Coupeville helps anchor national Maritime Heritage Area

— Created January 27, 2021 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

Anyone who has spent any time at all on Whidbey Island knows the pride attached to the island’s maritime history is real. Major events, such as MusselFest and Penn Cove Water Festival in Coupeville, revolve around the water – they are part and parcel of the community’s longstanding history as one of the oldest towns in the state.

No wonder, then, the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association is serving as one of the anchor organizations on the ground floor of the Maritime Washington National Heritage Area. The MWNHA was designated by Congress in 2019 and encompasses 3,000 miles of saltwater shoreline. The area stretches from Grays Harbor County to the Canadian border and includes the Straits of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation will oversee the heritage area, which includes 18 federally recognized tribes, 13 counties, 32 incorporated cities and 30 port districts.

While the Maritime Heritage Area was designated in 2019, planning is really just getting underway, and the Trust for Historic Preservation is only now looking for the public to jump on board to help make plans. The nonprofit organization held an online informational meeting last week to answer some basic questions about the project.

“National Heritage Areas…are a geographic area that has a landscape of national importance with nationally significant stories to tell,” explained Chris Moore, executive director of the WTHP. “They are programs that are intended to build partnerships to be able to highlight and raise awareness about the rich history of an area, in our case the rich maritime heritage and maritime history, and to better communicate and tell those stories that make our maritime heritage so important and so special and so significant for the country overall. But partnerships and story-sharing is really at the key of what national heritage areas are all about.”

There are only 55 NHAs across the country and according to Moore, the bulk of them are located in the Midwest or eastern portion of the United States. This makes the Maritime Washington area one of the first three heritage areas designated on the West Coast and the only NHA to focus entirely on maritime heritage.

“We’re really excited to see what has been a robust program from a heritage tourism standpoint, from an economic development standpoint, make its way to the West Coast,” he said.

National Heritage areas fall under the umbrella of the National Park Service, although they are not run by NPS. As a federally designated area, some funding is allotted, but all federal dollars must be matched on a local level, making it more of a grassroots effort, as all heritage areas are operated at the local level, according to Moore.

“They’re community driven, they’re partnership driven, and that’s what we want to start out with today, emphasizing the fact it’s the communities within the national heritage areas that help to determine…what the priorities should be,” he said.

According to Moore, the WTHP initially set goals for the Maritime Heritage Area when a feasibility study was done in 2010. Those goals included things like sharing maritime heritage, promoting tourism, collaborating with community heritage groups, celebrating working waterways and supporting healthy marine waters. These goals may be refined or updated as formal work on the heritage area begins in ernest, but the goal is not to usurp established collaborations and partnerships already at play in the Maritime Heritage Area.

“I think it’s important to note that it’s not just history,” said Moore. “It’s about those communities, vibrant and ongoing today – working waterfronts, the whole conservation efforts around healthy marine waters. Tourism is certainly part of it, as is economic development and heritage tourism, making sure people understand our kind of network and how our coastal communities are really all connected overall, even though we have distinct and unique stories to tell.

“We want to be responsive as we go through this process, identifying needs, looking at hopes, that sort thing,” he continued. “We want to continue to raise awareness and get people out to what we think really is one of best places there is, and that’s our Maritime Area of Washington state.”

The next stage of the process involves finalizing a management plan. It must be completed by spring of 2022 and then it must be submitted to the National Park Service for approval.

“This management plan, this roadmap, as I like to think about it, will include directional guidance for the heritage area,” said Alex Gradwohl, project manager for WTHP. “Mission, vision, values, goals, what the heritage area hopes to achieve.”

The plan will also include a resource inventory, business and partnership structure, a framework for tribal collaboration and a marketing plan. Anyone who lives within the boundaries of the Maritime Heritage Area can contribute.

“We really want to figure out what people value, what stories and what activities can the heritage area support,” explained Gradwohl, adding that a steering committee has been formed to help in this effort.

Several anchor organizations, including the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association, are tasked with spreading the word about the work now underway to help put the new management plan together, publicizing meetings, work groups, etc., to give members of the public the opportunity to participate in the process.  

“We know that local partners know their communities better than anyone and can really help us make sure that everyone has a chance to make their voices heard,” Gradwohl said.

Upcoming opportunities over the next several months include workshops, surveys, mapping activities, social media and reviewing the draft management plan. Anyone interested can sign up for email updates to track the program’s progress or to volunteer by going to

Whidbey Weekly reached out to the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association for comment but did not receive a response before print deadline.