A four-year effort to win designation of the St. Croix River watershed as a National Heritage Area has reached one of its last milestones before heading to Congress for a vote.

A feasibility study backing the creation of the North Woods and Waters of the St. Croix heritage area has been completed, and organizers behind the effort are looking for public comment before submitting the plan.

The National Park Service, which oversees the National Heritage Area program, has signed off on the study after determining that the plan meets all the necessary criteria, said Myron Schuster, executive director of the Northwest Regional Planning Commission. Based in Spooner, Wis., the commission has taken over as the lead agency for the project, and will oversee the Heritage Area once it is approved.

"We needed to get the Park Service to support the National Heritage Area for the St. Croix basin, and to basically convince them that this area has national significance," Schuster said. "And they decided that it did."

Draft legislation has already been prepared for the congressional delegation from the region to put to a vote once the 30-day comment period on the feasibility study is over at the end of the month. "We have not had anyone say no yet, so that's a good thing," Schuster said, adding that he is cautiously optimistic the Heritage Area will be approved.

49 Heritage Areas in nation

There are 49 such Heritage Areas across the nation — places like the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York, the Kenai Mountains of Alaska and the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah — but the one planned for the St. Croix watershed would be the first in either Minnesota or Wisconsin. The watershed stretches from Cable in northwest Wisconsin to where the river meets the Mississippi near Hastings, a 9,800-square-mile area that is one and a half times the size of New England. It includes 18 counties, four tribal nations, and more than 350 local units of government in the two states.

Heritage Areas are designated by Congress as places where natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a nationally important landscape. The designation serves as a basis for heritage conservation and economic development.

A study commissioned by the National Park Service earlier this year estimated that the annual economic benefit brought by all 49 Heritage Areas is $12.9 billion, supporting 148,000 jobs and generating $1.2 billion in federal taxes.

Although created around significant geographic regions, National Heritage Areas have no regulatory function and no restrictions or new rules over private land use. That makes them different from national parks, like the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway that extends along either side of the river.

The 207-page feasibility study is the result of years of work by a task force and the St. Croix Valley Foundation in Hudson, Wis., that involved numerous public meetings across the watershed. More than $265,000 in foundation grants and donations supported the work of the past two years.

Why region is significant

The heart of the study is its statement of why the region is nationally significant.

The St. Croix is one of the first nationally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers. This region, the study says, with the river and the large North Woods landscape that surrounds it, represents the shared history of the Upper Midwest.

"In this place, pine and hardwood forests, prairies, and thousands of miles of waterways connect the Great Lakes and the Mississippi, weaving together the life histories of many people through time — Ojibwe and Dakota; fur traders, loggers and farmers; European immigrants and new settlers — who traveled the rivers, traversed the land, and called this region home," it says. "From unrestrained use of natural resources to avid conservation and recreation, the existing landscape reflects competing ideas about the constantly evolving relationship between people and the natural world."

The goal, it adds, is to "create sustainable economic opportunities based on our region's heritage to enhance communities, livability, and quality of life."

"We look at it as an economic boost for the region," said Schuster. The Northwest Regional Planning Commission has been involved in such work in both Minnesota and Wisconsin for more than 50 years. "We started working on 'regionalism' before it became kind of a buzzword. So it's kind of a normal part of what we do for us to take this on."

Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @StribJAnderson