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NHA@30: Program Legislation for National Heritage Areas

Today there are 49 National Heritage Areas (NHA) stretching from Florida to Alaska and each area has its own individual legislative authorization.  But authorizing legislation for the overall program has been an unattainable goal.  Beginning in 1993* comprehensive program bills have been drafted and re-drafted, then introduced, only to fall flat on their face in one Congressional session after another. The current NHA program bill, the National Heritage Areas Act of 2013 (H.R.445), was introduced in the house with bipartisan support; there is no Senate companion bill.

Over the last thirty years the lack of NHA program legislation has n been a barrier to the growth of the program. However, it has been raised as a hurdle to its legitimacy. It has been used to justify cutting the NHA budget and opposing any and all recent NHA proposals.  One could argue that program legislation is not needed. After all the NPS has the organic act and Congress has designated each National Heritage Area just as they have designated each unit of the National Park Service. In addition the language in the recent NHA designation bills is almost identical so the issue of setting a standard of practice is of less concern.

What is of concern is the connection between the National Park Service and the National Heritage Areas.  There are so many good reasons for the NPS to embrace the NHAs: to tell diverse stories from the perspective of the people who own the narrative, to build a stewardship ethic in large landscapes, and to provide a living context for national park units. Director Jarvis enumerated these reason and more in a 2012 Policy Memorandum. And yet despite these mutual benefits this connection is at risk. If a legislative foundation for the program will help bridge this gap, then this legislation should be a high priority.

So what are the odds that NHA program legislation will move this Congress? Not very likely according to sources on both the Senate and House committees.  The house bill is not scheduled for a hearing and there is no bill in the Senate. The NPS has repeatedly stated the agency’s support for the concept, but has not taken a position on HR 445.  And in fairness to all, this is a very hard time to get any NPS bills beyond a no cost park name change moving in Congress.

So what would it take to make a difference? Here are a few ideas:

  • Advocate for a hearing in the Committee on HR 445.  Yes this is a tough environment, but the bill has articulate and committed cosponsors in Congressman Dent (R-PA) and Congressman Tonko (D-NY). Overall NHAs have bipartisan support in the house with 35 sponsors signed on to HR 445.
  •  Find a powerful champion. The last time a NHA program bill made real progress was in in 2006 when with the leadership of Senator Thomas (R-WY), then chair of the subcommittee on National Parks, legislation was reported out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  The new chair of the committee is familiar with the issue with two NHA in her home state.
  • Harness the political power of all NHAs. With the  delegations from the existing  49 areas and the supporters of the eight ** proposed NHA bills introduced in this congressional session that is a lot of horsepower.
  • The Centennial is coming! Take advantage of the upcoming NPS commemoration. How about program legislation as a NPS priority to celebrate this major milestone?

A recent article in the National Park and Conservation Association’s magazine (Spring 2014) called national heritage areas “the next generation of national parks”.  Perhaps now is the time to officially welcome them into the family.


*  The first NHA program bills were introduced in 1993 in the 103rd Congress. (1993-1994) The American Heritage Areas Partnership Program Act of 1993 (Introduced in House the then chair of chair of the Natural resources Committee– Rep Bruce Vento and another version the National Partnership System of Heritage Areas Act (Introduced in House by Rep Hinchey of New York.  No surprise, given the sponsor’s home state, the Hinchey bill grandfathered in all existing NHAs as well as the whole New York State Urban Cultural Park System.  Neither bill gained much traction or passed the house or senate.

** NHA legislative proposals  awaiting action  are the  Alabama Black Belt National Heritage Area Act, Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Study Act, Buffalo Bayou National Heritage Area Act, Mountains to Sound Greenway National Heritage Area Act, St. Croix National Heritage Area, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area, Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area Act, and Susquehanna Gateway National Heritage Area Act.