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National Heritage Areas at Thirty: Help tell the Story

By Brenda Barrett November 29, 2014
Credit: Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor

Aqueduct on the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor. Photo by Illinois & Michigan Canal NHC

In August of 1984, President Reagan signed the legislation to create a new kind of National Park Service designation – the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor. The heritage  corridor or area idea was conceived as a way to cross the culture –nature divide and leap political boundaries with the goal of blending public-private resource conservation, interpretation, and community revitalization. Heritage areas tell stories that are too big, too gritty, too alive, and just plain too expensive to be confined to the boundaries of traditional national park unit. And heritage areas harness grassroots energy to power all this good work. Over and over the National Park Service (NPS) has touted the NHA approach to partnership and community engagement.  Reports such as the now ten year old Charting a Future for the National Heritage Areas, and the recent Call to Action call out the program as the future of the park service. Over and over evaluations  of the heritage area program have documented effective management, and the cost efficient resource conservation and recreational development.

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the National Heritage Area (NHA) program, but don’t celebrate too soon. NHAs across the nation are facing a perilous time. The now 49 National Heritage Areas stretching from Atlantic coast to the state of Alaska are struggling to survive. They have been hammered by shrinking federal budgets, questions about the role of government, and even their right to exist.

The Living Landscape Observer (LLO) follows the large landscape movement and in our opinion NHAs are some of the most innovative regional initiatives out there. Yet with the future of the program at risk, it is time to try and tackle some of the difficult political and programmatic questions. For example,  with so many National Heritage Areas across the country and Congress proposing to designate more, why is the sustainability of this program at risk? With such intense interest in landscape scale work and collaborative approaches to conservation and community engagement, what can be learned from NHAs? Who are the partners that have similar mission and can help support the program? How can the heritage areas be repositioned to further the National Park Service’s stewardship role in the 21st century?

With all these glowing reports and the NPS Centennial of the National Park Service right around the corner in 2016, this is the right time to have a critical dialogue on the past, present, and future of the NHA idea. So as our contribution to the thirtieth anniversary, NHA@30, we plan to:

  • Post articles in the LLO newsletter every month starting this January through December 2014 on the foundations of the program and the issues facing heritage areas today
  • Produce a short history of the NHA program – available on the LLO web site in June 2014.
  • Provide a current conditions assessment on the program – available on the LLO web site July 2014.
  • Conduct surveys, hold meetings, and have discussions on the future of NHAs with diverse partners and interested parties.
  • Publish our insights and recommendations on NHAs in December 2014.
  • Seek to engage young scholars in the field of landscape scale resource conservation by asking for their essays and contributions.

Help us tell the Whole Story: We are seeking opinion pieces, comments, and stories on NHAs…so join us in the discussion about the program’s future. Contact us with your ideas!

bbarrett@livinglandscapeobserver.net or emahoney@livinglandcapeobserver.net

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Charting a Future: National Heritage Corridor to become our next National Park?

By Brenda Barrett May 24, 2012

Interested in the future of National Heritage Areas or in the bigger issue of partnership management in the National Park Service (NPS)?  If so, the proposed legislation to rethink the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor may be of interest.

In the past, one of the selling points for designating National Heritage Areas was offering a model that was   an alternative to a NPS park unit. Within the boundary of a heritage area, the NPS would not own any land, would avoid costly maintenance of historic buildings, and would be able to count on partners and volunteers to make a major contribution to the work.  In return, the NPS would be able to tell nationally important stories of industry, agriculture and cultural heritage on a large landscape scale that would otherwise be impossible to imagine. This was certainly the idea in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan signed into law the first national heritage corridor along the Illinois and Michigan Canal. This model was also fresh in Congress’s mind when they created the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor two years later.

For a quarter of a century the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Commission, in partnership with the NPS, has managed a 550 square miles corridor that spans two state and 24 communities. The landscape of the Blackstone Valley illustrates an arc of the nation’s industrial history stretching from sites of early industrial innovation to environmental exploitation, then abandonment, and finally regeneration. The mission of the Blackstone Valley Commission included both natural and cultural resource conservation. It boldly tackled issues like water quality, local land use and even leadership training for residents and government officials. The commission was recognized as a model for partnership management of a living landscape.

Despite these successes, the community, political leaders and the NPS seem to have taken a new path and are proposing to create a new National Park unit. A recent NPS Special Resource Study (2011)  recommended a more traditional approach – the creation of the Blackstone River Valley Industrial Heritage National Park. The sweeping ideas of the original heritage corridor – partnership management of the valley – have been reduced to NPS staff preserving a collection of industrial heritage sites. And this is not just a study; Congress has introduced legislation to make it a reality. (See SB 1708 and HR 3191).

So why is this happening? One reason is clear just look at the NPS budget for National Heritage Areas. Unlike national park units who have predictable annual funding, the heritage areas funding has been shrinking just as the program has expanded. For the last decade the Blackstone Commission has had to lobby for adequate funding every year, making long-range planning, implementation of multi-year projects, and staff retention very challenging. However, the proposed solution is not necessarily more cost effective.  A comparison between the current Blackstone Heritage Corridor and the proposed new Blackstone park unit make a compelling case for the benefits of collaborative management:

Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor encompasses an entire watershed with a broad mandate for the preservation, redevelopment, and interpretation of the regional landscape. The Blackstone Commission has a current annual operating budget of approximately $1 million and 14 full-time employees.

Proposed Blackstone River Valley Industrial Heritage National Park would encompass four historic districts, the Blackstone River and Blackstone Canal with an annual operating cost of $3.5 million not including proposed planning costs, construction, rehabilitation and exhibits at four sites.

With 49 National Heritage Areas from Alaska to Alabama, these numbers are thought provoking. More problematic for the NPS are the implications for management based on partnership, community engagement and working at a landscape scale, rather than the traditional, ownership model.

A 2005 NPS study identified the critical ingredients for the Blackstone River Valley’s’ future success as: (1) strong collaborative leadership to carry forward the vision; (2) an ongoing relationship with the NPS; and (3) secure, sustainable funding. In 2012 two of those critical ingredients may be on the way, but the first and most important one remains uncertain.  Just as the NPS’s most recent strategic plan, calls for scaling up its work and promoting large landscape conservation to support healthy ecosystems and cultural resources, one of the best examples of collaborative lived-in landscape management may be headed for a down sizing.

Is this an overreaction?  Some of the longtime leaders of the Blackstone Corridor see the new legislation as a positive approach. They point out that the new park unit will have grant funding for continued partnership work in the region and they remain hopeful for the future. Let us know what you think.

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