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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Heritage Areas: Background, Proposals, and Current Issues

Carol Hardy Vincent
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Over more than 25 years, Congress has established 49 National Heritage Areas (NHAs) to commemorate, conserve, and promote areas that include important natural, scenic, historic, cultural, and recreational resources. NHAs are partnerships among the National Park Service (NPS), states, and local communities, where the NPS supports state and local conservation through federal recognition, seed money, and technical assistance. NHAs are not part of the National Park System, where lands are federally owned and managed. Rather, lands within heritage areas typically remain in state, local, or private ownership or a combination thereof. Heritage areas have been supported as protecting lands and traditions and promoting tourism and community revitalization, but opposed as potentially burdensome, costly, or leading to federal control over nonfederal lands. This report focuses on heritage areas designated by Congress (not other entities) and related issues and legislation.

NHAs might receive funding from a wide variety of sources. Congress typically determines federal funding for NHAs in annual Interior appropriations laws. NHAs can use federal funds for many purposes, including staffing, planning, and projects. The FY2011 appropriation for the NPS for assistance to heritage areas was $17.4 million. The Obama Administration is seeking $9.0 million for FY2012.

There is no comprehensive statute that establishes criteria for designating NHAs or provides standards for their funding and management. Rather, particulars for each area are provided in its enabling legislation. Congress designates a management entity, usually nonfederal, to coordinate the work of the partners. This entity typically develops and implements a plan for managing the NHA, in collaboration with other parties. Once approved by the Secretary of the Interior, the management plan becomes the blueprint for managing the area.

Each Congress typically considers bills to establish new heritage areas, to study areas for possible heritage designation, or to amend existing heritage areas. In the 111
th Congress, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-11) included provisions to create nine new NHAs, to reauthorize one existing area, to study two areas for possible heritage designation, and to amend four existing heritage areas. The 110th Congress enacted legislation (P.L. 110-229) to establish three new NHAs, to study the feasibility of establishing two others, to increase the total authorization of appropriations for several existing NHAs, to require an evaluation of several existing NHAs, and to amend other heritage areas.

The sizeable number of existing NHAs and proposals in recent years to study and designate new ones fostered measures in the 110
th Congress (S. 278, S. 2180, and S. 3213) to provide criteria for designating NHAs, standards for their management, and limits on federal funding support. The Obama Administration, among others, supports such systemic NHA legislation. Some opponents believe that NHAs present numerous problems and challenges and that Congress should oppose efforts to designate new areas and/or to create a system of NHAs.

Date of Report: June 9, 2011
Number of Pages: 19
Order Number: RL33462
Price: $29.95

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