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National Heritage Areas on the Brink

View of Wilkes-Barre in the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor

Talk about a cliffhanger!  As of now it looks like the funding for 12 of the 49 National Heritage Areas may be going over the edge.  The Living Landscape Observer reported on this possibility earlier this year, but expressed hope in a post on National Park Service Policy & Proposed Legislation  that new thinking and support of the program would save the day. However, Congress took no action on the long awaited National Heritage Area Program legislation (HB 4099) or on any of the individual funding extension bills. Now the passage of a continuing resolution to fund the federal government through March 27, 2013 leaves the 12 heritage areas in the lurch – the CR provides level funding for the broader National Heritage Partnership program, but without the requisite authorizing legislation, none of the 12 areas in jeopardy can access these dollars.

And here is what is so frustrating; within the National Park Service (NPS) support for the program is stronger than ever. Heritage areas were identified in the recent Call to Action 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.  In March of this year, NPS testified in favor of reauthorization legislation for a number of areas.

In a final irony, the NPS is just putting the finishing touches on evaluations of nine of the twelve area (evaluations of two of the earliest heritage areas were completed in 2006). These have not yet been released, but if the findings are anything like the earlier evaluations, it will reinforce Director Jarvis’s message that NHA’s are an important means for developing partnerships, engaging diverse communities, and protecting large landscapes. In other words, making the NPS relevant to a wide cross section of our nation’s people.

So what is the future for 12 areas? The short history of the National Heritage Area (NHA) program has been full of last minute saves. There are number of  “save the day” possibilities: Congress could pass a reauthorization bill after the election and before adjourning for the year; it could take legislative action when the members come back in 2013; or it could tackle the issue as part of adopting the other half of the FY2012 budget.  Whatever the outcome, this kind of brinksmanship along with all the other budget drama in Washington makes it difficult to keep building heritage partnerships that local communities can believe in.

The roll call: Augusta Canal National Heritage Area, Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, Essex National Heritage, John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, Lackawanna Valley National Heritage Area, Ohio & Erie Canalway National Heritage Area, Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area, National Coal Heritage Area, Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area, South Carolina National Heritage Corridor, and Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area.