Appropriately for Pioneer Day in Utah, Congress gave final approval on Monday to forming two new "national heritage areas" designed at least in part to honor Mormon pioneers and the architecture and culture they created.
The House approved a bill creating 10 national heritage areas including the Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area, covering 250 miles along U.S. 89 between Fairview, Sanpete County and the Arizona border; and the Great Basin National Heritage Route, between Delta, Juab County and Ely, Nev.
Somewhat ironically, all of Utah's members of the U.S. House missed that vote because they were in Utah celebrating Pioneer Day.
The bill now goes to President Bush for his signature.
The designation qualifies those areas for up to $10 million in grants over 30 years from the National Park Service to help develop tourism around a local theme of national interest. The money may be used to help restore or conserve property of historical, cultural or natural significance.
Creating such heritage areas has been controversial. Both the Mormon Pioneer and Great Basin areas took years to make it through Congress, in part because the National Park Service objected to all such new areas, saying they take away money from more important national-park units.
Some critics have argued that guidelines for heritage areas are too broad, and that almost anything and any area may qualify. In fact, the entire state of Tennessee has been declared as one: the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area.
"We'll end up with everything, including the kitchen sink, being designated a national heritage area," complained George Washington University geology professor Lisa Benton-Short in a hearing on national heritage areas in 2004.
But Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, has long pushed the two heritage areas in Utah. "After years in the process, it's rewarding to see this bill come to completion," he said Tuesday. "It means increased economic opportunities for many Utah communities along Highway 89, as well as heightened recognition of the remarkable and inspiring stories of the Mormon pioneers."
The bill creating the Mormon Pioneer area along U.S. 89 from Sanpete County to Arizona says the area is worthy of designation because "the landscape, architecture, traditions, beliefs, folk life, products and events along Highway 89 convey the heritage of the pioneer settlement."
But numerous other areas in Utah were also settled by Mormon pioneers and have not received the designation.
Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, said Tuesday, "The creation of this heritage area means a great deal for Utah. This area will honor the brave men and women who, 150 years ago, began a remarkable adventure that continues to this day."
Gary Anderson, former mayor of Ephraim and director of Utah State University's extension in Sanpete County, worked for two years to lobby for the heritage-area bill.
"This will be a real boost to the heritage tourism to this part of the state," he said Tuesday. "We can now use national parks insignia for our signage, which will help authenticate in a tourist's mind the place they are visiting."
Monte Bona, a Mount Pleasant city councilman and executive director of the Utah Heritage Highway Alliance, said he was "happy, delighted and grateful" that the bill passed, after a six-year lobbying effort by local officials.
The Great Basin National Heritage Route between Delta and Ely was pushed primarily by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., but also co-sponsored by Bennett and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
Legislation creating it said it is worthy of designation in part to help tell the story of Mormon settlements in the area, as well as mining, the Pony Express Route, the Overland Stage Route and even the Topaz internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II near Delta.Several publications, such as National Geographic and Life magazines, have called U.S. 50 west from Delta the "loneliest road in America." The designation could help build tourism for communities along it.
Contributing: Suzanne Dean