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Written in saltwater: It’s time to stand up for Washington’s maritime history

The Lady Washington, a replica of an historic ship, is Washington state's official ship. Credit: Courtesy of Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority.

Washington state's history is written on saltwater. For thousands of years, native peoples traded and traveled on Puget Sound and coastal waterways in sea-going canoes. In 1774, Spanish explorer Juan Perez was the first European to sight the coast of present-day Washington in his frigate Santiago. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver explored and mapped Puget Sound from his ship Discovery. Within a century, the human geography of the state we know today west of the Cascade Mountains took shape.

Professional and amateur historians, historical societies and small museums have spent decades telling the stories of the ships, lighthouses, waterfronts and shorelines of Washington and now they want to take another step toward educating local communities, the state's 6.9 million residents, and tens of thousands of visitors about Washington's maritime past. They have asked the Legislature to enact a law designating the state's saltwater shoreline a “Washington State Maritime Heritage Area.”

Without adding any new regulations affecting property owners, a Washington State Maritime Heritage Area enables non-profit organizations such as the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend, the Center for Wooden Boats in Seattle, and the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority in Aberdeen to improve coordination and marketing of the state's maritime heritage resources to neighboring states, the country as a whole, and nearby Canadian provinces.

Two bills, HB 2386 and its companion SB 6246, would create the heritage area. The bills are now under consideration at the state capitol. Neither proposal affects the state budget.

If enacted, the bills benefit the state in several ways. The heritage area promotes tourism by acknowledging the significance of maritime heritage attractions and resources. It increases public awareness of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Washington's Pacific Coast. And it fosters an appreciation of the maritime trades and the need for new workers in an industry vital to maintaining a diverse and strong state economy in the 21st century.

Maritime museums, chambers of commerce, and visitors bureaus would use the Washington Maritime Heritage Area designation on brochures and websites to entice people to waterfront attractions, including small businesses that serve locals and visitors. The heritage area also offers a visual opportunity to link maritime heritage attractions together, helping residents and visitors find their way to attractions, similar to the state's Scenic Byways program.

A state maritime heritage area may also get the attention of Congress. In 2010, the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation submitted a feasibility study to the National Park Service advocating for the creation of a national maritime heritage area on Washington's saltwater shores.

To date, Congress has designated 49 national heritage areas, but none are in Washington state. According to a recent report using NPS data, these areas contribute $12.9 billion annually to the U.S. economy. By creating a Washington State Maritime Heritage Area, the Legislature shows Congress that Washington's saltwater coast deserves similar recognition and a chance for similar benefits.

HB 2386 and SB 6246 enjoy wide public support. The Pacific Northwest Maritime Heritage Council, a coalition of 113 maritime heritage groups, museums, and historians, is lobbying lawmakers for passage of the bills. (Disclosure: I'm communications director for the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, a supporter of the bill.) All members of the King County Council signed a letter endorsing the heritage area.

As the author of two national maritime heritage guides and a history of the lumber schooner Wawona, I know that Washington State's maritime heritage is equal in significance to better-known stories from our east coast relations. Lawmakers in Olympia should pass a bill now to create a state maritime heritage area and send it to Gov. Jay Inslee's desk for signature.

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

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