Preserving WNC’s culture and natural beauty
Bluegrass and mountain music. American Indian culture. Unparalleled natural beauty. The most-visited national park in the United States. The tallest mountain, deepest gorge, and highest waterfall in the eastern United States, as well as North America’s oldest river. Unique art created by talented artists. Appalachian history dating to before the American Revolution.
All of these are found in abundance in Western North Carolina, from Murphy to Mount Airy. Yet until the beginning of the 21st Century, our region lacked a unifying entity to bring the various aspects of our people and culture together into a compelling narrative.
Enter the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area (BRNHA).
Created in 2003 through an act of Congress, BRNHA is the steward of the living traditions of Western North Carolina, charged with preserving and promoting its music, handmade crafts, natural and agricultural heritage and Cherokee culture. Based in Asheville, BRHNA encompasses 25 counties in Western North Carolina and promotes everything that makes our region special. BRNHA functions as a public-private partnership through the National Park Service, which provides federal matching funds, technical assistance, support and oversight. That partnership must be renewed by Congress to open the door for local matching funds; with action from Congress, this valuable partnership can continue for decades to come.
Since its creation, BRNHA has awarded 188 grants totaling $2.5 million, with matching contributions leveraging another $5.9 million. These grants went to deserving educational, environmental, cultural, and historical organizations in all 25 counties within the Heritage Area.
The organization has amassed a plethora of community, state and national partners and is known as a regional convener and resource. With the North Carolina Arts Council, BRNHA established the Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina featuring more than 150 sites across the region where locals and visitors can hear traditional mountain music almost any day of the week. And the organization has helped serve more than 1.4 million visitors as a partner at the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center in Asheville.
The impact of BRNHA’s work goes beyond mere numbers. In March 2022, BRNHA announced the completion of Blue Ridge Craft Trails, which is a curated list of 325 destinations across BRNHA’s region, including artist studios, galleries and arts organizations. On the Craft Trails’ website, visitors can find information about the destinations as well as itineraries and videos.
BRNHA’s success story is but one of 55 found in other National Heritage Areas located in 34 states spanning nearly 600 counties across the United States. President Ronald Reagan created the program in 1984, calling it a “new kind of national park.” As opposed to an enclosed park with defined boundaries, NHAs are lived-in areas and celebrate all aspects of American culture, history, landscape and the economy. In total, NHAs boast a nearly $13 billion annual economic impact and support 150,000 jobs nationwide.
A National Heritage Area is typically created by an act of Congress with the strong, bipartisan support of members of its home state delegation. This was certainly the case for BRNHA, which enjoyed bipartisan support from the North Carolina congressional delegation for its creation. When the authorization for an NHA nears its expiration, its home state delegation often leads the effort for renewal, ensuring the NHA can continue to provide benefits to its communities. Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis and Rep. Patrick McHenry have been champions of BRNHA’s work including introduction of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Reauthorization Act last year.
Despite the growth and expansion of NHAs, the system for creating new and reauthorizing existing NHAs can be improved. Instead of a piecemeal reauthorization process that puts the fate of each individual NHA in the hands of a busy Congressional calendar, many NHAs are supporting legislation that would streamline the reauthorization for all 55 National Heritage Areas, providing a 15-year authorization for each. We are proud to join them in calling for Congress to pass the National Heritage Area Act (H.R. 1316 and S.1492).
We have much to celebrate in Western North Carolina, and as long as Congress continues to provide the necessary base funding and authorization, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area will be key to leading the celebration for decades to come.
(Reid Wilson is secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and Wit Tuttell is vice president of Tourism and Marketing for the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina and Executive Director of Visit NC.)
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This ship has sailed y'all, Asheville is over. Thanks all you entitled pasty pale people with unlimited funds. This is in you.
The highest single drop waterfall east of the Rockies is fall Creek Falls in Tennessee in the park of the same name. White water Falls is not a single drop, but still impressive.