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Heritage Area Act passes in final days of last Congress

Riley Board
Hope is one of the communities served by KMTA.

Yesterday, President Joe Biden signed a hard-fought bill into law to guarantee the future of Alaska’s only National Heritage Area, along with the more than 50 other areas around the country.

The federally created Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm Heritage Area provides services, grants and activities for a region that includes Seward, Moose Pass, Cooper Landing and Hope.

Previously, KMTA and all other heritage areas existed on individual, 15-year cycles, at the end of which they needed to be renewed by U.S. Congress. That means the country’s 55 heritage areas are all up for reauthorization at different times, creating extra work for both Congress and heritage area staff.

Rachel Blakeslee, the executive director of KMTA, has been working with the staff at other heritage areas to promote a bill that will put all of the areas on the same renewal cycle.

“It’s been a lot of work from a lot of people — individuals, community members, organizations,” she said.

In the final weeks of the last Congress, Blakeslee and other advocates tried several strategies to push their bill through before the session ended, including tacking it on to other funding packages. But those options all fell apart.

Eventually, advocates realized they would need to pass the National Heritage Area Act as a standalone bill, which required unanimous approval in the Senate and a two-thirds majority in the House.

And ultimately, it worked. On Dec. 22, the bill passed.

“It was insane,” Blakeslee said. “We just sort of rose up from the ground as a true grassroots initiative.”

She said the act was one of the last to pass the 117th Congress. On Thursday, President Biden completed the final step in the long process and signed it into law.

“It was a very, very intense moment of pride and release,” Blakeslee said. “Just an incredible experience,

The bill’s passing guarantees federal recognition and funding for KMTA for the next 15 years, and it also creates seven new heritage areas around the country.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.