Amid the seemingly endless stories of threats to the Delta and the people who depend upon it, there is an occasional bright spot.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta was designated as a national heritage area (NHA) in March 2019. On Tuesday, Jan. 5, the first meeting of the NHA Management Plan Advisory Committee was held to begin the process of shaping the Delta NHA.
“The NHA designation for the Delta is a national recognition of something people here have known for a long time — this is a nationally significant place with a nationally significant rich story, or more accurately, stories,” said Mike Moran, supervising naturalist at Big Break Regional Shoreline and ex officio member of the advisory committee. “Through the organization and coordination of the myriad stakeholders under the Delta Protection Commission and National Park Service, we can more readily share those known and yet-to-be-known stories.”
The task of managing the development of the Delta NHA rests with the Delta Protection Commission (DPC). The NHA designation requires the commission to complete a management plan that will guide NHA activities for the next 10 to 15 years. Last fall, the commission chartered the advisory committee to ensure public engagement in the development of that plan, and a call was made for applicants interested in serving on that committee.
“One of the things that we specified in the charter was geographic diversity, generational diversity and cultural diversity,” explained Blake Roberts, Delta NHA coordinator for the DPC. “We were seeking a lot of different people to serve on the committee. With that, we were able to get a good array of people submitting applications. I think we’re really happy with the people we have on the committee.”
In November, the DPC approved the appointment of 15 committee members representing the five Delta counties — Contra Costa, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Solano and Yolo — plus four ex officio members. Erik Vink, DPC executive director, serves as the committee chair. A vice chair is expected to be selected during the February committee meeting.
“The big deliverable for us is the management plan,” Roberts said. “It will set up what kind of national heritage area we’re going to be. There are a lot of different types of national heritage areas. Some are more focused on tourism. Some are more focused on downtown economic development. Some are more focused on historic preservation. The management plan is the document that defines what the course of the national heritage is going to be and what types of projects are we going to go after.”
Within the advisory committee, four task groups will eventually be established focused on particular aspects of the management plan. Committee members will chair the task groups and address interpretation, resources stewardship, organization and heritage development and tourism.
“I think it’s important that people know about this,” said committee member Carol Jenson, a Brentwood-based historian and author. “People don’t know about there being a federal program regarding heritage areas, and if they did, they would probably think of Colonial Williamsburg. But the Delta is a heritage area. It’s a feather in our cap. But there’s more to it than that. The big deal is that people need to be aware that, all of the sudden, the California Delta has a brand-new political overlay. That is the federal government.”
The Delta NHA is one of only 55 in the country and the only NHA in California. A 10-year effort to earn the designation culminated with the passage of the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, but even those involved in the effort were caught off guard when the bill passed.
“We were a little surprised when it happened,” Roberts said. “I think that part of it is that you have to get a little lucky. Our bill got tossed into a bigger bill, and that got tossed into an even bigger bill. I remember looking at the Washington Post and being a little surprised that it passed the Senate on a pretty strong vote. That was February 2019, and that’s when I realized that this might actually happen, and it might happen quicker than we expected. Good fortune was on our side.”
NHAs are administered as part of the National Parks Service, but they differ from national parks in several key ways. There is no federal ownership of the land in an NHA, and they are generally areas that have been significantly altered by a human presence. They are not pristine, natural environments like Yosemite, Yellowstone or Grand Canyon national parks.
Additionally, the designation will not be a factor in any decision regarding the potential construction of a tunnel through the Delta as contemplated in the Delta Conveyance Project.
“These are meant to be lived in landscapes,” Roberts said. “Heritage is really about humans. We are obviously focused on the natural heritage because of the great biodiversity of the Delta. But it’s really about the human relationship with nature as opposed to being purely about nature.”