LEWISTON – Congress has approved a 327-page management plan and environmental assessment that will permit a local commission to “begin to build the capacity of local historical societies and civic groups to help interpret the rich, diverse history” along the Niagara River, according to chairman of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area Commission.

“The approval of our management plan marks a significant milestone for the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area and the communities included within its scope,” said Chairman Thomas A. Chambers, a Niagara University professor. “Citizens and visitors can expect to see improved heritage tourism opportunities that will help build our area’s economy and vitality.

“This is a great moment for Western New York, and I think that the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area will become the most vibrant and thriving of the 49 national heritage areas across the United States.”

Chambers said the local commission will see an increase in funding of its federal grant with approval of the plan. Congress can appropriate up to $1 million a year for the Heritage Area Commission, up to a total of $15 million.

The commission’s mission “is to enhance public appreciation for the communities, significant historic and natural resources, and landscapes of the Niagara region.”

It seeks “to make interpretive, environmental, economic and social improvements that benefit residents and visitors alike.”

The commission’s headquarters is in Lewiston, and its 17 members meet about once a month.

The commission also announced this month that the National Park Foundation has awarded it an “America’s Best Idea” grant. The grant was was used to take about 600 fourth-graders from the Niagara Falls City School District on a field trip to Old Fort Niagara near Youngstown “in honor of the bicentennial of the War of 1812.”

An informal survey later indicated that nearly 81 percent of the students never visited Old Fort Niagara, which was a major military installation during the War of 1812.

The commission is developing a website but meanwhile is referring visitors to the official National Park Service site for the National Heritage Area:

The Heritage Area Commission operates in partnership with the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior.