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How a misinformation campaign derailed a proposed National Heritage Area

National Heritage Areas are an economic engine for many communities that have them, including central and southern Utah

Steam rises from water in sub-zero temperatures as the sun shines through the trees at Giant Springs State Park in Montana.
In this photo taken on Feb. 1, 2014, steam rises from water in sub-zero temperatures as the morning sun shines through the trees at Giant Springs State Park in Great Falls, Mont. The park is within a proposed national heritage area.
Larry Beckner, The Great Falls Tribune via Associated Press

A federal program designed to fuel economic growth and preserve a local community’s heritage is reportedly falling victim to a misinformation campaign in central Montana.

National Heritage Areas were created in the 1980s as a partnership between local communities and the National Park Service. The matching federal funds have helped create 55 such areas around the country, including 11 in the West.

There are two in Utah: The Great Basin National Heritage Area, which straddles Utah and Nevada; and the Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area, a 250-mile area covering central and southern parts of the state.

The National Park Service says the areas foster economic development, improve water and air quality, and strengthen a community’s sense of place and pride. Boosters in central Montana wanted in on these benefits and had been steadily gathering local support since 2013 to qualify for federal assistance creating the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area.

“Then the 2020 political season arrived,” The New York Times’ Reid J. Epstein wrote.

He chronicles the odyssey of Rae Grulkowski, a 56-year-old woman who runs a septic cleaning company and seemingly singlehandedly derailed efforts for the National Heritage Area by tapping into the politically divisive power of disseminating misinformation.

Inspired by right-wing conspiracy theories she’d been consuming online, Grulkowski took hold of political opposition to the heritage area she had heard and framed it as a federal land grab. In packets she distributed to nearly 1,500 ranchers and farmers, Grulkowski said the heritage designation “would forbid landowners to build sheds, drill wells or use fertilizers and pesticides. It would alter water rights, give tourists access to private property, create a new taxation district and prohibit new septic systems and burials on private land.”

“None of this was true,” Epstein reported.

National Park Service materials describe the areas as a “grassroots, community-driven approach to heritage conservation and economic development. Through public-private partnerships, NHA entities support historic preservation, natural resource conservation, recreation, heritage tourism, and educational projects. Leveraging funds and long-term support for projects, NHA partnerships foster pride of place and an enduring stewardship ethic.”

But Grulkowski’s campaign was convincing to many in Montana’s conservative circles, including the farm bureau, Gov. Greg Gianforte and Sen. Steve Daines. They not only voiced opposition to the heritage area effort but opponents passed a bill in the state Legislature requiring state approval of national heritage areas and trails. It’s a hurdle “the state has no authority to enforce,” Epstein wrote.

It’s unclear whether boosters for the proposed Big Sky Country National Heritage Area will overcome what Epstein described as “yet another nasty skirmish in the bitter nationwide struggle between the forces of fact and fantasy.”

He wrote that Grulkowski wants to take her crusade to Congress to prevent the government from renewing existing heritage areas, including those in Arizona, Colorado, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Washington.