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Heritage Areas: A Policy Perspective 

04-08-2019 11:27

America's landscape heritage distinguishes one region from another and shapes our national character. A series of grass-roots and public sector-initiated efforts to identify and preserve regional landscapes is resulting in new alliances among environmental, conservation, historic preservation, recreational, and business interests. These projects are termed "heritage areas" in this article.

The "living landscape" is a term used to refer to regional landscapes including communities and natural areas that have been shaped over time by human activities as much as by natural processes. These are referred to as "living" landscapes to acknowledge the expectation of change over time. The desire of citizen activists and public officials to manage change in the living landscape has resulted in an exciting burst of conservation, heritage, and economic-development activity.

These efforts, which address the conservation of multiple resource types, now number between fifty and sixty projects in various stages of planning and implementation. They are found predominantly in the Midwest and the East. They build on citizen interest developed over the past several decades in many resource types: scenic byways, trails, wild and scenic rivers, historic buildings and districts, vernacular and designed landscapes.

In the 1960s and early 1970s a series of federal laws put in place policies to identify and to encourage conservation and protection of valuable resources in both public and private ownership. These laws include the Outdoor Recreation Act of 1963, the Land and Water Conservation Act of 1914, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and the National Trails System and National Wild and Scenic Rivers acts, both enacted in 1968. Corollary programs to identify and designate historic resources, trails, and rivers were established by many state legislatures and by local jurisdictions, in some cases in advance of the federal laws, in others following the passage of these laws.

Tens of thousands of natural, scenic, cultural, and recreational resources have been inventoried and designated by public entities at the local, state, and federal levels. In many cases nonprofit groups have formed to work hand in hand with public officials to preserve and enhance these resources. Occasionally friction has arisen, but more frequently this combination of public and private interests has resulted in creative programs, wise use of resources, and an enhanced quality of life for those in nearby communities.

In the past decade what may come to be understood as a new resource type has developed. It is generally more complex in scope than those mentioned above and adds to those purposes already mentioned that of economic improvement. In this article these resources are termed heritage areas, and many, although not all, are being developed with technical assistance from the National Park Service.

  1. Glen Eugster and Deirdre Gibson developed a broad definition of the term "heritage area" while working on projects for the National Park Service: "A heritage area is a regionally identifiable and significant landscape that is the focus of a cooperative public and private decision-making effort to recognize, organize, and communicate a community's natural, cultural, recreational, and economic attributes to protect important values, stimulate the local economy, and improve the quality of life."

There is no consensus as yet on terminology. What are referred to here as heritage areas are actually called by many names: "heritage corridor" when the resource is linear or "heritage project" if the resource encompasses a nonlinear, perhaps noncontiguous geographical area. The National Park Service refers to some of its heritage-area involvements as "partnership parks," generally a mixed-ownership park in which public and private lands are mingled and management structures vary. A "heritage park" usually refers to an urban park with mixed public and private ownership.

Several elements set heritage areas apart from past environmental, conservation, and preservation efforts-size, complexity of jurisdictional oversight, and the tensions created by potentially competing goals. The purposes and functions of heritage areas are generally the following: resource protection; economic development, generally including tourism; recreation; and public education.

Heritage areas vary in size from single cities to multiple counties to areas spanning several states. Common characteristics among these projects include: strong local support for the heritage area effort; an emphasis on identifying the diverse natural, cultural, historic, and recreational resources as a first step in the creation of a heritage area; evaluation of the resource base in a larger, more complex context than is usually the case, with the potential to yield a significance greater than the sum of the parts; strong emphasis on education, first of involved citizens, then of a wide range of constituent and public-interest groups, and ultimately of the users through interpretation of the heritage area.

Challenges for these projects include: developing and communicating the vision of the heritage area as that of a living landscape incorporating multiple resources in which the significance of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; balancing protection strategies within the context of managing these living landscapes and enhancing and conserving resources while allowing for change and economic growth; securing sustained funding to achieve the goals of these projects-enhancing the quality of life, protecting important values, and stimulating local economies; strengthening strategies for attracting private-sector investment through understanding and integrating private-sector interests from the start of the planning process.

A policy perspective on heritage areas can be developed by examining their characteristics in five general areas: jurisdictional oversight; justification for designation; competing goals of protection and promotion; sources of funding; and education and interpretation.


There is no uniform national system for evaluating heritage-area project proposals to determine if they are worthy of recognition and incorporation within a national system. Neither is there a consensus as to whether such a national system should exist or even whether heritage areas constitute a discrete resource type.

Heritage areas are most often designated either by a state agency or by Congress. There is no enabling legislation at the federal level, however, so every new area vies for congressional support and independent funding through the National Park Service. Both the National Park Service and Congress are studying how to create a system to provide some control over new heritage-area studies. Such a system might mirror that of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, in which the enabling legislation is specifically amended when studies of new rivers are mandated by Congress, providing a framework within which these studies are carried out.

Three national heritage corridors have been designated through acts of Congress. In each case a federal commission has been established to guide development of the heritage corridor or heritage area, and oversight and technical assistance is provided by the National Park Service. More than thirty other heritage-area-type projects are receiving technical assistance from the National Park Service, often in anticipation of congressional designation, and still others desire such assistance. The National Park Service has not sought these projects, rather Congress has imposed them on the National Park Service through the appropriations process. Until recent years additions to National Park Service appropriation requests were generally for construction. Last year Congress doubled the funds that the National Park Service had requested to study new areas and specified twenty-three new studies to be undertaken.

Heritage-area projects have aroused considerable policy debate within the National Park Service. National Park Service Director] James Ridenour has been quite direct in his expressions of concern about these projects, which he fears will lead to a dilution of the quality of the national park system. He wrote in the November/December 1990 issue of the National Park Service Courier: “I have a growing concern that we, as a nation are ‘thinning the blood’ of our national park system....I am concerned that we are spreading our limited resources over a growing base and that, as a result, we may suffer the possibility of sliding into mediocrity rather than continuing to enjoy the prominence that we have long received.”

The perspective from the local level is quite different. While Ridenour fears that congressional appropriations for heritage-area planning studies will lead Congress to designate areas to the National Park System that cannot be evaluated as equally significant with existing National Park Service units, local leaders see the National Park Service as a source of funds and expertise for projects that they judge to be worthy. The issue of which criteria should be used to determine which heritage-area study projects merit congressional funding has not been resolved. The National Park Service's assistance to these projects is often channeled through its Rivers and Trails Conservation Assistance Program, which grew out of technical assistance programs in the old Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and which deals with resources outside National Park Service ownership and control.

Denis Galvin, National Park Service Associate Director for Planning and Development, is spearheading efforts to evaluate future planning studies in a manner that assures that heritage areas receiving planning funds merit National Park Service assistance and inclusion in the National Park Service system. Gal in expects to use the outcomes of a September 1991 conference, entitled Partnerships in Parks and Preservation (cosponsored by the National Park Service; the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; and the National Parks; and Conservation Association) to recommend a procedure for future heritage-area planning studies and designations.

In contrast to the National Park Service's sometimes reluctant participation in heritage-area planning, the states that have Created heritage-area programs have moved aggressively to develop them. Also in contrast to the National Park Service's interest in heritage areas, economic-development purposes have been a strong motivating factor in state-based programs. An issue for further study here is whether nonfederally designated heritage areas can achieve their multiple goals as effectively as those that are federally designated.

 Lowell, Massachusetts, first developed as a heritage park in the early 1970s and funded by both the state and federal governments, led to that state's developing a State Heritage Park system with urban renewal as an important goal. The Pennsylvania State Heritage Parks program was created in 1989 to preserve the industrial heritage of the state, enhance regional economies through tourism and employment opportunities, and provide new corridors for recreation. Designation is determined by an intergovernmental task group working under the direction of the state's Department of Community Affairs.

In other instances local citizens have organized nonprofit corporations and created their own designations, as with the Lexington-Frankfort Scenic Corridor. The corridor encompasses ninety-five square miles and 60,000 acres of rolling countryside—Kentucky's famous bluegrass—crossed by two-lane roads. This heritage-area designation was initiated by the owners of several of the horse farms who were concerned about the depressed state of their industry and wished to encourage tourism and support for thoroughbred horse racing. Although not a party to the designation of the scenic corridor, local and state government officials have become important partners in the effort. Three rural historic districts encompassing some 9,000 acres have been listed in the National Register of Historic Places and an even larger area is under survey now.

Other issues addressed by every group that sets out to create a heritage area include multiple forms of land ownership and formats for initial planning and ongoing management. Ownership of land and man-made resources within heritage areas comes in every possible form-often with all levels of government, as well as private and nonprofit organizations as owners. Inventorying lands and resources and profiling this multijurisdictional ownership are two of the first tasks for any group interested in establishing a heritage area.

Approaches to initial planning vary widely. They range from grass-roots planning initiatives to studies undertaken under existing federal programs with the National Park Service as the lead agency of the study to detailed study by a commission authorized and funded by Congress. There is a great emphasis on interjurisdictional planning with complex formats for public involvement and review. In many instances planning seems to move more quickly when the National Park Service is involved, no doubt because of staff experience with heritage-area planning.

Ongoing management also varies depending on local circumstances and jurisdictional oversight. One of the best models is that of the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in which the nonprofit Canal Corridor Association acts as a catalyst for planning efforts and a federal commission does macroplanning and fills an advisory function. The Canal Corridor Association board includes the heads of many of the major industries in the area and is invaluable in providing advice, funding, and access to assist with corridor efforts. The federal commission includes representatives of local and state government as well as nonprofit and business interests. Yet another group, Friends of the Canal, includes the grass-roots network that supports the development and enhancement of the corridor.

An important aspect of any feasibility study is identifying 10cal leadership and recommending the creation or designation of an existing organization to provide ongoing management of the project. Massachusetts's State Heritage Parks are managed by the state government, while Pennsylvania's Heritage Parks are managed by a local management entity. In Kentucky management is in the hands of a nonprofit corporation. In other cases management may rest with a coalition of organizations.

Although the National Park Service is involved in providing technical assistance to the vast majority of heritage-area projects, attitudes toward the National Park Service involvement vary greatly. In some instances federal involvement is eagerly sought. In others local leaders desire federal funds but want to minimize federal involvement. The quality of National Park Service technical assistance depends greatly on the skills and enthusiasm of individual personnel. Where the National Park Service staff work is strong, however, planning for heritage areas seems to move more quickly than it does when a group sets out by itself to create a heritage-area project.


The determination of whether heritage areas constitute a distinct resource type will not be resolved until a detailed policy study is made-in relation to existing evaluation criteria-to verify whether the interrelationships of resources in these areas do in fact result in a significance exceeding that of the individual parts. If heritage areas are determined to be a discrete resource type, then the merits of a national system of heritage areas should be debated. As a separate issue it would then be possible to explore on what basis to establish the overall level of significance of a heritage area, just as the National Park Service now has an evaluation framework whereby national, state, and local significance can be determined for historic resources.

A policy determination that heritage areas constitute a distinct resource type would then allow discussion as to whether a federal designation parallel to that of the National Register of Historic Places should be created. Such a designation would enable the federal government to establish criteria and standards for recognizing the importance of heritage areas without the expectation of federal investment and management of these areas. Such a designation system could provide a mechanism for targeting federal, state, and local protection mechanisms and incentives as is now done with state enterprise-zone designations.

National Park Service judgments regarding heritage areas currently are made in the context of existing evaluation systems developed to apply to specific resources. Yet a heritage area is a unique grouping of resources in which the whole has the potential to yield a significance greater than the sum of the parts. This greater significance has much to do with how the resources are perceived as they are evaluated within their geographic context. With the combination of natural, scenic, recreational, and cultural assets comes a bigger picture. The interpretation of historic sites is effected within a larger context, and linkages can be made among a variety of natural features as well as between natural and cultural resources. A heritage area can also be perceived as greater than the sum of its parts in a programmatic way once planning and economic-improvement activities are understood and supported by the public.

One of the great strengths of heritage-area planning from the viewpoint of those interested in resource conservation is the attention paid to inventorying existing resources-natural, ethnographic, historic, and recreational. Survey information is available from multiple sources. As has been stated, however, there exists no model for evaluating holistically the significance of hundreds, even tens of thousands, of acres encompassing scenic, historic, natural, and recreational resources. The National Park Service, which provides technical assistance from a variety of regional offices and Washington, D.C., is reportedly inconsistent in its evaluations of resources in heritage areas. Since there is no National Park Service policy that acknowledges heritage areas as a resource concept equivalent to a historic district or a wildlife preserve, the agency has not attempted to create a holistic evaluation system for these areas.

A system of evaluation of overall significance for heritage areas would assist immensely in developing themes and modes of interpretation within these areas. It would also provide a sound basis for establishing protection systems. Protection is one of the toughest policy issues facing those working to establish heritage areas. As in many other arenas of environmental, conservation, and historic resource protection, it is far more acceptable to designate than to protect. Protection mechanisms depend almost entirely on local government action, although certain federal and state designations of resources within heritage areas (wild and scenic rivers, National Register listings, state trails) have some protection measures attendant upon their designation.


The evaluation of management plans for heritage areas as a means to encourage adoption of local policies consistent with protection goals, the evaluation of the success of various protection mechanisms, and the evaluation of methods to generate and assess economic return are fruitful areas for future study and information exchange.

Inherent in the concept of heritage areas is the desire both to protect resources and to promote them. While the goals of many of the programs utilized within heritage areas-wild and scenic rivers, rails-to-trails, etcetera-are protection and enjoyment of resources, the added goal of economic development results in the need to seek a delicate balance between use and abuse of resources. The key issue here is whether resources are likely to become degraded-and, if so, to what extent-by heavy recreational and tourism uses.

The origin of interest in designation of heritage areas varies widely but most often rests with a group of local citizens. Their primary interests generally determine the focus of efforts in heritage-area planning: inevitably protection of resources, improvement in the quality of life, and education. The importance of economic development as a goal is the greatest variable, and it is the issue most likely to create friction among cooperating interest groups. In some instances economic development is an overriding goal, in some instances a goal balanced with others, and in other cases conservation interests overshadow economic interests.

The issue of wise management of resources needs to be explored. What kinds of protective mechanisms are needed for different resources? How can visitors be limited in numbers, or how can their movements be directed to result in the least negative impact on fragile and finite resources? With most heritage areas still in their infancy there is little experience on which to draw regarding models of wise management of resources, but proven management concepts for given resource types should be assembled to give guidance to those planning heritage-area protection and promotion.

In certain areas organizers have found that environmental groups are slower to support heritage-area planning efforts than are conservation groups and preservation groups. They have not been as likely as the others to form alliances in the past with business interests, and they are wary of abuses in opening resources to use.

Preservationists have recently strengthened alliances with tourism interests, but working relationships between preservation and tourism professionals are still tentative, each group not quite trusting the other to support its interests. Conservation and environmental groups generally have had fewer reasons to develop alliances with tourism interests. Much work needs to be done to adopt policies that promote both promotion and protection and to develop more understanding and trusting relationships.

Protection policies regarding the effects of public actions in heritage areas are scarce. The three congressionally created national heritage corridors specify in their statutes that officials responsible for projects carried out by a federal entity "shall consult" with the appropriate federal commission, take into account the approved plans for the corridor, and "to the maximum extent practicable" conduct activities in a manner "which will not have an adverse effect on the corridor." No new federal process or regulations have been created to enforce this requirement, however. Existing protection mechanisms within heritage areas should be evaluated to determine their effectiveness.

No heritage areas examined for this article appear to have a review mechanism for state-funded projects on area resources. The need for a review mechanism addressing state and locally funded projects within heritage areas should be evaluated to ensure that heritage-area goals are not undermined by competing policy objectives directing public-sector actions.

While precedent exists in some states for protecting designated resources from publicly supported actions, protection from the affects of private-sector action is more problematic. A number of heritage areas have-or intend to develop-management plans addressing land-use issues. Organizational leaders can then seek to have these plans adopted by affected jurisdictions to guide decision making in licensing and approving private actions. Adoption of ordinances to mandate land-use planning, however, involves a political process, not just a planning process. This may well be the most difficult task that faces heritage-area leaders-a task complicated because living landscapes consist of interrelated features that most people have come to take for granted.

Heritage areas as a concept are so new that little information is available to evaluate economic return. At Lowell, the forerunner of heritage areas, economic success came so quickly that a systematic methodology for evaluating economic impacts was not developed as the project got under way. Massachusetts's boom-and-bust economy provides important lessons, however. Gardner, the site of one of the state's most successful heritage parks, now has the state's highest unemployment level. Nevertheless, Gardner's business leaders insist on the importance of the park to the community.

Since economic improvement is a goal-to a greater or lesser extent-of every heritage area, a mechanism for tracking economic performance should be part of the design of any proposed heritage area. The National Park Service manual, Economic Impacts of Protecting Rivers, Trails, and Greenway Corridors: A Resource Book, developed by the Rivers and Trails Conservation Assistance Program, can provide a useful guide for assessing specific economic impacts. A methodology for assessing: economic impacts of aesthetic regulations that is currently being developed by Scenic America and the Government Finance Research Center with funding from the National Trust for Historic Preservation will also be of assistance when it is published next year.


Many questions regarding funding for planning and implementation remain to be explored. There is no consensus as to what level of federal funding is warranted to develop heritage areas. Questions also revolve around the proper role for the philanthropic community, which has played a relatively small role in funding to date.

Funding for initial heritage-area planning most often comes from a public body, either local, state, or congressional appropriations earmarked through the National Park Service. Congressional funding is generally allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. Limited congressional funds taken together with National Park Service attempts to force priority evaluation, however, are likely to result in the creation of more systematic criteria for funding in the near future.

Some efforts are university-sponsored or supported by membership contributions. Some groups consciously seek funding and support at the state and local levels in order to avoid a federal presence. Other groups have found their efforts to secure National Park Service support thwarted because so many projects are seeking assistance.

One group has obtained a major Economic Development Administration grant to inventory businesses that can serve as support industries for increased tourism. The America's Industrial Heritage Project, a nine-county heritage area in southwestern Pennsylvania, currently receives the most generous federal funding-$15 million this year alone-for implementation of its plans to celebrate the industrial heritage of the area. Of this amount between $4 million and $5 million is being spent on National Park Service sites. The remainder will be used as seed funding for a wide variety of conservation, preservation, tourism promotion, and economic-development projects. The federal funds must be matched by state and local government and private funds. But is the America's Industrial Heritage Project a model for future funding or a one-of-a-kind undertaking?

Many heritage areas involve management by nonprofit groups. Foundation grants and corporate contributions are important sources of financial support for these groups.

Most funding to date, however, has been for planning in heritage areas. Many area organizers admit they are insecure in their knowledge of private-sector finance mechanisms and in their ability to attract private-sector investment, yet the long-term success of every one of these projects depends heavily on the confidence and participation of private investors.


Education is one of the principal goals of heritage-area implementation and planning. On the whole initial planning efforts appear to have been tremendously successful in educating those involved in the efforts as well as citizens in affected local areas.

It is a significant challenge, however, to develop and then to communicate a clear concept of the multifaceted historic/natural/recreational/geographic rationale for the creation of the heritage area. Attention needs to be paid to developing evaluation methodologies to assess interpretive efforts and to determine which interpretive frameworks are most effective. If the interpretive framework for the heritage area is well defined and clearly articulated it will be far easier to obtain public support and cooperation in implementing heritage-area plans. Just as important, a strong interpretive framework will also make it easier to instill investor confidence and secure private-sector investment in the area.

It is not yet possible to assess interpretive planning in heritage areas. In most areas interpretation is not yet fully implemented. Much interpretation is done on a strictly private basis-for example, by private galleries and historic museums. A primary management goal in the area of interpretation is to tell the stories of the area. This is accomplished by identifying themes, articulating consistent messages about the themes, and establishing linkages that occur naturally among the cultural, natural, and recreational resources. These activities in turn involve recognizing and promoting the unique values of an area, including its people-a resource that is even richer when ethnic components still exist.

Policies regarding signage are another important area for evaluation. Uniform signage and graphics that communicate necessary messages but do not detract from the residents' or visitors' enjoyment are important in enhancing the understanding of the heritage area.


Viewed in the context of the early 1990s, the grass-roots desire to create heritage areas is heartening-but hardly surprising. Federal conservation and historic preservation programs have suffered through nearly a decade of retrenchment. The tightening wrench around the federal pipeline for support of local efforts to conserve and preserve resources has only recently been slightly loosened. Conservation and environmental causes have strong popular support, and the popularity of heritage preservation in the 1980s has been fueled by the celebration of the nation's bicentennial in 1976.

At the same time the economic base in many regions has changed dramatically over the past two decades, leaving abandoned and underutilized buildings and structures in hundreds of communities, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. Changes in the tourism industry make its professionals willing partners in heritage-area developments. As competition within the tourism industry has increased, marketing has become more sophisticated. targeting segmented audiences with recreational, environmental, and heritage interests. Additionally, recent policy studies have pointed to tourism as a potential economic-development tool in rural areas.

Nonprofit groups, with undiminished zeal but in many cases with diminished resources, have become strong proponents of creative partnerships. Public entities have espoused such partnership for some years as their federal pass-through resources dried up. And now the private sector, with the economic downturn a fact of life in many parts of the nation, is beginning to appreciate the potential benefits of partnering in heritage- area developments.

National policies and funding emerging from the 102nd Congress will reinforce heritage-area planning effort. A new National Scenic Byways Program created as part of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). passed by Congress at the end of 1991, will provide $80 million over a six-year period to help states develop or rework scenic byways. Funds during the first three years of this program will be prioritized to go to states that have corridor-management plans, strong local commitment, and project that can serve as models for other state. lSTEA will also provide some $3.3 billion over six years for "transportation enhancement activities." These activities include acquisition of scenic easements and scenic or historic sites; historic preservation, rehabilitation, and operation of historic transportation facilities; facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists; and conversion of abandoned rail-way corridors to pedestrian or bicycle trails.

ISTEA also creates a stronger planning process for transportation, requiring comprehensive plans at the state level that would make highway corridor planning more likely and more effective, thus assisting with heritage-area planning. A National Rural Tourism Foundation is also being proposed in this Congress to promote tourism development in rural areas.

The 1990s are ripe for the development and enjoyment of heritage areas. The determination of whether these areas achieve their multiple goals will not be apparent for some years. Many policy issues need to be addressed now, however, to ensure that heritage areas achieve their full potential and to allow for ongoing evaluation of failure and success.


The National Park Service has announced the publication of a concept paper dealing with the establishment of an American Heritage Landscape System. To receive copies, please call John Bradley at (303) 969-2858 or Michael Sratt at (303) 969-2900, or write to the National Park Service: Denver Service Center – TEA, P.O. Box 25287, Denver, Colorado 80225-0287. (Note: As of April 2019, this contact information is outdated.)


Publication date: March/April 1992


Author(s):Sally G. Oldham