Local Experiences


5/31/2018 | Connie Raley

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In 1984 the first ever National Heritage Area (NHA) was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, declaring National Heritage Areas as a "new kind of national park” that combined heritage conservation, recreation, and economic development. In 2001, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources began the long, arduous process of requesting legislation to designate the six coastal counties of Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, Pearl River, Stone, and George as a National Heritage Area. In 2004, our Mississippi Gulf Coast received its own designation. The National Heritage Area Act passed through Congress and was signed into law by President George Bush.

Through this prestigious designation, the rich heritage of the Mississippi Gulf Coast is now nationally recognized.

In order for an area to be considered for designation, the National Park Service requests that a feasibility study be conducted to determine if specific criteria are met. First of all, an area must prove to be significant in our nation’s history, reflecting tradition and beliefs that support our national story. They must be deemed worthy of recognition and conservation by having an assemblage of natural, historic, and cultural resources that represent distinctive aspects of American heritage. The area must provide outstanding recreational and educational opportunities. And finally, residents, businesses and governments must work together to provide a financial plan, as well as, a community willing to work together to maintain and preserve the land and heritage.

Unlike National Parks that are owned and protected by the federal government, NHAs have ownership of their land. The Mississippi Gulf Coast National Heritage Area (MGCNHA) is overseen by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources. The National Park Service (NPS) works with NHAs on an advisory level only, providing some support and limited funding. "Our experience working with heritage areas around the country has led us to the recognition that the people who live on the land are uniquely qualified to protect it.” -NPS This independence is necessary so that the local businesses, organizations, and governments work together to provide a greater sense of community, care for their land, and protect their culture.

The evidence of our distinction can be found in the breakdown of the Mississippi Gulf Coast National Heritage Area tagline: Historically Innovative, Naturally Flavorful

Native Americans first came to the coast thousands of years ago, and settled along the areas rivers and bays, where they fished and farmed the riverbanks. They used our waterways for trade and commerce to bring goods from all over North America to their villages. However, the natives were not the only ones to be drawn to this land.

French ships first appeared on the horizon in 1699. A fort was built and a settlement founded, making this area one of the "oldest, continuously occupied communities in the nation.” Then came the War of 1812. Dozens of British warships occupied the south and used Ship Island as a port in preparation for The Battle of New Orleans. Ship Island once again saw military action during the civil war and was used as a prison for Confederate soldiers.

Today, the Gulf Coast is home to Keesler Air Force Base, which specializes in ground training for all branches of the military; and the Air Force Reserve that is home to the Hurricane Hunters, the Department of Defense’s only squadron that still flies into storms. Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula is a major contributor to the economic growth of our area, and has produced 70% of the US Naval fleet of warships. And John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County is NASA’s rocket testing facility. We can see that history could not help but lend itself to innovation.

The still waters of the Mississippi Sound are created by the barrier reefs that separate us from the rest of the Gulf Coast and provide a natural nursery for the local seafood that is a critical part of our economy and identity in the region.

The white sand beaches, oak trees, wildlife, marsh and swamps of the estuaries, and spectacular sunsets create inspirational backdrops for photographers, painters, sculptors, writers and more. Museums, bookstores, and galleries all showcase local and nationally acclaimed artists.

The unique sound of the south has roots in the blues, and it’s influence can be heard during the festivals that celebrate life on the coast. Experience nature lending itself to flavor through the seafood that comes from our Gulf, the music that was born of our traditions, and the art that reflects the beauty present here.

Strengthening the sense of heritage identity and conserving our natural and cultural resources are goals of the Mississippi Gulf Coast National Heritage Area. "Nature-based tourism is an important component” of their mission. They also promote and market the area, and work with local businesses for "community driven initiatives that connect local citizens to the preservation and planning process.”

One of the ways they plan to achieve their goals is through the Gulf Coast Outpost Program beginning this year. "It will recognize businesses that are knowledgeable about the coast’s natural environment and take steps to protect the environment.” A logo declaring a business as An Official Gulf Coast Outpost will be available to identify an establishment as a good steward of our resources.

The MGCNHA is a technical resource for businesses to help establish working partnerships in conservation and preservation of our resources, culture, and traditions. To find out more, visit: http://msgulfcoastheritage.ms.gov/Mississippi-National-Heritage-Areas
Connie Raley