National Parks Bills: S 2098









November 8, 2007

Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to present the Department of the Interior's views on S. 2098, a bill to establish the Northern Plains National Heritage Area in the State of North Dakota.

While the Department appreciates the historic, cultural and natural features of the area, the Department does not support S. 2098. The feasibility study produced by the Northern Plains Heritage Foundation did not meet all of the criteria for designation as a national heritage area. It did not include the existence of significant levels of public involvement and support and the local commitments necessary for successful planning and implementation of a heritage area.

Without further dialog with residents in the region and the support of current living descendents, we are concerned that the Heritage Area would not be poised for success and a sustainable future. Success of this grassroots movement depends upon whether or not there is strong region-wide support, so we respectfully request the Heritage Area proponents engage more residents and Mandan-Hidatsa descendents in a dialog.

We remind the committee that our past support of an amendment to S. 1544 in the 109th Congress authorizing a study did not necessarily mean that the Department would support designation of this National Heritage Area.

We generally have asked that the subcommittee defer action on new designations of National Heritage Areas until program legislation is enacted. Last year, the Administration sent to Congress a legislative proposal to establish such guidelines and a process for designation. Bills were introduced in the 109th Congress (S. 243, H.R. 760 and H.R. 6287) that incorporated the majority of the provisions of the Administration's proposal, and S. 243 passed the Senate. During the 110th Congress, a similar heritage area program bill, S. 278, has been introduced and reported by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Requiring evidence of broad public support prior to designation is consistent with the steps and criteria for the National Heritage Area program that have been informally implemented for many years. The steps and criteria have been developed with input from Congress, existing National Heritage Areas, and other experts and are designed to ensure that an area has the resources, local interest, and other qualities that are critical in establishing a successful National Heritage Area.

The four critical steps that need to be completed before Congress establishes a National Heritage Area are:

1. completion of a feasibility study;

2. public involvement in the feasibility study;

3. demonstration of widespread public support among heritage area residents for the proposed designation; and

4. commitment to the proposal from the appropriate players which may include governments, industry, and private, non-profit organizations, in addition to the local citizenry.

S. 2098 would establish the Northern Plains National Heritage Area. The core area is approximately 80 miles long, anchored at each end by nationally designated landmarks. Huff Indian Village National Historic Landmark, an ancient Mandan Indian Village is the southern anchor and Big Hidatsa Village National Historic Landmark, an ancient Hidatsa village located within the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic site at Stanton, North Dakota, is the northern anchor. Huff and Menoken National Historic Landmarks are also state historic sites preserved and managed by the State Historical Society of North Dakota. This area encompasses the ancient homeland of the Mandan and Hidatsa American Indian nations as well as the Menoken Indian Village, an early Indian village site just east of Bismarck, North Dakota, which also bears national historic landmark status.

The bill designates the Northern Plains Heritage Foundation, a non-profit corporation established under the laws of the State of North Dakota, as the management entity for the Heritage Area and outlines its duties. It also authorizes the development of a management plan and technical assistance to carry out the plan. The bill also requires the Secretary to conduct an evaluation three years prior to the cessation of Federal funding under this act.

Long before the Europeans came to the area, Mandan and Hidatsa cultures flourished along the river in North Dakota. These early people thrived for centuries in heavily populated agricultural communities along the fertile floodplains. They also depended on the abundance of fish, game, and other wildlife throughout the prairies. They were later followed by pioneers and homesteaders—generations of farmers and ranchers who continue to cultivate the land and reap the harvest provided by the abundance of the Northern Plains environment.

The villages of these early settlers served as a central hub in a trade network that spanned the continent. The Heart River segment of the Missouri River was the center of the universe for the first people, the Mandans, who constructed their permanent earthlodge villages along the Missouri River and its tributaries. The Lewis and Clark Expedition even benefited from the hospitality and friendship of the Mandan and Hidatsa when they spent the winter along the Garrison Reach near present-day Washburn.

Today, the Mandan language is in danger of extinction with only two conversational speakers able to participate in a preservation project. Therefore, as part of their preservation initiatives within the Northern Plains area, the Northern Plains Heritage Foundation's language initiative is focusing on preserving and archiving language vocabularies, beginning with the recording of Mandan language materials. It also is supporting the development of instructional materials for Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, French and German language teachers. Language has always been a key element that characterizes and underpins the cultural integrity and unique identity of a people or an ethnic group.

The Department believes that further evaluation and public engagement would ensure widespread public involvement, and determine local interest and commitment, thus strengthening the current feasibility study. We also believe that further examination of the boundaries to include the currentMandan-Hidatsa homeland and the unique geographical, cultural, and historical resources of the Northern Plains area would provide other valuable information as to whether the area qualifies for designation as a National Heritage Area.

Mr. Chairman, that concludes my statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or other members of the subcommittee may have.

Was this page helpful?

Please provide a comment