Supporting the Regional Parks that “Pay Huge Dividends”

The Winter Island Light in Salem, Massachusetts, part of the Essex National Heritage Area.

The Winter Island Light in Salem, Massachusetts, part of the Essex National Heritage Area. National Park Service photo.

Ask someone to explain what a National Heritage Area (NHA) is, exactly, and you’re likely to get a long pause. At least, that’s what happened to me when I asked Annie Harris to fill me in. “It’s always hard to come up with some simple words,” she admits with a laugh.

Harris knows NHAs inside and out. Not only is she vice president for the Alliance for National Heritage Areas, she also helps to manage the Essex NHA in Massachusetts, serving as the executive director for the Essex National Heritage Commission. These heritage areas are tricky to explain, in part, because they fall into a gray area of park management.

There are currently 49 NHAs spanning hundreds of thousands of acres in 32 states, and representing diverse communities and cultures. The Rivers of Steel NHA, for example, shares the steelmaking heritage of southwestern Pennsylvania. The Mormon Pioneer NHA preserves the arts and history of six counties in central Utah that religious leaders settled in the late 1800s. The Freedom’s Frontier NHA documents a violent border war between eastern Kansas and western Missouri that contributed to the rise of the Civil War and the struggle to keep Kansas free from slavery. From the automotive industry in Michigan to the Cane River in Louisiana, the history preserved in these regions is as diverse as the landscapes and people themselves.

NHAs usually contain privately owned or municipal lands that are managed through local partnerships and funded with a small amount of money and assistance from the National Park Service—but they generally remain privately owned and are not officially part of the National Park System. In nearly all cases, every dollar an NHA receives from the Park Service must be matched by other sources. Most NHAs over-match their slim federal funds significantly, averaging $5.50 in matched funds per federal dollar. That’s likely why National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis recently described NHAs as “places where small investments pay huge dividends.”

“I just think this stuff is really engaging,” Harris says about her work with the Essex NHA. “But I think it’s also really important for the quality of life and also for the vitality of this region. … You want to preserve these resources because they’re really cool … but they’re also really important in terms of business climate and the quality of what it’s like to live here.”

Much like national parks, NHAs help revitalize tourism industries and create jobs in gateway communities. Some NHAs also bring needed employment opportunities to abandoned urban centers. And because NHAs are generally created through coalitions of interested local citizens and businesses, they reflect the pride regions have in their own histories and resources.

“If you want to meet the future of the Park Service, it’s got to be in these partnerships,” Harris explains. “When you look at what the Park Service wants to accomplish in the next hundred years … it’s about engaging more diverse audiences, getting into the urban areas, dealing with large, lived-in landscapes, … doing more around education, and using the parks to educate. … They can’t do it by owning, managing, policing, and maintaining all of the land. The key is in the partnerships. The heritage areas are very effective partnerships.”

Right now, a dozen NHAs are facing “sunset clauses” in 2012—meaning, they will lose their federal funding unless Congress acts. The National Heritage Area Act of 2012 is currently pending in Congress. The bill would help establish uniform criteria for creating, funding, managing, and assessing NHAs. It would also increase overall funding to the NHA program and eliminate these sunset clauses.NPCA strongly supports the bill, and encourages Congress to enact it into law. For more information, visit the Alliance of National Heritage Areas.

Learn more about national heritage areas through NPCA’s monthly series exploring these natural and cultural sites around the country.

About the Author

Editor of Online Communications Jennifer Errick

Jennifer Errick is editor of online communications at NPCA.