On the Thirtieth Anniversary of the National Heritage Areas (NHA), one thing we can celebrate is that the program is still alive and still funded. In the 2014 federal budget, the 49 NHAs felt fortunate to receive an appropriation of $18.2 million as the administration’s FY 2014 request to Congress was for only $9 million. This demonstrates the resilience and political heft of the NHA idea. How many National Park Service programs can go to Congress and double their money?
Once upon a time there was much more alignment of interest in the budget process. The National Park Service’s (NPS) budget request for the NHAs and Congress’s give was (give or take a few across the board trims and special bonus dollars) approximately the same number. For example in the early 2000s the requested and enacted amounts were only 10% apart and a number of NHAs achieved the almost impossible – authorized funding of close to $1 million. Of course there were many fewer of them and the NHAs place in the budget was still being sorted out between the many arcane pots of money in the National Park Service (ONPS, Stat. Aid and NR&P). But for more than a decade this has not been the case. At one particularly low moment the NPS FY 2007 budget request zeroed out the whole program. The result – NHA leaders became even more skilled in advocating for their cause and Congress went ahead and put the money back. After that experience NPS reductions for the NHA budget have been hovering at a more modest 50%. And every year a great deal of energy is expended to refund the program.
Why has this happened? Over the years the NPS and its advisory bodies have consistently written glowing reports on the value of the program. Just take a look at the Charting a Future for National Heritage Areas and a Call to Action: Preparing for a Second Century of Stewardship and Engagement. A recent evaluation of 12 longstanding NHAs concludes that they are focused on their mission, well managed, and cost effective, but, without continued NPS funding, may not survive. There are many rationales for this budgetary disconnect. The argument has been made that federal funding for NHAs was just start up money, that in hard financial times sacrifices must be made, that program legislation needs to be in place before the NHAs can be fully funded etc.… And yet still the NHA’s come. Today there are 49 areas and more are waiting in the wings.
So here is a 30th Anniversary idea. What if those planning the Centennial of the National Park Service made common cause with leaders of the NHA movement and harnessed their considerable advocacy skills and deep knowledge of the political process to help float everyone’s boat. What if everybody got on the same page? Emerging NHAs, National Scenic and Historic Trails, Wild and Scenic Rivers and other partnership parks could all benefit from this approach. Then we could start building the kind heritage partnerships that will sustain the places we care about not just for one congressional cycle, but for the next generation.
March 2013 – Another Close Call for National Heritage Areas
September 2012 – National Heritage Areas on the Brink