Forum Journal & Forum Focus

What Is in the Future for the Heritage Area Movement?  

12-09-2015 17:35

Why are heritage areas and national heritage areas growing in popularity?

Carlino: In the last two decades, heritage areas have grown from a nebulous concept to a powerful national movement. Heritage areas span a wide spectrum of activities. They can range from a single effort to save a group of historic buildings to a multifaceted approach to community conservation, preservation, tourism, and economic revitalization. Heritage areas can be located in one neighborhood or they can be multijurisdictional, crossing the boundaries of counties and even states. Heritage areas can be fostered by the philanthropy of an individual or by the collective participation of foundations, businesses, and governments in a regional project.

National Heritage Areas are special places in America. NHAs merge community resources to promote conservation and community and economic development -- or heritage development. They harness a wide range of community assets and interests -- from historic preservation, outdoor recreation, museums, performing arts, folk life and crafts, and scenic and working landscapes, to grassroots community-building activities -- that when combined create a sum greater than its parts.

Barrett: The heritage area strategy is based on working collaboratively across boundaries to develop common vision based on a region’s shared heritage. What that gives communities is a sense that they can in some way determine their future. It also helps create a more valuable future that builds on the region’s past and includes the landmarks and stories that give residents a sense of continuity. Charles Flynn, executive director of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area in Arizona, described the process of creating a heritage area as giving his community a sense of control of their destiny in a region with an overwhelming federal presence. The community was able to reach consensus on plans for Yuma’s future and enlist the federal agencies as willing partners.

This is powerful stuff. Most heritage area initiatives arise in communities that are under stress: losing their traditional economic base, whether it is industry or farming; facing a loss of population, particularly young people; or growing rapidly with an influx of people who do not know the old stories or the history of the region. It is no surprise that communities across the nation are looking at this new kind of partnership to preserve what they care about as they face an uncertain future. It is no surprise that heritage areas appeal to regions that are trying to preserve some element of the authentic past in a culture that is moving towards uniformity and sameness.

What do heritage areas do best?

Barrett: The value that heritage areas add comes from the complexity of their partnerships and the scope of their plans. Heritage areas bring together people from different disciplines and with different agendas to work on a regional scale. Together they can plan and implement big projects that cross local and state boundaries and require the assistance of many partners. One thing that is consistent from area to area is the development of a comprehensive plan -- or management plan -- for the proposed national heritage area. This plan becomes blueprint for the communities and the citizens of the heritage area and outlines the objectives of the heritage area for the next 10 years. In many instances, this management plan is often the only truly comprehensive plan for a region.

Many of the early heritage areas were focused on canal and river corridors that naturally flow across jurisdictions and required intergovernmental cooperation. The first national heritage area, the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, was the result of grassroots advocacy to find a role for the National Park Service in preserving the historic canal system. The multi-jurisdictional approach has been essential in building trail coalitions and other linkages along canal and water corridors. Outstanding work has been done completing the Great Allegheny Passage trail from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh by the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area; in adding more than 70 miles of trail north and south of Cuyahoga National Park by the Ohio & Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor; and in developing a water trail recently designated as a national recreation trail by the Schuylkill River Valley National Heritage Area.

The scale of heritage areas has allowed them to take a broader perspective in developing educational and interpretive programs for residents and visitors. While individual historic sites offer a small slice of the past, regional interpretation places the stories in a larger context, which adds a new dimension to place-based learning. Silos & Smokestacks recently won a national award from the National Association for Interpretation for their educational website on agriculture, known as “Camp Silos.” The website reaches out to schools and other users -- not just in their 37 counties in Iowa but to visitors from around the world. Heritage areas realize that historic themes, if they resonate with the people who live there, can be used to knit communities together and give them hope for the future.

What are the economic impacts of heritage areas?

Carlino: Contrary to some people’s belief, NHAs are not a drain on the budget of the National Park Service. The investment that Congress provides each year to the designated NHAs actually helps extend the reach of the NPS and furthers its mission in places where it might not be financially feasible if a project were to be otherwise solely funded by NPS dollars. The record shows that NHAs are greatly successful in brokering the Interior appropriations fund each year by using the money to attract project dollars from other federal, state, local, and private sources. Heritage areas can demonstrate impressive leveraging of the Park Service’s dollars for heritage projects and programs. Since 1985 Congress has appropriated more than $107,000,000 in the Heritage Partnership category; this has leveraged over $929,000,000, an impressive 1 to 8.7 match.

As for the direct economic impact on the individual areas, the Alliance of National Heritage Areas is working with Michigan State University to adapt the National Park Service’s “Money Generation Model,” used by park units to test impacts on a regional scale. The model will be tested on eight heritage areas this summer and fall.

Barrett: While national heritage areas can show impressive leveraging of the National Park Service investment, more difficult to measure is the increase in resident and visitor participation in the educational and interpretive programs and activities supported by the heritage areas. Even more difficult to measure is the effect that the heritage area approach, working in partnership with other organizations in a region, has on quality of life, community pride, and civic engagement. As the partnership model becomes a way of business for all of our programs, we would like to study the heritage area strategy to improve our ability to collaborate for conservation purposes.

What benefits does the National Park Service bring to the table?

Carlino: To be successful, NHAs not only have to work with communities to develop projects and to raise funds, they also have to develop partnerships to carry out work. In all that we do, our most significant and most important partner for our efforts is the National Park Service. After all, NHAs exists because their historical, cultural, recreational, and natural resources have been determined to be nationally significant. NHAs extend the breadth of the National Park Service’s mission, and broaden the public’s awareness of the Service’s responsibility and commitment to the nation’s heritage. National heritage areas are fully consistent with the National Park Service’s mission to protect the nation’s natural, cultural, and historic resources. NHAs have been successful in developing and implementing preservation strategies and in bringing communities together to protect resources. I believe, from my work with the Northeast Region in particular, that the National Park Service believes in and wishes to enhance and encourage such local endeavors.

To that end, the National Park Service and the national heritage areas should have a continuing relationship in their larger partnership to protect the resources of America. NHAs are not just important to the public, they are important to the NPS in meeting its conservation and education goals. NHAs enable the NPS to involve communities firsthand in protecting resources and understanding and promoting the nation’s heritage. Working together, NHAs and the NPS tell the stories and protect the resources that are the backdrops of many of the country’s national parks, national historic sites, national monuments, and national battlefields. Together, they build constituencies that support each other’s work, and support the national parks. But this is a reciprocal relationship as NPS provides local groups with the needed resources, experiences, and expertise that help NHAs succeed in ways beyond most peoples’ expectations and imaginations.

Barrett: The National Park Service provides technical assistance and funding to national heritage areas. Resource-based planning is one of our strengths and we assist areas in the development of their management plan. This plan, which is reviewed and approved by the Secretary of the Interior, establishes a vision for the area’s future and serves as a road map for all stakeholders. It should be noted that the matching funds we provide to designated areas are very flexible and can be used for staffing, planning, and all kinds of innovative projects. These kinds of dollars are often the hardest to raise and, as discussed earlier, they have been a powerful tool in generating other sources of funding. The National Park Service can bring national recognition to the areas and provide other technical assistance on a case-by- case basis.

We also realize benefits from collaboration with national heritage areas. For example, heritage areas are important partners for adjacent park units, which are assisted by giving the community a voice in telling the larger story of a region, by building a common understanding and a vision for the future, and by encouraging local stewardship of key resources. The newly designated Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park tells in part the story of a crucial battle of the Civil War, yet it is embedded within the larger Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District that locally protects, interprets, and promotes Civil War heritage across the full sweep of the Shenandoah Valley. Gateway communities in particular can benefit from heritage planning that reinvigorates local tourist offerings with real and authentic experiences.

The heritage area approach is one more link in an inclusive national network of parks and conservation areas, from wild places of unparalleled beauty to the towns where people live and work. They are natural partners in expanding and making accessible a seamless system of parks for all people to enjoy.

Not all heritage areas are nationally designated. What is the future for state and locally established heritage area programs?

Carlino: The heritage areas strategy is not tied to any one title or designation. It can be and is used at the local, regional, and state levels. States in particular can play an important role in coordinating the many state and federal programs that flow through the state capitals, such as transportation enhancement projects, support for the arts, state historic preservation programs, recreation and trails assistance, economic development aid, and so much more. The established programs in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and South Carolina illustrate the benefits a heritage program can bring to both conservation and economic development.

There has been a positive growth in new state heritage programs including in Maryland, Louisiana, and Utah. While the numbers are still somewhat fluid, around eight states have programs specifically targeted to heritage areas. Many more have heritage or cultural tourism initiatives that work with similar communities.

As more states look to create programs for heritage areas, more will undoubtedly be proposed to become national heritage areas. That is why it is important that Congress and the heritage constituency, led by the Alliance of National Heritage Areas and the National Park Service, develop guidelines for establishing new national heritage areas.

How many new national heritage areas are potentially out there?

Barrett: This is hard to answer. For example there are already 12 bills to create new heritage areas in the 108th Congress and it is still early in the session. One of the trends in the growth of the heritage area movement is the increased interest in conservation, based on community collaboration. This is particularly true in the West where potential heritage areas in New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah propose to tell the story of the peopling of the West in a multiple-use environment. Heritage area partnerships are also becoming more diverse. As they move west, tribal organizations are becoming partners, as seen in Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area where the Quechan Nation has contributed significant funding to rehabilitate a historic bridge over the Colorado River and is working with the heritage area on a major wetland restoration project.

The National Park Service is conducting a study for a potential heritage area to recognize the Low County Gullah Geechee, a geographically isolated community of African-Americans who have retained a distinct Creole language and traditional practices with elements that are traceable to the rice-growing region on the coast of West Africa. Their communities and way of life on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida are threatened by development. Looking at the map of our nation, there are still many untold stories for communities to tell.

Where will these programs end up?

Carlino: That is the $64,000 -- or in this case the million dollar -- question. The Congress cannot just continue to create heritage areas because there is a pot of money available at the end of the planning and legislative process. Congress, and the heritage area constituency, must come to grips with language that will define the guidelines and develop a program that justifies why any national heritage area should be created -- or reauthorized. Congress must look at significance -- or national importance -- as one of the criteria for consideration of whether or not a heritage area should gain national designation. Congress must also create a program that respects the planning process of each heritage area, and insure that any legislation that creates a program does not create homogenous national heritage areas. After all, the uniqueness of a heritage area is what makes it special.

Barrett: At the end of the 107th Congress the Senate passed 11 national heritage area designation bills. While none of them reached the president’s desk, many of these areas illustrate the trends in heritage area development. Taken as a whole they represent more diversity in people and geography with a good number from the West; they are well planned, some with feasibility studies completed by the National Park Service and more with their own thoughtful inventories and plans; and many are partnering with units of the national park system. The strong interest in establishing new areas at the national level has challenged Congress to consider program legislation to set criteria and standards for the evaluation of new areas and for the management of existing areas. The National Park Service supports efforts to develop a broad legislative framework, but also seeks flexibility to encourage local communities to be innovative in shaping their programs and conservation goals to meet regional conditions.

Publication Date: Summer 2003



Author(s):Brenda Barrett and Augie Carlino