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National Heritage Areas

  • Matthew White

    Concerned about the creeping uniformity of modern suburban life, many people are seeking a renewed ?sense of place? in their communities. The popularity of historical societies and preservation projects is a sign of this trend. Some people have discovered that adding the words ?nationally significant? to their area or region can result in millions of federal dollars funneled through National Heritage Areas (NHAs). What was once a regional or local project with community involvement can be partly underwritten by the government and overseen by the Nation Park Service.

    Thanks to NHAs, money from the federal government has been spent on projects such as waterwheel reconstruction in Philadelphia, folk music collection in North Carolina, building a coal mining archive inside a church in West Virginia, agricultural field trips for schoolchildren in Iowa, celebrating Creole culture in Louisiana, and interpreting water management in Colorado. NHAs range in size from small waterways such as the nine-mile Augusta Canal in Georgia to land corridors such as Rivers of Steel, a heritage area covering seven counties along the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers in Pennsylvania. Heritage areas include cities?Detroit, Lansing, and Flint are all part of the MotorCities Heritage area?and even an entire state, Tennessee.

    Heritage areas are of special interest now because of a controversial bill, the National Heritage Partnership Act, introduced by Senator Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) and Representative Joel Heffey (R. CO.). The sponsors hope to create an official program within the National Park Service and to formalize criteria for designating heritage areas. Right now, each heritage area is created by an individual law enacted by Congress.

    Opinion about the National Heritage Partnership Act is split in several ways. The National Park Service supports it because the act would solidify its authority as the nation?s preserver of cultural heritage as well as physical landmarks. But the National Trust for Historic Preservation, often an ally of the National Park Service, opposes it, fearing that the law?s explicit requirements will hamper future designations. Some conservatives favor the bill because they worry that without it heritage areas will lead to property abuses and government waste. Others don?t want any bill at all because they object to any federal government involvement in preservation.

    Why NHAs?

    Whether this bill is enacted or not, NHAs raise legitimate questions about the role of the federal government. To begin with, the potential scope of heritage areas is enormous. Forty-five million Americans now live within the 27 existing NHAs. Although the National Park Service does not control what happens in these areas?supposedly, decisions are made by ?management entities? composed of local groups?the agency provides money and technical expertise, as well as publicity and prestige, to these community projects.

    J. Peyton Knight, executive director of the American Policy Center, a property rights watchdog, told Congress that designation of NHAs corrupts local planning ?by adding federal dollars, federal oversight, and federal mandates to the mix.? He stated that if heritage areas ?were truly driven by local enthusiasm we wouldn?t even be here today? (Knight 2005). In his view, local funding will support those projects that command strong local interest.

    Brenda Barrett, the National Park Service?s national coordinator for heritage areas, disagrees. She contends that worry about federal intrusion is a big fuss over nothing. NHAs are simply an overlapping jurisdiction similar to water or sewage districts, voting districts, congressional districts, and so on. Furthermore, people ?beg? for NHAs, she says because they want to preserve their ?stories,? and NHAs are important tools for ?community revitalization.?1

    But of the 45 million people who live within NHAs, how many have even heard of them? R. J. Smith, an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says that the managers of NHAs (those who create the ?management entity? that makes decisions about heritage areas) are composed of ?elitists with a preservationist, environmentalist, conservationist agenda?which can be widely different from the day-to-day concerns of many, if not most, of the people who actually live on the land? (Smith 2004).

    NHAs move the federal government into one more aspect of private life. They provide justification for local governments that want to adopt cultural-heritage-related zoning laws and other land-use restrictions. Although ?designation as a National Heritage Area does not involve Federal regulation of private property,? according to the National Park Service (2005a), it gives local preservation interests the backing of the federal government. A heritage area ?benefits from national recognition due to its association with the National Park Service through the use of
    the NPS arrowhead symbol as a branding strategy,? says the National
    Park Service (2005b). If the local management group does not meet the standards of the federally approved management plan, funding will diminish or cease. This creates an incentive to bend to the wishes of the National Park Service.

    Despite such worries, NHAs are not a land grab?yet. Some, however, worry because the National Park Service agency has been taken to court numerous times for trying to restrict the freedom of inholders and persuade them to move out of the park boundaries .2 For example, a family that owns 410 acres within Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska has been suing the Park Service since 2003, trying to maintain access to its property.

    Expanding National Parks?

    Indeed, one goal of National Heritage Area proponents may be to add national parks. The management board of the Rivers of Steel NHA in Pennsylvania has announced that it wants to create an urban park, the Homestead Works National Park. The location would be on land currently designated for heritage use (Rivers of Steel 2005). This action would seem to undercut the stated claim that heritage areas ?allow the Park Service to fulfill this mission [preservation of historic and natural resources deemed nationally significant] without having to acquire or manage more land? (NPS 2005b).

    A redeeming feature of heritage areas is that they form only a minute portion of the federal budget. Currently, each heritage area can receive no more than $1 million per year, and all such funding has a sunset date between ten and fifteen years after funding starts. Funding is supposed to be seed money, matched by local private funding. In 2003 congressional testimony, however, de Teel Patterson Tiller, acting associate director for cultural resources for the National Park Service, admitted that ?to date, self sufficiency has yet to be achieved with any NHAs, and the first four NHAs established have sought and received Congressional extensions of their funding? (Tiller 2003). The dissipation of taxpayer-funded government resources may be small, but it may still be wasteful.

    Creating ?heritage areas? is not an inherently bad idea. The preservation of truly significant areas or historic sites opens up possibilities for research, education, and tourism. Around the country, private museums, historical societies, and state and city governments are doing just that. If they are supported by members of the local community, they can achieve the same results as NHAs?without losing local autonomy, wasting federal resources, or risking attacks on private property.

    1. Brenda Barrett, national coordinator for National Heritage Areas, National Park Service, Washington, DC, telephone interview, April 11, 2005.

    2. James Burling, principal attorney for property rights and natural resources, Pacific Legal Foundation, Sacramento, CA, telephone interview, May 10, 2005.

    Knight, J. Peyton. 2005. Statement. U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural
    Resources, Subcommittee on National Parks. Washington, DC: House of
    Representatives, March 15.
    National Park Service, Department of the Interior. 2005a. More about Heritage
    Areas. Online (cited May 9,
    ??? 2005b. What Is a National Heritage Area? Online (cited May 9, 2005).
    Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area. 2005. Homestead Works National ParkSite. Online (cited May9, 2005).
    Smith, Robert J. 2004. Testimony on S.2543, The National Heritage Partnership Act. Subcommittee on Parks, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.Washington, DC: U.S. Senate, June 24.
    Tiller, de Teel Patterson. 2003. Testimony on H.R. 280. Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands of the House Resources Committee. Washington, DC: U.S. House of Representatives, October 16. Online (cited May9, 2005).

    Matthew White is a journalist intern with PERC. He has degrees from
    Hillsdale College and Montana State University.

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