Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

National Heritage Areas: Combining the Conservation of Nature, History, and Culture with Local Economic Development

National heritage areas (NHAs) are a way to conserve and restore important natural, historical, and cultural resources for this and future generations while at the same time generating local economic activity through tourism. NHAs are established by Congress but administered by local entities with the assistance of the National Park Service. The National Park Service website tells us:

National heritage areas (NHAs) are designated by Congress as places where natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape. Through their resources, NHAs tell nationally important stories that celebrate our nation’s diverse heritage. Unlike national parks, NHAs are lived-in landscapes. Consequently, NHA entities collaborate with communities to determine how to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs.

National Heritage Areas. Source: National Park Service

National Heritage Areas. Source: National Park Service

An NHA is not a unit of the National Park System and does not affect private property rights. NHAs are administered by local entities with the assistance of the National Park Service. Many NHAs include federal public lands within their boundaries (more do not), and NHA status should be viewed as complementary to conservation of those lands. While it doesn’t directly elevate the conservation status of those lands, NHA status does confer recognition of their importance. With recognition comes public understanding of the need to conserve those federal public lands for this and future generations.

The first NHA, the Illinois and Michigan National Canal NHA, was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. As of April 2017, Congress has designated forty-nine NHAs in thirty-three states (but alas, not yet in Oregon). They vary greatly in size, from the immediate area of a single canal (the Augusta Canal NHA) to an entire state (the Tennessee Civil War NHA). There are thirteen bills pending in Congress as of April 2017 that pertain to NHAs—one to establish a national system of NHAs, eleven to establish or expand NHAs, and one to effectively kill off NHAs by denying federal funding.

The Role of the National Park Service

The National Park Service has a critical role in the establishment and administration of each NHA, lending technical and financial assistance to aid the local administration and public interpretation of the NHA, but these areas are not units of the National Park System. Here’s what the Park Service has to say about the program:

NHAs further the mission of the National Park Service (NPS) by fostering community stewardship of our nation’s heritage. The NHA program, which currently includes forty-nine heritage areas, is administered by NPS coordinators in Washington DC and six regional offices – Anchorage, San Francisco, Denver, Omaha, Philadelphia, and Atlanta – as well as park unit staff.

NHAs are not national park units. Rather, NPS partners with, provides technical assistance to, and distributes matching federal funds from Congress to NHA entities. NPS does not assume ownership of land inside heritage areas or impose land use controls. 

Through annual congressional appropriations, NPS passes funds to NHA entities. Although most entities are authorized to receive up to $1 million annually over a set period of time, actual annual appropriations range from $150,000 to $750,000. The financial assistance component of the program is secured with legal agreements, accountability measures, and performance requirements for NHA entities.

Conservation and Development

National heritage areas offer a little something for everyone: both conservation and development. As the National Park Service explains:

National heritage areas are a grassroots, community-driven approach to heritage conservation and economic development. Through public-private partnerships, NHA entities support historic preservation, natural resource conservation, recreation, heritage tourism, and educational projects. Leveraging funds and long-term support for projects, NHA partnerships foster pride of place and an enduring stewardship ethic.

The National Park Service lists these long-term benefits of NHAs:

Sustainable economic development – NHAs leverage federal funds (NHAs [receive an] average $5.50 for every $1.00 of federal investment) to create jobs, generate revenue for local governments, and sustain local communities through revitalization and heritage tourism.

Healthy environment and people – Many NHAs improve water and air quality in their regions through restoration projects, and encourage people to enjoy natural and cultural sites by providing new recreational opportunities.

Improved quality of life – Through new or improved amenities, unique settings, and educational and volunteer opportunities, NHAs improve local quality of life.

Education and stewardship – NHAs connect communities to natural, historic, and cultural sites through educational activities, which promote awareness and foster interest in and stewardship of heritage resources.

Community engagement and pride – By engaging community members in heritage conservation activities, NHAs strengthen sense of place and community pride.

According to the Alliance of National Heritage Areas (ANHA), “NHAs support more than 148,000 jobs throughout the nation, mainly in tourism, heritage preservation, conservation, or outdoor recreation. These jobs and volunteer opportunities are locally sourced and embedded in the communities they serve.”

The ANHA says this about economic impact:

National heritage areas support tens of thousands of jobs and contribute billions of dollars to local economies. 

NHAs are catalysts for economic development in the communities in which they are located. NHAs are affiliated with the National Park Service and are managed by independent federal commissions, nonprofit groups, or state or municipal authorities. They implement projects through public/private partnerships with a variety of stakeholders, and collaborate with state and local governments to ensure that the regional goals of cultural, historical, and natural resource protection are met. In the process, NHAs strive to improve the quality of life in their regions by fostering the development of sustainable economies.

An independent 2012 study by Tripp Umbach found that NHAs’ overall annual economic impact in the U.S. is $12.9 billion, which significantly exceeds the amount of federal funding provided to NHAs by as much as 5:1. The economic impact is comprised of three main areas: tourism, operational expenditures, and grantmaking activities; the majority of impact (99 percent) is generated by tourism spending.

The economic impact is significant in two ways:

•       $4.6 billion in direct impact, which includes tourist spending, NHA operational expenditures, and grantmaking activities.

•       $8.3 billion in indirect and induced impacts, which includes employee spending and businesses supporting the tourism industry.

Legislation to Establish a National Heritage Areas System

While Congress has established forty-nine NHAs as of April 2017, it has not enacted any organic act that would ensure consistency of congressional designation, local administration, and National Park Service assistance. Pending in the present 115th Congress is H.R.1002, the National Heritage Area Act of 2017, introduced by Representative Charles W. Dent (R-15th-PA) and twenty-six cosponsors (sixteen Democrats and ten Republicans) from ten states. Here’s the official summary of the legislation:

National Heritage Area Act of 2017

This bill establishes a National Heritage Areas System to recognize certain areas of the United States that tell nationally significant stories and to conserve, enhance, and interpret the areas’ natural, historic, scenic, and cultural resources that illustrate significant aspects of U.S. heritage. Through such system, the Department of the Interior may provide technical and financial assistance to local coordinating entities to support the establishment, development, and continuity of such areas.

The system shall be comprised of:

•       such areas designated by Congress under this bill;

•       such areas designated after enactment of this bill, unless the law designating the area exempts it from inclusion in the system; and

•       49 specified areas; and

•       any other national heritage areas designated before this bill’s enactment.

National heritage areas shall not be considered to be units of the National Park System.

Interior shall: (1) undertake studies as directed by Congress to assess the feasibility of designating proposed national heritage areas, (2) approve or disapprove the management plan prepared by the local coordinating entity for an area, and (3) evaluate the accomplishments of an area every 10 years after its designation and submit a recommendation on whether federal funding for such area should be continued, reduced, or eliminated.

The bill: (1) specifies the criteria that Interior shall apply to determine the suitability and feasibility of designating proposed national heritage areas, and (2) states that the designation of an area shall be by federal statute and contingent on the prior completion of a management plan and an affirmative determination by Interior that the area meets such criteria.

Potential National Heritage Areas in Oregon

The number of NHAs that Congress could designate in Oregon is limited only by local imagination—and follow-through. Here are the first two that came to my mind:

• Redwoods–Wild Rivers Coast (southern Coos and Curry counties, and Del Norte County, CA)

Think coast redwoods, Port Orford cedars, wild rivers, old-growth forests, historic logging, cranberry bogs, Aleutian Canada geese, darlingtonia bogs, Easter lilies, covered and other historic bridges, microbreweries, wilderness areas, fresh seafood, rare and unique wildflowers, saltwater taffy, Oregon myrtle / California bay trees, rocky ocean views, Pacific salmon, Oregon Coast Trail, and the site of the only aerial bombardment of the U.S. mainland in World War II.

• Serpentine Siskiyou (the watershed of the Illinois Valley in Josephine County)

Think extraordinary biological diversity of trees and flowers, wineries, wilderness areas, historic mining areas (the northernmost extension of the California gold rush), salmon and steelhead, darlingtonia bogs, Kalmiopsis leachiana, historic smoke jumpers, local cron (sic) for sale, and historic Kirbyville.

And how about these:

• Mouth of the Columbia (Clatsop and Columbia counties, OR, and Wahkiakum and Pacific counties, WA)

• Basque Country (Jordan Valley in Malheur County)

• Heart of the Willamette Valley (Polk, Yamhill, Linn, and Benton counties)

• Sauvie Island (Multnomah and Columbia counties)

• South Umpqua Watershed (Douglas County)

• Blue Mountains (Wallowa, Umatilla, Grant, Union, Wheeler, and Baker counties)

• Oregon High Desert (Lake and Harney counties)

• Basin and Range (Harney and Lake counties)

• Tillamook Valley (Tillamook County)

• Willamette Falls (Clackamas County)

• Fossils, Wheat, and Wind Towers (Wheeler, Gilliam, and Morrow counties)

• Willamette River (Lane, Benton, Linn, Polk, Yamhill, Clackamas, and Multnomah counties)

• Applegate Valley Water, Wildlife, Walks, and Wine (Jackson County)

NHAs are a conservation tool—not just for the conservation of natural values but also for the conservation of history and culture. NHAs are managed cooperatively by local interests; no federal regulation is involved. Federal assistance is given through the National Park Service to help communities first study, then establish and eventually manage and market NHAs as tourist attractions. NHAs do not replace but rather complement conservation areas (such as wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, national monuments, and national recreation areas) on federal public lands.

The Cache la Poudre River runs through Northern Colorado’s history. Its story is crucial to understand the area's system of water management, the evolution of the area's economy and changes in recreational activities. Credit: National Park Service

The Cache la Poudre River runs through Northern Colorado’s history. Its story is crucial to understand the area's system of water management, the evolution of the area's economy and changes in recreational activities. Credit: National Park Service

[This post was adapted from the just-published Larch Occasional Paper #22, entitled National Heritage Areas: Combining the Conservation of Nature, History, and Culture with Local Economic Development.]