A bill before Congress could net communities from Cooper Land-ing to Girdwood up to $1 million per year to preserve and interpret historical routes used by Natives, prospectors and pioneers.
The idea for a Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area came from the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association, said association member Jim H. Richardson of Cooper Landing and Anchorage. He said the inspiration was a presentation from Rolfe Buzzell of the state Office of History and Archaeology.
"The concept is that there were a number of means of transportation that were funneled through the mountainous area from saltwater to the interior," Richardson said. "It started with Native prehistory, when people traveled on foot from Prince William Sound to the Kenai Peninsula to trade. Then miners established foot trails for the gold rush at Sunrise. Then they established the Iditarod Trail to Iditarod and later to Nome. Then, we had the railroad established to provide access to the Interior and gold deposits by Fairbanks. The final connection was the highway."
"Unlike any of the 16 existing heritage areas in America, the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm corridor will highlight the experience of the western frontier," said Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, who introduced the bill to create it.
"It will chronicle a number of small historic communities that developed around transportation needs and one of Alaska's first gold rushes. it will recognize the struggles of early Alaska Natives, the Russians and gold rush stampeders."
Senate Bill 509 would create a national heritage area encompassing Rainbow, Indian, Bird, Girdwood, Portage, Sunrise and Hope on Turnagain Arm, Whittier on Prince William Sound, and Cooper Landing, Moose Pass, Lawing and Seward in the area from Kenai Lake to Resurrection Bay.
The heritage area would include all of the Resurrection Pass Trail, said Chuck Kleeschulte, of Murkowski's staff. About 90 percent of the heritage area lies within Chugach National Forest. However, it would fall under the Department of Interior, under which the 16 existing national heritage areas were created. Interior already has an established program to deal with national heritage areas, Richardson said.
The bill would authorize $350,000 the first year after its passage and up to $1 million per year after that -- to a total of $10 million -- to preserve and interpret the historic and modern resource development and cultural landscapes of the Kenai-Turnagain transportation corridor, facilitate public enjoyment and foster cooperative planning and partnership between Kenai-Turnagain communities and borough, state and federal agencies. The federal money would require a 25 percent cash or in-kind match.
However, SB 509 only authorizes the spending. Any appropriation to make money available would be through a separate bill, Kleeschulte said. Murkowski believes Interior could make some money available the first year, probably less than $100,000, from prior appropriations.
If the money comes, Richardson said, there are plenty of ways to spend it. Hope residents would like to preserve historic buildings. Other communities would like to interview old-timers to record history and old stories. Federal dollars could fund museums, interpretive signs, fliers or audio tapes for self-guided history tours. The heritage area could work with a group such as the Seward Iditarod Trailblazers to improve or interpret trails.
The Secretary of Interior would enter a cooperative agreement with a Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Corridor Communities Association to carry out the purposes of the act. The association would include representatives from Kenai Mountains-Turnagain communities and from other interests, such as Native and trail groups, Richardson said.
Communities would propose projects and the community association will set priorities, he said. Other entities, such as the municipality of Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the Alaska Railroad and state and federal agencies, would be encouraged to participate.
"We think it's a very positive thing for the American people -- No. 1 for the people in Alaska," Richardson said. "You think about the number of people who travel the Seward Highway. Most are going somewhere else or going fishing. But they're driving past the places where a lot of things happened a century before. Travelers like to stop in small places and visit museums."
The bill says the community association must have an 11-member board. Richardson and four other people already have incorporated the nonprofit Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Corridor Communities Association as a seed.
The bill would have no impact on private property or the existing operations of federal agencies, he said. The version now before Congress grants the community association no zoning or land-management powers. It says nothing in the act should be construed to alter the land-management authority of any federal, state or local agency or to limit resource development or business on private property. It says federal funds for the heritage area cannot be used to buy land.
"What would be different is that communities would be able to gather information about historic resources, preserve historic resources and make them available to the public," Richardson said.
Kleeschulte said Murkowski introduced a similar bill last year that passed the Senate but stalled in the House after President Bill Clinton threatened a veto.
"At one time, they were concerned that we were taking authority from the U.S. Forest Service to manage Chugach National Forest and giving it to this nonprofit group," Kleeschulte said.
However, an amendment clarified that the Forest Service retained authority to manage the forest, he said, and he could not fathom Clinton's continued opposition. The first bill died with the 106th Congress. Murkowski introduced the present bill to the 107th Congress in March.
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