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National Heritage Areas: Celebrating the Greatness of America

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard T. Moore
May 13, 2019

According to the National Park Service website:

“National Heritage Areas are places where historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important regions. Unlike national parks, National Heritage Areas are large lived-in landscapes. Consequently, National Heritage Areas collaborate with communities to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs.”

At least 55 regions in 34 states of the United States have been designated by Congress in the past 35 years since President Ronald Reagan signed legislation designating the Illinois and Michigan Canal Heritage Area, calling it, “A new kind of national park.” These heritage areas, “Tell nationally important stories that celebrate our nation’s diverse heritage.”

In an article written in 2005 for the George Wright Forum, author Brenda Barrett explained:

“The development of a heritage area initiative is a locally driven strategy by which a region identifies its common values and its heritage. This strategy is distinguished by its collaborative nature, working across boundaries both political and disciplinary, to create a common vision for a region based on its shared heritage. It gives residents of a region a sense that they can determine the future, and that it will be a more valuable future if it builds on the past and includes the landmarks and stories that gives the place a sense of continuity. Heritage areas may encompass watersheds, regional landscapes with a distinctive culture, and political subdivisions, but whatever the underlying heritage values, they are first understood and mapped in the minds of the people who live there.”

While the National Park Service provides technical, planning, and limited funding assistance to National Heritage Areas, they operate more as, “Grassroots, community-based non-profits,” working with the communities in their respective regions to make cultural and environmental heritage more relevant to local interests and needs, such as promoting tourism and economic development. Heritage areas promote resource stewardship through community-driven initiatives staffed primarily with volunteers. They are considered to be an especially cost-effective approach to preserving historic properties and lands that help to tell the American story, leveraging an average of $5.50 from non-federal sources for every federal dollar invested.

Heritage areas generally steer clear of property rights and land management debates by not owning land. Heritage areas, as non-profits, attract donations from other levels of government and private sources that might not be provided to a federally owned and operated activity since donors tend to feel that the federal government already has access to our tax dollars. The national parks do receive some charitable support from the National Parks Foundation to help off-set shortfalls in federal spending.

To be sure, National Heritage Areas have some detractors. The American Policy Center has publicly opposed the establishment of heritage areas, stating, “In this day of massive government control over so much of our land, our economy, and our basic ability to live free lives, we must be cautious and look at the details of plans, no matter how innocent or well-meaning they may seem. National Heritage Areas are such a concern.” In 2007, the Heritage Foundation raised primarily fiscal concerns regarding the cost to federal taxpayers of national heritage areas, as well as these areas’ continued growth and expansion.

Experience with heritage areas suggests that the concerns alleged by the Center are not valid. First, the management of each heritage area is the responsibility of local non-profit boards. Heritage areas don’t usually impose restrictions or regulations on private property, if at all. Finally, heritage areas have a long track record of successful preservation efforts assisting, rather than controlling, locally directed historic preservation and environmental conservation activities. Heritage areas strive to be open and transparent with their plans and activities since their success is directly related to public acceptance and support. A genuine national significance is key to attracting public interest and support for the success of the area.

There is an opportunity currently being considered by Congress to improve the administration of National Heritage Areas in the form of legislation designated as H.R. 1049. The bill would group all current heritage areas under one statutory umbrella giving all the same expiration date rather than the current patchwork of individual expiration times for each area. The bill would also authorize and cap, though not yet actually appropriate, up to $700,000 per year for each of the national heritage areas. Sponsors and advocates of H. R. 1049 should also take time to address any legitimate concerns that are raised in opposition to the legislation or to the existence of heritage areas. An important point might be to establish standards for evaluating and funding the existing heritage areas as well as for guiding Congress in deciding eligibility of other regions that might seek NHA designation in the future. These objectives follow recommendations from the GAO submitted in March 2004. It’s time for Congress to act!


Author: Richard T. Moore has served in both elective and appointed public office at local, state, and federal levels of government. He served for nearly two decades each in the Massachusetts House and Senate, as well as being chosen as President of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Mr. Moore has served as a commissioner, and twice Chair, of the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission and is currently Vice Chair of the non-profit successor to the Corridor Commission. Mr. Moore is a long-time member of ASPA serving terms as Massachusetts Chapter President and National Council member. His email address is: [email protected].

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