotion and education projects. These may include the development of heritage education program for children or adults, riparian restoration projects, and rehabilitation or adaptive reuse of historic buildings. The Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area can also help improve the quality of life for residents by instilling a stronger sense of place and regional identity.

The heritage area is 3,300 square miles. What does it include, and was anything left out that you wanted included?

It encompasses the watershed of the Santa Cruz River, from Nogales and Patagonia in Santa Cruz County, to Tucson, Marana and Oro Valley in Pima County. The boundaries of the Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area were selected because they mark an area that is a source of identity for residents, is a coherent natural and cultural landscape, and contains sufficient nature and heritage resources of national significance to support the NHA designation. The size of the NHA falls in the mid-range of sizes of existing NHAs across the country.

A headline in the Sept. 26, 2007, Green Valley News read, “Efforts to designate Santa Cruz Valley as National Heritage Area gain steam.” What took so long?

The Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area Act was approved with bipartisan support in the U.S. House of Representatives twice since it was first introduced in Congress in 2007, but stalled in the Senate. It was finally approved in the Senate this year with overwhelming bipartisan support, including our two Arizona senators, with a vote of 92-8. Locally, all jurisdictions passed formal resolutions of support for the National Heritage Area legislation.

Where does it go from here, and who leads the efforts?

The Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance is the local coordinating entity for the NHA. We are an alliance made up of dozens of organizations, businesses and local communities that have worked together in this shared pursuit of preserving the region’s rich natural and cultural heritage. The Alliance will partner with residents, government agencies, nonprofits, and private businesses to collaboratively plan projects that celebrate the defining places and cultural traditions of the Santa Cruz Valley.

In the coming months, the Alliance will be focused on growing our board of directors to include representation from diverse stakeholder groups, formalizing a partnership with the National Park Service’s National Heritage Area Program so we can apply for matching federal grants, and developing committees to focus on fundraising, community outreach, and development of a management plan.

Is there funding to get any of this done? Where does it come from and who decides how it’ll be spent?

The NHA will develop a management plan that includes an inventory of heritage assets and identifies priority focus areas. The Alliance will be convening community meetings this year to discuss how organizations, local governments, businesses and others want to participate in the NHA and the development of a management plan. The programs identified in the management plan will be eligible for matching federal funds. Federal funding requires a 1:1 match, so we will be fundraising to raise enough cash and in-kind donations to meet the federal match requirement. The board of directors and management plan committee, which will include members of the community, will select programs and projects for which funds will be used.

There is only one other heritage site in Arizona — the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, which covers seven square miles along the Lower Colorado River. Has that designation made a difference for them?

The Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area has seen much success in terms of riverfront redevelopment and wetlands restoration. The NHA designation has allowed Yuma to form creative partnership with federal agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Land Management to restore 400 acres of wetlands along the Lower Colorado River. It has also been able to maintain operations of the Yuma Territorial Prison Museum and Park.

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