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National Heritage Area a shared dream

Appalachian Forest National Heritage Area (AFNHA) is a shared dream that is becoming a reality. Such large dreams do not come true without a great deal of collaborative work on the part of local people. Much of the credit for the vision and organizational skills needed to build this project goes to Phyllis Baxter, AFNHA executive director.

When Sen. Joe Manchin traveled to Elkins in March to announce the Congressional designation of our heritage region, we understood that having a good development plan would be necessary to get federal funding needed in our region. This Monday, Baxter convened the AFNHA Working Group to begin a process for creating a plan to guide the development of our heritage resources.

Peter Samuel from the National Park Service spoke about the process for developing our area. He noted that West Virginia already has Wheeling National Heritage Area, and Coal Heritage Area in the coal fields.

There are 55 NHA designations in 34 states and most of them are in the eastern part of the country. There is a budget of several million dollars for new NHA projects.

Phyllis Baxter and Logan Smith have been helping to rebuild the local workforce by adding AmeriCorps jobs in heritage preservation, conservation, education. Our local AmeriCorps started in 2007 with seven members, and now it has 40 members working in the region. Some of these young people are from the local area and some come from as far away as Colorado and Oregon. All of them have learned new skills and developed an appreciation for the importance of working respectfully with other people.

Much progress has been made since Baxter first called us together over 20 years ago to define and build a regional tourism concept that could unify the mountainous counties of West Virginia. We realized then that the great botanical diversity in the forests of these ancient mountains was the most unique natural feature in our area. There are taller mountains and denser forests, but we have birds, lumbermen, and “wildflower pilgrims,” who love the unique diversity of plants and animals in our ancient hardwood forests.

Our regional history is enlivened by stories of Native Americans who hunted buffalo, pioneers who farmed on the steep hillsides, and lumbermen who came to harvest the virgin timbers. The early log cabins, churches, gristmills, covered bridges, and lumber mills are disappearing, but they tell the stories of people who were strong in their desire to build a better life for their families. They brought their arts, crafts, and music to these beautiful mountains.

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