MACHIAS — The entirety of Hancock and Washington counties could be deemed a National Heritage Area based on the work of a local economic organization.

The initiative, prompted by concern from members of the wild blueberry industry, has been spearheaded by the Sunrise County Economic Council. As some small growers and businesses have gone out of business, director Crystal Hitchings said the initial goal was to preserve the industry. It has since grown to encompass multiple facets of the Down East heritage.

The proposed area, which would be called the Downeast Maine National Heritage Area, includes the entirety of both coastal counties, “from the St. Croix River to the Penobscot River, and from the Bold Coast to the Grand Lakes,” a statement from the SCEC reads.

“The (National Heritage Area) program provides tools and matching funds to support community-guided planning and development based on local priorities for cultural and natural heritage preservation,” according to the statement.

How the federal funding can be used to develop community projects is far-reaching. “It can run a very broad gamut,” Hitchings said. “What do the community members value? And what do they need to create to help keep the things that they value alive?”

Some potential examples Hitchings listed are funding and expanding a blueberry heritage museum, creating educational programs about the area’s fisheries and how those may be affected by climate change and working with farmers who want to incorporate agrotourism into their farms.


Hitchings explained that the council’s application will first head to the National Park Service and U.S. Department of the Interior. If the application is deemed complete, it will be brought forward by the state’s congressional delegation and put into legislation. If approved, the project would be brought to Congress to be funded, which could happen in the spring.

“(The National Heritage Areas is) typically a well-supported program,” Hitchings said, noting that U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins from Maine are “very supportive” of the initiative.

According to the National Park Service, which sets the criteria for heritage sites, “National Heritage Areas are places where historic, cultural and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes.”

The areas differ from national parks in that they are “large lived-in landscapes” where communities “determine how to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs.”

An 18-month feasibility study, which was led by local representatives and received public input, was conducted to see if such a designation could be supported by the area. The public can view the study at and share their thoughts.

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