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NHA@30: Why do we need program legislation for National Heritage Areas?

By Brenda Barrett July 30, 2014

The first National Heritage Area (NHA) was designated thirty years ago and today there are 49 congressionally designated areas. As of July 2014, there are 9 more such areas waiting for congressional action and in the last two weeks both the Senate and the House held hearings to consider – S.2576, to establish the Maritime Washington National Heritage Area, and S. 2602 and HR 1785 to establish the Mountains to Sound Greenway National Heritage Area both in the State of Washington. The National Park Service’s (NPS) position on adding new areas is not going to be a surprise. For more than a decade the NPS has met all proposals for new NHAs with a variation on the following statement:

While a feasibility study has found the [fill in the blank] National Heritage Area appropriate for designation, we recommend that the Committee defer action on this legislation until program legislation is enacted that establishes guidelines and a process for designation of national heritage areas.

The NPS has advocated program legislation as the gold standard for NHAs since the 1990s. In 2006, the recommendation for crafting such legislation was the centerpiece of the National Park System Advisory report Charting a Future for National Heritage Areas and numerous other NPS white papers and calls to action have said the same thing. However, moving such legislation in the current congressional climate has not been an easy task. In fact, it has been so hard that for the last several congresses, the NPS has not even put forward its version of the NHA program bill.

For this reason, it is bit of a milestone that on July 29, 2014 the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation held a hearing on H.R. 445 the National Heritage Area Act of 2013. The bill is the result of the bipartisan hard work of Rep. Dent (PA-R) and Rep. Tonko (NY-D). Witnesses at the hearing included Rep. Dent, Stephanie Toothman Associate Director for the NPS, and Allen Sachse President of the Alliance on National Heritage Areas. Co-sponsor Rep. Tonko (NY-D), Rep. Clyburn (GA-D), and Rep. Grijalva (AZ-D) also spoke in support of the bill.

Of course there is still no NHA program bill in the Senate. At the recent hearing 0n S. 2602 and S. 1785, Senator Udall, the subcommittee chair, asked – when we already have 49 NHAs and there seems to be a standard process, why do we even need this legislation? So why do we need program legislation?

Well one reason is that the NPS says it is important. This is not an insignificant consideration. Other NPS programs, the national park system, the national trail system, national scenic rivers system, and external program like the National Register of Historic Places and the Land and Water Conservation program, all have legislation that provides authorization and sets clear program standards. While the NPS worked closely to help establish the earliest NHAs, in more recent years the areas have suffered from lack of funding and reduced support. If program legislation is what it takes to tighten these bonds with the NPS, then it is important.

The NPS’s July 29, 2014 testimony on H.R. 445 was very positive and strongly stated support for this lived-in landscape program and the role it plays in tell nationally important stories that celebrate our nation’s diverse heritage. The agency even proposed an amendment to the bill to establish the NHAs program as an ongoing responsibility of the National Park Service.

The Alliance of National Heritage Areas’ testimony at the hearing outlined NHA successes, highlighting a series of positive evaluations
of the program’s effectiveness and the economic benefits.  The Alliance also looked to H.R. 445 to change the process for designating new areas by requiring management planning before designation as a partial fix for some of the challenges in launching new areas.

There are still many hurdles to advancing NHA authorizing legislation. The NPS is proposing a number of amendments to H.R. 445. One of them would  limit funding to NHAs to $10 million over a fifteen-year period, which depending on how it is drafted,  could defund many of the older areas. This is probably a nonstarter. And of course there is still no companion bill introduced on the Senate side. However, based on the hearing on H.R. 445 in the house and the spark of interest in the legislation shown at the recent senate hearing, there seems to be reason to hope. The best news is that the NPS, the Alliance of NHAs, and a bipartisan coalition of 36 members in Congress are all united on the compelling value of the program. Just go to Section 2. Findings and Purposes  of H.R. 445 and repeat together….!

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