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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! or


National Conference Celebrates Innovative Large Landscapes Programs

By Brenda Barrett November 4, 2014
(BB no need to credit)

Happy 30th Anniversary National Heritage Areas at the National Workshop on Large Landscape Conservation.

The National Workshop on Large Landscape Conservation October 23-24 was a sold out success. Almost 600 leaders and practitioners gathered to develop strategies for addressing the nation’s significant land and water challenges on a landscape scale. The conference also took the opportunity to celebrate the anniversaries of two of the more ground-breaking large landscape projects – National Heritage Areas and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.

These landmark efforts blazed the trail – demonstrating that large landscape conservation is possible with collaboration, hard work and big dreams.

Steve Guertin, Deputy Director for Policy at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, recognized the two anniversary milestones – 30 years the for National Heritage Area program and 20 for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. He offered both his “congratulations and sincere thanks to those leaders who have shown us that it is possible to make the visions that inspire our work a reality on the ground.”

The national workshop also featured keynotes from high-powered conservation leaders such as Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Mike Boots of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Collin O’Mara, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. Presenters shared research and insights that show how large landscape efforts are an integral part of our response to challenges such as wildlife habitat degradation, threats to water quality and quantity, losses of working farms and forests, and limited public access to urban, rural, and wild open spaces.

“Large landscape conservation initiatives are actually working to provide solutions for some of our nation’s most complex environmental challenges, while at the same time enhancing economic prosperity and energy security,” said James Levitt, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy fellow and NWLLC co-chair.


#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!


NHA@30: Program Legislation for National Heritage Areas

By Brenda Barrett March 30, 2014

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.


NHA@30: Funding for NHAs – Past and Present and What About the Future?

By Brenda Barrett March 2, 2014

Charting a Future for National Heritage AreasOn the Thirtieth Anniversary of the National Heritage Areas (NHA), one thing we can celebrate is that the program is still alive and still funded. In the 2014 federal budget, the 49 NHAs felt fortunate to receive an appropriation of  $18.2 million as the administration’s FY 2014 request to Congress was for only $9 million. This demonstrates the resilience and political heft of the NHA idea.  How many National Park Service programs can go to Congress and double their money?

Once upon a time there was much more alignment of interest in the budget process. The National Park Service’s  (NPS) budget request for the NHAs and Congress’s give was (give or take a few across the board trims and special bonus dollars) approximately the same number. For example in the early 2000s  the  requested and enacted amounts were only 10% apart and a number of NHAs achieved the almost impossible –  authorized funding of close to $1 million.  Of course there were many fewer of them and the NHAs place in the budget was still being sorted out between the many arcane pots of money in the National Park Service (ONPS, Stat. Aid and NR&P).  But for more than a decade this has not been the case. At one particularly low moment the NPS FY 2007 budget request zeroed out the whole program.  The result – NHA leaders became even more skilled in advocating for their cause and Congress went ahead and put the money back. After that experience NPS reductions for the NHA budget have been hovering at a more modest 50%. And every year a great deal of energy is expended to refund the program.

Why has this happened? Over the years the NPS and its advisory bodies have consistently written glowing reports on the value of the program.   Just take a look at the Charting a Future for National Heritage Areas and a Call to Action: Preparing for a Second Century of Stewardship and Engagement. A recent evaluation of 12 longstanding NHAs concludes that they are focused on their mission, well managed, and cost effective, but, without continued NPS funding, may not survive.  There are many rationales for this budgetary disconnect.  The argument has been made that federal funding for NHAs was just start up money, that in hard financial times sacrifices must be made, that program legislation needs to be in place before the NHAs can be fully funded etc.… And yet still the NHA’s come. Today there are 49 areas and more are waiting in the wings.

So here is a 30th Anniversary idea. What if those planning the Centennial of the National Park Service made common cause with leaders of the NHA movement and harnessed their considerable advocacy skills and deep knowledge of the political process to help float everyone’s boat.  What if everybody got on the same page?  Emerging NHAs, National Scenic and Historic Trails, Wild and Scenic Rivers and other partnership parks could all benefit from this approach.  Then we could start building the kind heritage partnerships that will sustain the places we care about not just for one congressional cycle, but for the next generation.

Read More:

March 2013 – Another Close Call for National Heritage Areas 

September 2012 – National Heritage Areas on the Brink


NHA@30 New National Parks in the 1990s: Thinning of the Blood or a Much Needed Transfusion?

By Brenda Barrett January 30, 2014

In 1991, I wrote a paper by this title as a contribution to a National Park Services (NPS) gathering on the occasion of the service’s 75 Anniversary. Known as the Vail Agenda (for the conference’s location at an off-season ski resort) the meeting was at a time of review and self-examination for the agency. Trying to be memorable or at least catchy, the title played off then National Park Service Director James Ridenour’s discomfort at many of the new national park proposals being pushed on the park service by Congress and local communities. Ridenour had spoken out strongly against such “thinning of the blood” and the agency’s leadership knew exactly what he meant – more than a few nodded in agreement. These new threatening ideas were rivers and canal corridors, cultural areas, and partnership parks. A number of these new fangled designations became known as National Heritage Areas.

The “new park proposals” were challenging for an agency that had attempted to maintain a high degree of credibility and control over the national park system. These designation were also a real concern for an agency that had suffered years of no growth or budget reductions and where resources were stretched to the limit. It was difficult to welcome these unfamiliar and possibly expensive newcomers. At that time I stated that:

… the issue before us is whether the National Park Service can make some sense or something of continuing value out of this phenomenon. While it may be too early to look for patterns and make predictions, we need to try. All time can do is prove us wrong.

In trying to identify the opportunities in this new approach, I wrote about the pressing need to think big. The NPS had long recognized that parks were only a small patch of any given ecosystem and were constantly buffeted by changes to the larger whole. Cultural parks commemorating a specific event in time and place had often become an island in a radically changed landscape. Perhaps I suggested these new ideas for large landscapes could help conserve land adjacent to national parks or tackle projects where fee ownership is not feasible or desirable. In addition the new parks reflected new ideas about history by addressing industrial themes, tales of laboring men and woman, and other of the country’s diverse stories. These new parks were a long way from the traditional great men, great events type of historic sites and the agency needed to embrace this new direction.

Finally, the paper identified some of the innovations that these new park proposals might bring to enrich the practice of all NPS parks and programs, such as:

1) Partnerships – True partnerships are developed between the federal government, state partners, local governments, local citizens and other related historic attractions. These partnerships are broad based, even regional in nature, and must be true partnerships, not just opportunities to come to a few informational meetings.

2) Economic value – Unlike traditional parks, the tourism and economic development role of a park in a community are directly addressed. Related natural and cultural preservation opportunities in the region are recognized and assisted.

3) Education and interpretation – The message is more complex than the one story line that can be told at one park or one site. The landscape and the natural environment in a broad area are used to tell the story.

4) Local priorities and capacities – Unlike a traditional park where the NPS has total control, economic, social and cultural concerns of the community must be incorporated into park planning and management.

As we look backward, it turns out these ideas of partnership management, economic value of parks, regional interpretation and public engagement have become more  and more central to the agency. Today managing park units at a landscape scale is seen as a more mainstream approach and the number of National Heritage Areas have grown from a trickle to a flood of designations. However, despite all these changes, NPS still struggles to make something of value from these new park ideas in the face of persistent foundation myth that continues to reinforce the more traditional narrative of the park as an island of protection in a sea change. Read the full paper here: New National Parks in the 1990s: Thinning of the Blood or a Much Needed Transfusion?