Finger Lakes could become the country’s next national heritage area


Taughannock Falls, near Ithaca, is the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi.

The National Park Service invites public input on a feasibility study that will be used to determine whether the Finger Lakes region could become a national heritage area.

Unlike national parks, people actually live in the large landscapes the park service refers to as national heritage areas. Consequently, national heritage areas’ entities work with communities to determine how to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs.

The comment period for the Finger Lakes National Heritage Area Feasibility Study started Monday and will end on June 1. More information about the study is available at

“Input from the public regarding the creation of a national heritage area in the Finger Lakes is critical to the study process,” said Allen Cooper, regional chief of planning for the National Park Service, in a press release. “ We also hope to learn more about the region from the people who know it best.”

The Finger Lakes National Heritage Area Feasibility Study was authorized by the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act of 2019, which directed the Secretary of the Interior to evaluate the natural, historic, cultural, educational, and recreational resources of the Finger Lakes. The study will assess if it is nationally worthy of recognition, conservation, interpretation, and continuing use; through congressional designation as a national heritage area.

Taughannock Falls State Park in Tompkins County on Wednesday, January 3, 2018. (Photo: Kate Collins)

Traditions, customs and belief

Among the several requirements Congress listed in the legislation, the study will have to include analysis and documentation showing how the Finger Lakes “reflects traditions, customs, beliefs and folklife that are a valuable part of the story of the United States.”

The legislation identified the following counties to be considered as part of the study: Cayuga, Chemung, Cortland, Livingston, Monroe, Onondaga, Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Tioga, Tompkins, Wayne and Yates. The Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor overlaps with some of the area being considered in this new study.

While these counties will be considered, the potential national heritage area that would be included in final documentation could be smaller or larger because boundaries still need to be evaluated by the National Park Service after the completion of the study; according to Chuck Lawson, who is managing the project for the National Park Service.

Although it may seem unlikely for a potential national heritage area to not gain the designation from Congress once the federal government has already considered the area worthy of being studied, the process is not necessarily quick and easy.

The feasibility study will assess the demonstrated support of the community including businesses, residents, nonprofit organizations, and appropriate local, state and federal agencies.

National heritage areas were originally clustered in deindustrialized areas of the Eastern Seaboard and Upper Midwest. States in the Far West continue to have fewer national heritage areas, potentially due to the region’s history of skepticism of the federal government, according to various sources, including an article published in Utah Historical Quarterly last spring. A national heritage area in Utah and another with lands in both Utah and Nevada each took almost 10 years to gain their respective designations.

Grassroots program

In an interview, Lawson detailed how the national heritage areas function and gave examples as to how they have benefitted from the designation.

“National heritage areas are not owned by federal government,” Lawson said. “They are entirely set up almost like a grassroots program for sharing local pride in shared culture, and they provide people a way to experience the unique cultural experience of a place.”

There are usually nonprofits that coordinate federal dollars that support national heritage areas, Lawson said, adding all the money coming from the national government has to be matched. The partnerships have assisted people so they could work on trails, museums, historical societies, getting people outdoors, historic structure and site preservation, and more.

“There is a wide array of things a coordinating entity can do,” Lawson said, adding that the coordinating entity serves as a hub for the heritage area. 

Not only does the umbrella entity receive federal funding by partnering with the National Park Service, but the organization also obtains access to the service’s historians and other resources.

The Finger Lakes’ study’s assessment, along with any recommendations from the Secretary of the Interior, will be reported to Congress. The study will assess the region’s unique and important American stories, how they can be experienced by the general public, and how a potential new national heritage area would be organized by a coordinating entity, if one were to be designated by Congress. The study is expected to run through 2023.

Questions for residents

Watkins Glen State Park offers spectacular views of fall foliage along its 1.5-mile gorge and 19 waterfalls. (Photo: File photo)

Lawson has a few questions for residents who would like to contribute to the study.

“What is it about the Finger Lakes that has had and continues to have an impact on the country, and why can that story only be told in the Finger Lakes?” Lawson said in an interview.

Agriculture often tends to be a response the park service receives to that question in its feasibility studies. However, Lawson said residents would have to explain why the agriculture in their region is special.

“Why should I, in Denver, have an understanding of that place so that it will enrich my experience as an American?” Lawson said. Lawson added that the pandemic has been an obstacle for information gathering for the study and commented that two members of the study team are in New York state.

The National Park Service has prepared the following materials to inform the public about the study and to solicit public comment:

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Wednesday November 2, 2022