Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Planning for Heritage Areas 

12-09-2015 17:35

In the last 20 years we have seen the emergence of 23 federally designated heritage areas with more likely to be designated. Many heritage areas have also been created at the state and local level. These areas are living regional landscapes where residents and governments have formed partnerships to celebrate and conserve their natural and cultural resources. Congress has recognized and authorized these partnerships, and federal, state, and local agencies and organizations, including the National Park Service (NPS) have been assisting. The National Park Service’s role with national heritage areas focuses on providing information, advice, recognition, and technical and financial assistance in partnership with others. Planning assistance is one of the most important services NPS provides to help make these locally driven heritage conservation efforts successful. By contributing and participating in the planning process, we can help develop the future vision for these areas, collaborate with multiple jurisdictions and interests, and help establish a workable plan for the area.

The most successful planning efforts are those that use an open planning process which includes partners and the general public. Why? Because planning processes that involve the public bring greater understanding, new ideas, additional information and perspective. An open process also helps develop long-term relationships with communities and future partners. Ultimately we can make better decisions by using an effective public planning process specifically designed for the place and situation. An open public planning process is critical and essential to establishing the dialogue, relationship, and collaboration that must be developed in order for these partnership strategies to succeed.

Heritage initiatives have created successful partnerships and plans to conserve and recognize regional landscapes where people live and work. The planning process helps residents and visitors learn more about their past, gain appreciation for it, and develop ideas for how to move toward the future while enhancing the quality of life in a region. In the brief history of developing and implementing plans for heritage areas, there have been some resounding successes that have made a real difference to the people in heritage area communities.

Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor

The Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor stretches about 160 miles in northeastern Pennsylvania. It is home to a rich past including the nation’s most intact, accessible, and water-filled towpath canal, which was in service for the longest period for any such canal. It also includes resources and stories associated with anthracite coal mining, steel manufacturing, and other manufacturing enterprises. The towns within the heritage corridor all date from the time of the canal’s construction and most active period of operation, between 1830 and 1860; they collectively maintain a large degree of historic integrity. In 1988 Congress designated the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor and established a 21-member federal commission to develop and implement a management action plan. In January 1993, the Management Action Plan (MAP) was completed. The plan took more time than was anticipated but it was worth the effort. By taking the time to engage in a public dialogue, the process helped build understanding, awareness, support, and partnerships. The involvement stimulated action, and plan recommendations guided the efforts of the many partners.

The canal, manufacturing, and mining are all largely stories of the past. The planning process envisioned new activities built on this rich past. Jim Thorpe, a 19th-century town along the corridor, is just one example of the towns that now attract visitors and have experienced revitalization. The Crayola Company not only makes crayons but also supports a visitor facility in Easton that provides information about the region and the company’s products. A 160-mile trail is being developed that will link communities and the countryside and intersect the Appalachian Trail and 20 other connecting trails. These are just a sample of the many accomplishments that were envisioned as a result of the planning process.

Lackawanna Valley National Heritage Area

Another example of a planning process that helped shape a heritage area is in the Lackawanna Valley National Heritage Area. Authorized by the governor of Pennsylvania as Pennsylvania’s first state heritage park in 1991, and designated as a national heritage area in October 2000, the Lackawanna Valley National Heritage Area is located in northeastern Pennsylvania and encompasses the watershed area of the Lackawanna River in Lackawanna, Luzerne, Wayne, and Susquehanna counties. Focusing on the heritage of the anthracite and anthracite-related industries, the Lackawanna Valley National Heritage Area creates partnerships to conserve, interpret, and develop cultural, natural, and recreational resources related to the significant impact this region had on the industrial growth of the United States.

Interestingly, the idea of a heritage area occurred during the planning process for Steamtown National Historic Site, which was designated in 1986. In developing the general management plan for this site, an extensive public process was used. It effectively engaged the community and offered an opportunity to examine the connection of related regional resources to the Steamtown railyard site. During this public process, the community and participants created the idea to link park resources and tell the broader story of the Lackawanna Valley. A subsequent heritage planning effort, also designed to involve the public and build partnerships, crafted the plan for a collaborative heritage partnership to conserve and enhance the resources of the region. The management plan served for 10 years and successfully guided heritage efforts in the Lackawanna Valley. Today many of the recommended actions have been carried out, a testament to the value of collaborative planning and of a commitment to partnerships.

The Stages of Heritage Planning

In both of the above cases, the management plans are being updated because much of the work envisioned years ago has been completed. A new vision and action guide for the next phase of these heritage areas is being developed. Examining these and other heritage planning experiences will help us learn much about planning for heritage areas. The existing areas are in many different stages and offer a great opportunity to experiment and learn about heritage planning.

Stated very simply, there are two stages to heritage area planning. In the early or formative stages of heritage areas the interested public examines the resources of the area, the important themes or stories associated with them, the opportunities to conserve or preserve resources, and opportunities for public use and education. It is important to identify local issues and concerns and to explore ideas or concepts for the heritage area. Using a planning process built on public participation, there should be a clear sense of commitment to the heritage effort, and an understanding of who will participate and how it will be moved to the next stage.

As the heritage effort moves forward, it advances into the management planning phase which builds on the earlier concepts, brings in more views and agreement, and refines and details actions by identifying who will be doing what. A greater focus on organizing, involving, and developing the partnership and management entity also occurs. But it is not just about planning and process. While plans help decide what to do and how to do it, successful heritage areas also need to get things done. It is important to begin taking action and demonstrating progress.

Allen Sachse, executive director of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, explained in his testimony to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on National Parks, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, on March 13, 2003: “The Pennsylvania Heritage Parks program requires a two-step process before designation is granted. First is the feasibility study, which determines the study area, the lead agency, the stakeholders, the public support, the appropriate theme(s) within the state framework, and supporting resources. If approved by a state interagency task force, the project area may go forward to the management action plan phase. If not, the applicant is offered assistance through the more traditional categorical and technical assistance programs. The state provides funding assistance for the two-step planning process.”

This approach is very effective. Completing and adopting management plans before seeking federal designation addresses many of the concerns of residents, government agencies, and elected officials. The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trails System Act require study authorization prior to designation as does the National Park Service for potential new units to the national park system. As we develop feasibility and management plan guidelines for heritage areas, we should examine and learn from the planning experiences of federally and state designated areas.

Heritage areas are community- driven and include federal, state, and local government agencies and private groups. Community participation is the heart of the process. The challenge is coordinating and complementing the broad array of conservation, preservation, management, and interpretation work being carried out by a variety of agencies and groups. Heritage planning projects require extensive public involvement and consensus building. We need to develop new skills in planning to achieve mutually agreeable goals and assure that residents are heard and empowered in the process. We must also find the resources needed to support the heritage planning process. As General Dwight D. Eisenhower said in planning D-Day, “plans are useless, but planning is essential.”

Sources of additional information :

2001 NPS Management Policies and National Park Service Director’s Order #2: Park Planning. These documents are accessible through the National Park Service ParkNet home page

National Parks and Their Neighbors: Lessons from the field on building partnerships with local communities, prepared by the Sonaron Institute and the National Park Service, 1996.

Collaboration and Conservation: Lessons Learned in Areas Managed through National Park Service Partnerships, prepared by the Conservation Study Institute for the National Park Service, 2000.

Community Tool Box, produced by the Rivers Trails and Conservation Assistance Program, National Park Service. Accessible at

The Community Planning Handbook, compiled and edited by Nick Wates and designed by Jeremy Brook, Earthscan Publications Ltd, UK, 2000.

Publication Date: Summer 2003


Author(s):Joseph DiBello