ITHACA, N.Y. — The Finger Lakes has moved a step closer on the long road to becoming a National Heritage Area, a designation that would help preserve local history and heritage, conserve natural resources, boost tourism and come with economic benefits. This week, the Senate passed legislation that authorizes the National Park Service to conduct a feasibility study.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced Wednesday that the Finger Lakes National Heritage Area Study Act passed the Senate as a provision in the Natural Resources Management Act. With this legislation, the National Park Service is authorized to begin a feasibility study to determine if the Finger Lakes region — including Cayuga, Chemung, Cortland, Livingston, Monroe, Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Tioga, Tompkins, Wayne, and Yates counties — has the resources and local capacity to be designated a National Heritage Area.
“I’m very excited that my legislation to begin the process of designating the Finger Lakes Region as a National Heritage Area has passed the Senate,” Gillibrand said in a news release. “The Finger Lakes Region is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places in our state, and it is one of our country’s great historical and cultural treasures. A National Heritage Area designation would help further conserve and protect the region’s natural resources and attract even more people from all over the world to the Finger Lakes. I was proud to fight for this provision, and will continue work with my House colleagues to ensure that this legislation is passed into law.”
But as Peter Samuel, manager of the National Heritage Program in the Northeast Region explained Wednesday, the act passing the Senate is just one step in a long federal process. The National Resources Management Act will now move to the House and then have to be signed by the president. After that, a study can begin, and that process could take two or more years, Samuel said. The study will look at the significance of the region to see that there is “no other place in the country that could tell that story,” Samuel said.
For some perspective, the bill that holds the provision for the Finger Lakes study also contains two new National Heritage Areas, the Susquehanna Valley and Appalachian Forest, and if the bill passes through as expected, those would be the first designations in nine years, Samuel said.
Along with Gillibrand and Congressman Tom Reed, the Finger Lakes Tourism has for years been pushing for designation, which will help elevate the region. Cynthia Kimble, president of the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance said she believes the Finger Lakes region deserves a spot on the national list.
There are currently 49 National Heritage Areas in the United States and four others in New York, including Niagara Falls, the Hudson River Valley, the Erie Canalway and Champlain Valley. The National Park Service defines National Heritage Areas as places where “historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes.” National Heritage Areas differ from national parks because they are large lived-in landscapes. When President Ronald Reagan signed the first National Heritage Area into law in 1984, he called them “a new kind of national park.”
Becoming a National Heritage Area would come with several benefits, including economic development. According to the National Park Service, NHAs average $5.50 for every $1 of federal investment, and many also improve water and air quality in their regions through restoration projects and provide new recreational opportunities.
Reed was the lead sponsor of the House version of the bill. In a statement, he said, “The Finger Lakes Region is a national treasure right here in our backyard and we care about protecting these natural resources for generations to come. It is vital that we pass bipartisan legislation giving this region its rightful designation as a National Heritage Area which will boost tourism and conserve the region’s rich history, unique culture, and natural resources.”
Kimble said with a rich history of Native American culture, the Women’s Rights Movement, and the Underground Railroad, paired with the region’s natural geographic beauty and pristine lakes, “I feel we certainly have a unique story that could be told.”
“I’m just so excited to see this happen,” Kimble said. “I absolutely love the region and feel that this will certainly help elevate what we have here in the Finger Lakes.”
Citing 2017 data from the Finger Lakes Tourism Alliance, the news release from Gillibrand on Wednesday gave a small snapshot of tourism in the region’s 14 counties. According to the data, tourism generates more than $3 billion in business and employs more than 58,000 people. It is also home to more than 400 registered historic sites and landmarks, 135 museums, 80 art galleries, 14 professional theater companies, 100 wineries, 300 bed and breakfasts and 650 miles of shoreline.