Things are definitely looking up for the US National Heritage Areas. Bedeviled by years of uncontrolled growth and meager funding, this program has long been a candidate for the most neglected offspring on the National Park Service (NPS) family tree. However, on March 14, 2012 NPS Director Jon Jarvis issued a policy memo that affirmed NPS support for the National Heritage Areas Program and encouraged NPS managers to help the areas succeed. Jarvis highlighted heritage areas as a critical element in the Agency’s broader effort to connect to the nation’s youth and diverse communities. He emphasized that heritage areas embody a regional approach to conservation, which is critical to understanding lived-in and working landscapes, waterways, battlefields and both the built and natural environment. These are welcome words and go a long way towards addressing the past lack of clarity about how the National Heritage Areas fit into the tight knit NPS culture that has traditionally been focused on parks and protected lands.
Another promising development is the introduction the long awaited National Heritage Areas Act (HR 4099) which would establish a legislative framework for the program within the NPS. The new bill has bipartisan sponsorship from Representative Charles Dent (R PA) and Tonko (D NY) and has already picked up 40 cosponsors from both parties. Efforts are underway to find a champion to introduce the bill in the Senate. The legislation contains many of the elements recommended in the 2006 National Park System Advisory Board report Charting a Future for National Heritage Areas.
More problematic is the future of twelve of the forty-nine National Heritage Areas whose funding authorization expires in FY 2012. Originally, it was thought that NPS funding for a 10 to 15 year time period would be adequate to launch each new heritage area. Congress, recognizing the challenge of finding dollars for regional initiatives and the program’s growing popularity, has provided decades of funding extensions for many areas. However, tough budgets times finally have caught up with this strategy. Although NPS evaluations of the program have shown that stable funding is critical to long-term success, today only five of the twelve areas have pending legislation to reauthorize their federal funding.
Funding has always been a sticking point for the program. While the NPS budget is over $2.4 billion , the heritage areas have struggled to survive on $17.4 million (FY 2012) divided 49 ways. Soon some of them may have even less. No wonder several older heritage areas are proposing more radical alternatives such as becoming units of the NPS. They are following the money and who can blame them?