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Feasibility study submitted in February met all criteria; Congress has final say

TIDINGS FILE PHOTO - The coalition sees near endless possibilities for the Willamette Falls area if it is designated as a National Heritage Area, and the National Parks Service agreed after evaluating a feasibility study. Even a roaring waterfall couldn't have drowned out the cheers from Willamette Falls Heritage Area Coalition (WFHAC) members in mid-May when they received formal word from the National Parks Service that their feasibility study met all of the criteria for a National Heritage Area designation.

"This is huge," WFHAC Executive Director Siobhan Taylor said. "It's a huge victory for us, because their standards are so stringent."

The feasibility study was 10 years in the making, written with the goal of convincing the National Parks Service that the 56-mile stretch of the Willamette River surrounding the Willamette Falls should be designated as the West Coast's first National Heritage Area. Designated by Congress and overseen by the National Parks Service, NHAs — of which there are 49 across the United States — are "places where historic, cultural and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes."

Specifically, one of the 10 criteria states that those resources should "represent distinctive aspects of American heritage worthy of recognition, conservation, interpretation and continuing use." NHAs must also "reflect traditions, customs, beliefs and folk life that are a valuable part of the national story" while providing an array of conservation, recreational and educational opportunities.

The idea behind the Willamette Falls heritage area is to tell the story of the falls — which were a crucial gathering place for the first Native Americans to settle in the area — and how they influenced the growth of culture and industry up and down the Willamette River.

In a memo to WFHAC dated May 16, Linda Stonier — the National Park Service Regional Coordinator for the National Heritage Area Program, Pacific West Division — said the feasibility study, which was submitted in February, presented a clear and complete vision for the area.

"The Willamette Falls Heritage Coalition's sustained and concerted effort over many years to investigate and document the region's nationally important story by engaging a broad range of stakeholders, interested parties and subject matter experts is evident in this Final Feasibility Study," Stonier wrote.

"We owe a huge note of thanks to Alice Norris, who was the editor on the study and pulled all of the different stakeholders together," Taylor said. "Alice never gave up, and she is over the top on this, as you can imagine."

According to Taylor, there are two avenues to move forward, though both end in the halls of Congress. The National Parks Service itself could bring a recommendation forward or — more likely — Oregon congressional representatives will lobby Congress to vote on a formal designation.

Congressman Kurt Schrader has volunteered to lead the charge, but Taylor said it's still difficult to predict a timeline moving forward.

"As my Irish ancestors would say, 'How long is a piece of twine?' It could be awhile — it really could," Taylor said. "We're remaining optimistic and I think the important thing is that we meet the standards, so we're continuing to act like a heritage area.

"Hopefully our congressional delegation grabs the bull by the horns and takes this forward for us."

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