Local efforts to win National Heritage status for the Lower Columbia region have entered an exciting new phase, with a community forum in Ilwaco this Thursday to gather comments and answer any lingering questions.

With a little luck and a lot of hard work, Congress may OK our designation this year. Expansion of the Lewis and Clark National Park to include the Washington side was a far bigger deal, but the heritage tag brings some significant benefits with no downside.

Perhaps the most fundamental lesson we should draw from the Indian people who lived at the mouth of the Columbia River is that the river can unite our communities and shouldn't be regarded as any sort of dividing line. This fact underlies a new initiative to establish a National Heritage Area centered here.

It's important to note National Heritage Areas are not restrictive or regulatory in nature. Winning this designation would not add any rules pertaining to land use. There is no similarity to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, with its infamously controversial restrictions.

All but two of the current 27 National Heritage Areas are east of the Rocky Mountains; there are none on the entire Pacific Coast. In the East, there are numerous examples of heritage areas that provide valuable gravity to the process of forming community vision and attracting outside attention. For example, the Essex National Heritage Area north of Boston is comprised of thousands of natural and historic sites, helping illuminate 400 years of our nation's history.

In 2004, according to information from the National Park Service, almost 43 million people visited existing heritage areas and 341 grants valued at $44 million were awarded. Heritage areas also awarded grants for recreational trails - 85 miles of them - in 2004.

This is not a lot of money when split so many ways, and the nation's finances are tighter now than they were six years ago. But still, any assistance is welcome. Coming under the "heritage" umbrella will bring welcome publicity and a little money that we would not otherwise obtain.

The communities of the Columbia estuary and adjacent ocean coastline contain a phenomenal concentration of history, scenery and unique cultural attributes. The new Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks comprise a solid core around which can be assembled a package of enormous appeal - an amazing depth of Chinook Indian history, three lighthouses, the Ship Graveyard of the Pacific, salmon fishing towns, thousands of acres of wildlife refuges, vital oyster and crabbing industries, sustainable family forestry - the list goes on and on.

All this dovetails very well with the mission of National Heritage Areas, "places where natural, cultural, historic, and scenic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally distinctive landscape arising from patterns of human activity shaped by geography." We truly live in one of the nation's greatest places, and this designation would bring opportunities to preserve and enhance what we love, while shining a national spotlight on counties that can use additional economic energy.

This Thursday's forum is the last of four in communities included in the potential heritage area, with others having been held in Astoria, Seaside and Cathlamet under auspices of Ilwaco-based ShoreBank Enterprise Cascadia.

We have a treasure here. Becoming a National Heritage Area isn't so much about tourism or appealing to outsiders as it is about helping us fully achieve our potential by connecting our past with our future. It is a designation well worth obtaining. Whether we then succeed in fostering our heritage and building our economy will be up to us.

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