BELT - Under a proposal, parts of Central Montana could potentially become a national historical area based on their heritage and cultural significance. While it’s yet to be approved, what would this mean for community members within the region?

Well, the area would cover all of Cascade County and parts of Choteau County as a way of recognizing and preserving their historical landmarks and sites.

For the communities in Neihart, Cascade, Fort Benton, Great Falls and Belt, interest and efforts in creating that recognition has existed since 2015.

"It's driven by the local constituents who have a project in mind and want to carry it forward," said Jane Weber, a chairperson for the Upper Missouri River Heritage Area Planning Corporation, one of the organizations behind the proposal.  

Projects are generally tailored towards preserving heritage sites and local culture, but the title will not affect or control private or federal property as a result.

National Heritage Area Pamphlet

A pamphlet given out at the meeting in Belt, with a mission statement at the bottom that reads, "Fostering partnerships and building alliances throughout Cascade County and along the Missouri River in Chouteau County to recognize and enhance community pride in our people, places and stories." Photo by Afiq Hisham. 

"Nor can it change or impact any government laws. So our state fishing regulations or any state law,” Weber explained. “Any city, county zoning or ordinances that they have, [the designation] cannot override those."

For those involved, the N.H.A. proposal is an opportunity to keep historical landmarks on the map, while bringing potentially new ones to the table. It’s something they hope will breathe new life to local communities and the region as a whole.

"Part of it was bringing awareness, even within the local communities, that this isn't just old. This is our history and this is important," said Belt Mayor James Olsen.

The recognition could also encourage tourists to visit sites in the area, potentially boosting local economies, development and new jobs as well.   

"Every place that has had a National Heritage Area has seen a boom in economic development,” said Weber, “because tourists like to go to places that are unique, like what we have here in Central Montana."

The area is currently under a feasibility study on its culture and national significance. Once it's published online, the groups behind the N.H.A. will look for community feedback on the document through UMRHAPC’s official website before they make their next move.

If approved, the region, dubbed Big Sky Country National Historical Area, could be the 56th designation of its kind across the country.

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