The Washington State legislature closed up shop last week without having passed either of two proposed bills introduced last year to designate the state shoreline as a State Maritime Heritage Area.
House Bill 2386 and a corresponding Senate Bill, 6246, were introduced in January. Both were heard in committee and the House version passed 57 to 39 in that body, but failed to come to a vote in the Senate
Had either bill passed, they would have affected all publicly accessible lands within 1/4 mile of the saltwater shore (and including the Ship Canal and Lake Union) in all coastal counties save Pacific (at the mouth of the Columbia; how the winter stomping grounds of Lewis and Clark, the place Robert Gray first crossed the Columbia Bar, and the site of one of the earliest trading posts in the territory somehow didn’t make the cut as “cultural heritage” is a mystery of the legislative process), calling for increased public awareness and appreciation, promotion of tourism, and honoring the cultural resources of the area.
You might be wondering why we need a piece of legislation for this; after all, we have a maritime heritage, and plus or minus two pages of legalese does not substantially change that fact either way.
But there is a growing sense that Washingtonians have lost touch with the waters that nurtured the growth of the state, and which still bring it sustenance and make it great. From scenic vistas to tourist attractions to a main line on the circuit of global commerce, Washington’s waters are still vital to the state.
Use of the water materially affects boaters, as does the public perception of our waterways. Misconceptions about boats and boaters are rampant, and the more people hold those misconceptions, the less political support the boating industry will enjoy. There are many cascading effects from this, but the most frightening is that folks who don’t know much about life on the water are increasingly making decisions about how boaters boat in Washington.
The bills are also part of a larger effort to have our state saltwater coastline designated as a National Maritime Heritage Area. Only the United States Senate can make that happen, but a sign from the state itself, in the form of the state bill, is a good first step.
The ultimate goal of the National Heritage Area designation is tourism. The National Park Service provides financial and technical assistance to local entities to promote tourism and trade within the designated area.
Perhaps surprisingly, there is some controversy brewing over the bills. Some legislators, and their constituents, are worried that the designation of a Maritime Heritage Area is just the first stop along the way toward more regulations on the water and waterfront. Certainly the sponsors are not being helped by current debates over the proposed Puget Sound No-Discharge Zone or recent legislation passed phasing out copper-based bottom paints in the state. Gun-shy boaters, as much as they might themselves appreciate our maritime heritage, aren’t inclined to place a lot of faith in the legislative process at this point.
The state bills both include specific language excluding any sort of regulatory jurisdiction or new administrative or environmental obligations as part of the heritage area. But opponents are more concerned with the federal process that supporters hope will follow. A proposed amendment, in fact, eliminated language in the original bill encouraging the further establishment of a federal heritage area.
There are 49 federally-designated National Heritage Areas in the United States currently, a few of them covering coastlines or canals (the Erie Canal, for example, is a “National Heritage Corridor”). Whether or not Washington’s coastline will join them, however, will be a question for future legislative sessions.