In March 2019, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer stood alongside the Grays Harbor Lighthouse in Westport to tout the passage of the Maritime Washington National Heritage Act as “a powerful tool for promoting local tourism and economic development.”

The legislation “is a tool that expands eligibility for federal grants, a tool that can help with tourism promotion, marketing coordination and assistance with the operation of museums and visitors centers,” Kilmer said. “There is no better place to hold this event than the Grays Harbor Lighthouse, a beacon for fishers and shippers for 120 years and still standing proud, just like this community.”

Now a steering committee is reaching out to stakeholders, including the public, to develop a management plan to implement the Act.

“It’s been a long time coming, but now that Congress has designated the Maritime Washington National Heritage Area, the next step is the development of a management plan,” said Cosmopolis maritime stalwart Les Bolton, who has been involved with the effort for a decade and has been on the steering committee since July.

Bolton said the committee has reached out to its first key stakeholders and will soon engage the public.

The Maritime Washington National Heritage Area encompasses 3,000 miles of Washington state’s saltwater coastline — from Grays Harbor County to the Canadian border — and includes 18 federally recognized tribes, 32 incorporated cities, and 30 port districts, as well as a number of harbors, inlets, peninsulas, island shores and parks.

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The heritage area would consist of lighthouses, historic vessels and other landmarks within one-quarter mile of the shoreline in 13 counties, including Grays Harbor, Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, San Juan, Island, King, Pierce, Thurston, Mason, Kitsap, Jefferson and Clallam.

Westport Maritime Museum Executive Director John Shaw has been an active participant in the process and said, two years after he introduced Kilmer at the lighthouse in March 2019, he’ll continue to be part of the guidance.

“We went out and raised funds and completed investigatory work in advance of this program going into effect as lighthouses are a specific mention in the bill,” said Shaw.

While there are about 50 designated national heritage areas in the U.S., the Maritime Washington National Heritage Area is the first in the Pacific Northwest, and the only one in the country focused entirely on maritime heritage.

The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit organization, is facilitating the area. According to the trust, national heritage areas “are unique in that they are supported by the National Park Service but are locally managed, are entirely non-regulatory, and involve no change in land ownership.” Rather, they “are built on public-private partnerships and collaboration to support communities in sharing their unique stories and maintaining resources that matter to them.”

The statement continued, “By working with communities to determine how to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs, (heritage areas) can support historic preservation, economic development, natural resource conservation, recreation, heritage tourism, and educational projects on the local level.”

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Over the next year, the Washington Trust will collaborate with local communities to create an operational plan for the heritage area that is “relevant to local interests and needs,” according to the statement. Local residents and maritime partners will help shape the future of the area.

“Throughout the first half of 2021, there will be many opportunities for members of the public to share their views and ideas through virtual workshops, surveys, social media, focus groups, and more,” read the statement. “These collaborative efforts will culminate in a management plan which will serve as a road map for the heritage area,” outlining its mission, partnership structure, programs, interpretive strategies, potential grant-making roles and more.

The first public information session about the heritage area will be held virtually at 4 p.m. Jan. 19. To sign up, visit www.preservewa.org/mwnha-events.

After gathering input, the Washington Trust aims to present a draft of its plan for public review by late fall.