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Another Close Call for Heritage Areas

By Brenda Barrett March 28, 2013

Just when you think things cannot get more dire for the National Heritage Areas, the program found itself fighting a rearguard action as the Senate was poised to pass the FY 2013 budget – well, actually it was a continuing resolution (CR), which is what passes for a budget in Washington these days.

On Thursday March 17, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) proposed a amendment to strip away half of the funding for National Heritage Areas ($8.1 Million) and redirect much of the money to reinstate tours of the White House and for other national park service activities  His amendment would have also nixed a one-year extension for twelve areas that had reached the end of their authorization. And just to show that he was really serious, Coburn backed himself up with talking points and a press release to Fox News listing “wasteful heritage area projects’.  So all weekend, the NHAs scrambled their delegations on both sides of the aisle and on Wednesday March 20th the Senate defeated the amendment by a vote of 45-55. The Senate sent the CR back to the House minus the language harmful to NHAs. It passed the next day. Phew!

The short history of the National Heritage Area (NHA) program has been full of last minute saves. The Living Landscape Observer has posted several times on the brinksmanship that has characterized the life of heritage area leaders. See this piece from last year for example.

What is truly hard to swallow about this most recent attack was that Coburn’s most damming indictment of the program came directly from the mouth of the current administration. The Department of the Interior FY 2013 budget request  recommended an $8.1 reduction from the  $17 appropriated for the program in FY 2012.  The rationale stated in the budget document was:  The National Park Service is proposing to reduce funding for the National Heritage Areas program for FY 2013 by roughly 50 percent. This proposed reduction would allow the Park Service to focus its available resources on sustaining park operations and other critical community partnership programs. Managers of NHAs continue to rely heavily on Federal funding, although the program was not intended as a pathway to long-term Federal funding for individual Heritage Areas” Ouch!

Over the past year the National Park Service’s Call to Action identified NHAs as a promising strategy. Director John Jarvis has spoken out strongly in favor of the approach and has issued a policy directive that reinforced the importance of these partnerships.  The agency is in favor of legislation to establish a NHA program.  The next big step — send a new message on the value of NHA to Congress with the right price tag – how about $49 million in FY 2014?

Seriously, in these times of high budget drama and shrinking resources, the NPS should take advantage of partners like the NHAs with such proven and effective advocacy skills. What if everybody got on the same page?  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.


A Summit on National Parks: A New Landscape for the Next Hundred Years

By Brenda Barrett April 1, 2012

The America’s Summit on National Parks in Washington DC (January 24-26, 2012) was in the tradition of past large convocations to set the future direction for the National Park Service such as The Vail Agenda (1991), Discovery 2000 (St. Louis) and Joint Ventures (Los Angeles 2003), but with a key difference. The event was convened by the National Parks Conservation Association, the National Park Foundation and the National Park Hospitality Association and, of the 300 invitees to the summit, only 44 were employees of the National Park Service. The summit’s big idea was to use the agency’s centennial in 2016 to power the national parks’ second century. The National Park Service’s Call to Action (released August 25, 2011) framed most of the sessions of the two-day event.

Working on a landscape scale was very much in the foreground. Although the two sessions on Connecting and Conserving Landscapes were billed as cultural and as natural, the speakers blended both ideas and focused on the need to collaborate to conserve resources. The session, The Next Generation of America’s Parks: New Models and Opportunities, tackled another theme of the summit: How to expand the national park system to reflect the diversity of our cultural and natural heritage? While these sessions were based on two of the actions steps identified in the Call to Action report (See Action #1 Fill in the Blanks and Action #22 Scaling Up), the panelists took the ideas one step further. They spoke with an authentic partnership voice on the opportunities and frankly the difficulties of working with the National Park Service. They made real world recommendations that the agency must make if it wants to work on a larger scale and be ready for the next 100 years.

In his opening remarks, Secretary Salazar noted that only 3% of park units represent diverse communities and called for new thinking to broaden the agency’s base of support. Panelists at the break out sessions wondered why – if landscape scale projects and diverse perspectives are so important to the National Park Service – do national heritage areas, trails, and wild and scenic rivers receive so little funding. Tribal and other community partners also said they wanted to work with the parks, but were frustrated by the process. The Call to Action has its work cut out to address many of these issues.

In other observations, the summit’s many plenary sessions were packed, generating a stream of ideas from political, corporate, nonprofit leaders that this observer would analogize to “drinking from a fire hose.” It was clear that the summit planners subscribed to the maxim that if you want people to remember you then invite them to your party. Re-occurring themes were the importance of paying attention to youth and new audiences, but also the enduring value of the National Park Service as a brand.

 So what are the next steps?

All summit attendees were provided with a draft document “National Parks for a New Century: Statement of Joint Principles,” which as critiqued at the closing session for being too focused on park units and not representative of the many partnerships represented at the event. As a good first step, the summit planners have now revised the Statement of Joint Principles to be more inclusive and are actively seeking organizations to sign on as supporter. For more information on the summit speakers, sessions and notes on the highlights, visit the summit’s web site Taking Action.