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#NHA30: Tales from the Towpaths

By Guest Observer June 1, 2014

By Allen Sachse

National parks are popular. Despite our nation’s fiscal limitations, the American public has shown no sign of tiring of their national parks or desiring reductions in park opportunities. To the contrary, there is a demand for more services and accessibility to our public lands, especially near centers of population. So as we approach the second century of the National Park Service (NPS), how do we address these seemingly incongruent realities? A major part of the answer is that the NPS will be required to expand its current level and use of public/private partnerships. The national heritage area model is a public/private partnership model which has over-­‐time been proven to work.

The NPS has the daunting mission of preserving the resources and interpreting the most significant American stories. No doubt, Jon Jarvis, Director of the NPS, recognized the contribution National Heritage Areas (NHA) could make to this effort when he stated, “National Heritage Areas are places where small investments pay huge dividends, providing demonstrable benefits in communities across the country and in partnership with our national Parks.”

Credit: Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor

Josiah White Canal Boat Ride in the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. Credit: Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor

Through my work as the former Executive Director of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Area, I developed a keen interest in this country’s early industrial transportation system of canals. So when visiting the District of Columbia, I often will stay in the Georgetown neighborhood. This affords me the opportunity in the evening to enjoy the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park (C&O). The NPS does an exceptional job of preserving this tremendous asset with a modest operation and maintenance budget of approximately $9.3 million. However, as impressed as I am by the care and interpretation of the C&O, it is still difficult for people to truly understand how important canals were in the 19th century to the growth and development of this nation.

Early canals connected many of the inland towns to the major maritime cities. They were financed by both private capital and public funds. Often the engineers were presented with unprecedented challenges of geography in the design and construction. Construction required a massive labor force, which was not readily available. Canals provided waterpower for mills; canals moved massive amounts coal and other raw materials to manufacturers of industrial products; canals transported the manufactured products to the consumers, improving commerce and trade; canals became the means to grow and expand our young nation. Canals linked the eastern markets to the Great Lakes and then on to the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys. There are seven NHAs whose stories emanate from canals – Augusta Canal, Blackstone River Valley, Delaware & Lehigh, Erie Canalway, Illinois & Michigan, Ohio and Erie Canalway, and Schuylkill River.

Credit: Schuylkill River Heritage Area

Lock 60 Schuylkill River Heritage Area. Credit: Schuylkill River Heritage Area

Each of these NHAs is working in partnership with the NPS, state, and local agencies to preserve and tell this nationally significant story. Collectively, the seven NHAs received approximately $3.7 million in NPS Heritage Partnership funding in fiscal year 2014. Granted, one cannot accurately compare the cost of managing any given mile of a historic canal to another, for the resources truly differ. However, one can easily see that local ownership and multiple partners sharing the management responsibility can pay real dividends to the NPS as they face the challenge of preserving and sharing the stories of transportation, industrial growth, capital, immigration, labor, settlement, and more. However, it is equally important to note that because of the entrepreneurial nature of most NHAs the local partners also reap the benefits of this partnership by creating and supporting local jobs through investments in their community and heritage tourism. Regrettably many of this nation’s historic canals have been lost to time and neglect. These seven systems were also vulnerable, but because of the partnership work of these NHAs much has been saved for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

Credit: Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor

Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. Credit: Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor

These seven NHA partnerships are conserving approximately 1,000 miles of historic canal corridors and in the process saving miles of watered canal. Today these historic canals and towpaths are becoming tomorrow’s network of trails and blue ways connecting population centers to parks and historical sites of national, state, and local importance. The waterfront towns along the way are experiencing re-­‐purposed buildings and preserved neighborhoods. This is all accomplished by leveraging the collective resources and the partners’ commitment to preserving their shared heritage and sense of place.

There are many lessons to be learned about partnership management by studying the successes of the NHA program as it has evolved over the past three decades. At the request of Congress, the NPS commissioned a series of evaluations of nine of the longstanding NHAs. Westat, an external evaluation firm, undertook the work. The evaluations have been completed and the findings verify the accomplishments of the nine NHA partnerships to address the purpose defined in the legislative language and the original designation; the NHAs ability to leverage additional funds to meet program and infrastructure needs 4–1 (local to federal) in most cases; the NHAs showed sound management and fiscal responsibility; the NHAs relied on public participation and created partnerships to carry out the work; the partners preserved nationally significant resources; and the NPS gained an invaluable partner.

Allen Saches serves as the President of the Alliance of National Heritage Areas and was formerly the Executive Director of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. Prior to that position he had almost 30 years of service with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Department of Community Affairs.


#NHA30: National Heritage Areas Front and Center in Recent Presidential Proclamation

By Brenda Barrett April 29, 2014

This year April 19 to 27 is National Park Week. In his proclamation marking the event, President Obama called out the National Heritage Areas for their thirty year contribution highlighting the living history of our nation, stating:

This year marks a significant milestone in America’s drive to preserve precious historic sites — the 30th anniversary of the first National Heritage Area. For decades, the National Heritage Areas Program has enabled our Nation to set aside places that define our shared history and that will help future generations understand what it means to be American.”

View of Rankin hot bridge connecting Homestead Steel Works to the Carrie Furnaces. Image FLICKR creative commons, user Jay M. Ressler

View of Rankin hot bridge connecting Homestead Steel Works to the Carrie Furnaces, Rivers of Steel NHA. Image Flickr creative commons, user Jay M. Ressler


This is pretty terrific coverage — to be above the fold in a one-page presidential proclamation.  However, it is well deserved. The National Heritage Areas (NHA) have tackled the preservation and interpretation of resources that are often too gritty, too expensive and too fraught with potential local issues for the traditional National Park Service approach.  For example, let’s take the history of American industry. If we just looked at our national park units, we might think that the height of industrialization was using charcoal blast furnaces and running water powered spinning wheels. Fortunately, the Rivers of Steel NHA tells the story of our steel making prowess in the Pittsburgh region and the Motor Cities NHA tells the story of the rise of the automobile from Henry Ford’s assembly lines to the integrated systems of the River Rouge Plant.  And NHAs also pay attention to the people who lived and worked in the landscape both labor as well as capital.  Interpreting the 1892 Homestead Strike and Lockoutwhere in happened at the Pump House and the Bost Building and outside of Detroit telling the story of the original Rosie the Riveter at the Willow Run Bomber Plant.

NHA add needed cultural diversity to the National Park Service. The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor recognizes the important contributions made to American culture and history by African Americans known as Gullah Geechee who settled in the coastal counties of South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida. The Northern Rio Grand NHA encompasses a mosaic of cultures including the Jicarilla Apache, 8 Pueblos, and the descendants of Spanish colonists who settled in the area as early as 1598 a generation before the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth MA. The residents speak many languages Spanish, Tewa, Tiwa, Apache, and English and carry on many of the traditions and practices of their ancestors.  And these are only two examples of NHA where the people who live in the region interpret and steward their living landscapes.

Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area, credit: Living Landscape Obsever

Adobe ruin, Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area, Credit: Living Landscape Observer

The approach is also highly cost effective. NHAs leverage the limited federal dollars appropriated for the program.  A recent evaluation documented that one dollar of National Park Service funding was matched by four at the local level. Volunteers and other partners provide much of the energy for the work. A post on the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, Charting a Future: National Heritage Area to become our Next National Park makes a compelling financial case for the benefits of collaborative management. It notes that the cost of managing a heritage corridor in this case the  Blackstone River Valley was a third less than the estimated cost of managing a much smaller park unit in the same landscape. Recent testimony submitted  to the House Appropriations Committee by Allen Sachse, the President of the Alliance of National Heritage Areas, backs up the cost effectiveness of the NHA’s partnership management. His testimony also speaks to the economic contribution NHAs make to the local communities in both jobs and increased tax revenues.

While some gaps still exist in the system, particularly on the west coast, the 49 National Heritage Areas cover a wide range of the American geography. Today there are one or more NHAs in 32 states stretching from Alabama to Alaska —from Nevada to Vermont.  Over 55 million people live within the boundary of a NHA and this translates into 157 members of Congress and 67 United States Senators. Each area adds to the richness of our shared heritage.

Hmmm….if Congress would just add three more NHAs (and note that legislation has been introduced proposing up to eight) then we could all celebrate a different heritage area every week of the year.  In the meantime happy anniversary National Heritage Areas and let us all join the President in proclaiming the idea a success!