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Friday, March 23, 2012

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.

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.

NHAs might receive funding from a wide variety of sources. Congress typically determines federal funding for NHAs in annual appropriations laws for Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. NHAs can use federal funds for many purposes, including staffing, planning, and projects. The FY2012 appropriation for the NPS for assistance to heritage areas was $17.4 million. The Obama Administration is seeking $9.3 million for FY2013.

The Obama Administration has expressed interest in having NHAs become financially selfsufficient, and some appropriators and other Members have emphasized self-sufficiency for these areas as well. One role of the NPS is to evaluate heritage areas at least three years before the expiration of the authorization for federal funds. The NPS is currently focused on evaluating nine NHAs designated in 1996, and anticipates completing these evaluations in August 2012.

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 112th Congress, several such bills are pending. Other 112th Congress bills would ban federal funding for heritage areas.

Further, the sizeable number of existing NHAs and proposals in recent years to study and designate new ones has fostered legislation to establish a system of NHAs, and to provide criteria for their designation, standards for their management, and limits on federal funding support. In the 112th Congress, one such measure (H.R. 4099) has been introduced. The Obama Administration has supported 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.

In the 111th 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.



Date of Report: March 6, 2012
Number of Pages: 19
Order Number: RL33462
Price: $29.95

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