A nonprofit organization is working to establish the landscape along the Upper Missouri River from Fort Benton to the Gates of the Mountains as a national heritage area.
The organization says the Upper Missouri River area in north-central Montana is concentrated with cultural, historic and recreational resources, and the designation as a heritage area would give residents and tourists an opportunity to celebrate those assets. A National Heritage Area is an honorary designation, meaning private landowners and public lands are not affected.
Jane Weber, Chair of the Upper Missouri River Heritage Area Planning Corporation Board of Directors, said the group is in the process of conducting a feasibility study.
Since heritage areas were signed into law in 1984, 49 of them have been created. The Upper Missouri River would be the first heritage area in Montana.
A 2012 study found that National Heritage Areas have an overall economic impact of $12.9 billion, according to the Upper Missouri River Heritage Area website. The study showed $4.6 billion was direct, including tourist spending and grant-making activities. Another $8.3 billion was indirect, which included employee spending and businesses supported by the tourism industry.
Weber said the heritage area designation would build on established nationally significant landmarks in the region that attract residents and tourists. Those include:
First People’s Buffalo Jump: The archaeological site has one of the largest bison cliff jumps in North America. The state park has a visitor center and interpretive trails to describe the people who used the site 1,000 years ahead of Lewis and Clark. The state park also offers wildlife viewing, hiking and special events throughout the year. The park is open daily in the summer and the visitor center is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 1 through Sept. 30.
Fort Benton National Historic Landmark: Fort Benton, often referred to as the birthplace of Montana, is along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and the Nez Perce National Historic trail. Visitors can check out the Missouri river Breaks Interpretive Center and view the state’s memorial to Lewis and Clark. Fort Benton has a memorial for Shep, a faithful dog who became famous for waiting for his owner to return for more than five years. When Shep’s owner became sick and died at the hospital in Fort Benton, his family back East requested his body be sent home on the train. Shep supposedly whined when the train left the station and waited each day at the platform looking for his owner to return.
C.M. Russell Museum and Studio National Historic Landmark: Charlie Russell is known as one of the first western artists to spend the majority of his life in the West. He created over 4,000 works of art in paint, ink, bronze and wax that tell stories of life in Montana. The C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls is dedicated to preserving his work and educating Montanans and visitors on his life and art. The museum is 65,000 square feet that includes Russell’s original house and studio. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from May 1 to Oct. 31.
Great Falls Portage: The Great Falls Portage was one of the most challenging parts of Lewis and Clark’s expedition. The supplies, including canoes, had to be carried by hand or in shoddy wagons for about 18 miles to bypass the dangerous falls and rapids. Although the historic landmark is privately owned and not open to the public, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center traces their journey. The center is located in Giant Springs Heritage State Park in Great Falls and is open Memorial Day weekend through Sept. 30 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.