From charming river towns like Stillwater to woodsy cabin country around Cable, Wis., the 8,000-square-mile St. Croix River watershed is a place of rich history and a cultural life as vibrant as it is varied.

An initiative begun last year may lead to its designation by Congress as a National Heritage Area. Heritage areas are a voluntary and community-based approach to heritage conservation and economic development.

There are 49 heritage areas nationwide — places like the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York, the Kenai Mountains of Alaska and the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah.

The areas have two things in common: They are significant to the nation’s history and culture, and they have unique stories to tell.

Supporters are convinced that the St. Croix Valley also meets those criteria, and that the benefits will flow regionwide.

After a series of local meetings in the 11 counties in both states, and regional gatherings culminating in a final summit last month in Taylors Falls, the consensus among the cross-section of business, environmental, historical and other groups was to go ahead with the process.

“We were pretty skeptical in the beginning — we knew it was going to be a big undertaking, and we really weren’t sure if the expenditure of resources was going to be worth it,” said Marty Harding, who is chairwoman of both the regional task force studying the idea of creating a National Heritage Area and the St. Croix Valley Foundation.

The Hudson, Wis.-based nonprofit has taken the lead in organizing the months of public discussion on the plan since early in 2012. It’s still many months from completion.

“It’s been quite a journey of bringing all these people and interests together,” Harding said. The strong showing of support from such divergent, and sometimes conflicting, interests was encouraging, she added, and will be needed as the move to congressional designation goes forward.

Though created around significant geographic regions, National Heritage Areas have no regulatory function, no restrictions or new rules over private land use, explained Jill Shannon, the foundation’s director of community partnerships. That makes them different from national parks, like the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway that extends along either side of the river from its source at Upper St. Croix Lake in northwestern Wisconsin to where it meets the Mississippi River at Prescott, Wis.

Heritage areas offer benefits like economic development (including leveraging federal funds), improving the environment and local quality of life, promoting education and cultural stewardship and bolstering community pride.

Tourism accounted for $1.2 billion in the 11 counties in 2010, supporting 29,000 jobs. In a recent survey, nearly 80 percent of leisure travelers in the United States said they were seeking cultural and heritage experiences.

“What makes us nationally unique is that, in some ways, this area tells the story of the Upper Midwest,” Shannon said.

People have inhabited the St. Croix Valley for more than 12,000 years, drawn to both its beauty and abundance of resources. Every culture — Native American, then European and recent newcomers — has left its mark, and the river, in turn, has had a part in defining each generation. “They came together because of the St. Croix and its connection to the Mississippi and the Great Lakes,” Shannon said. “People have continually been redefining their relationship with the land.”

The story of the region is one of perseverance through years of change, she added: “It’s still a wild place. It’s still a place of great beauty.”

Now that the idea for a National Heritage Area has some momentum, Harding said, supporters face some big decisions. Foremost among them is designating a “coordinating entity” to take formal charge of the designation effort. The next step is a feasibility study to be completed late this year