Frequently Asked Questions
What is a National Heritage Area?
A National Heritage Area is a designated place that has a combination of unique natural, cultural, historic, and recreational elements of significance to our shared American heritage. The first NHA – the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Area – was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
NHAs are partnerships with local communities that celebrate and preserve the values and distinct features of our nation’s culture and history. There are 55 designated and active National Heritage Areas in 34 states across the country.
Though funded through the National Park Service, NHAs are not National Park units. NPS provides Congressionally-authorized matching funds, technical assistance, and a strong partnership. NHAs benefit from hundreds of thousands of hours from more than 20,000 annual volunteers.
What does Congressional authorization entail?
Authorization is simply an act of Congress that allows the National Park Service to release the matching funds needed to operate NHAs.
NHAs typically only receive between $150,000 – $750,000 in federal funding annually (which supplements significant private and local funding). Their existence and annual funding is dependent on regular reauthorization from Congress. NHAs can be reauthorized individually, or en masse through a larger bill.
Why do we need to reauthorize?
Without reauthorization, NHAs risk funding lapses and the ability to support local partners.
President Reagan believed that funding NHAs was a cost-effective way of conserving America’s cultural, natural, and historic legacy. As the popularity of the NHA program has grown, so too has the need to properly sustain the work of preserving these beloved places. This requires reauthorization for ongoing funding resources. Reauthorization ensures that future generations can engage with our shared history and connect with the uniquely American story of our lands and people.
One of the challenges with reauthorization is there is no uniform system for funding and reauthorizing NHAs. Some are reauthorized through individual bills, some get reauthorized through larger, more comprehensive bills.
That’s why the Alliance of National Heritage Areas is supporting the National Heritage Area Act of 2021. This bipartisan bill would remove the uncertainty of the reauthorization process and provide NHAs with a standard up-to-$1 million authorization. It would also create a uniform process for recognizing new NHAs. Passing this bill would eliminate the nearly annual fear that some NHAs won’t get the funding they need to operate.
What do National Heritage Areas do for us?
NHAs engage community through education, volunteerism, outdoor recreation, the arts, and more. Place-based storytelling and public engagement allows every American to remember, celebrate, and engage with our past while building powerful community bonds.
NHAs ensure that future generations may also engage in meaningful relationships with American history, culture and landscapes by preserving these spaces and the stories they represent.
How are NHAs established?
NHAs are community-driven efforts, and their continued operations are due to the effort of tens of thousands of volunteers who understand their importance to their local communities. The creation and extension of NHAs are driven by community leaders, businesses, and stakeholders who believe that the places and people NHAs serve will benefit from their presence.
To get started, a community interested in designating a National Heritage Area is recommended to do a feasibility study. They are then sponsored and championed by Members of Congress, usually from the states and districts in which they are located.
For an area to be considered for designation, certain key elements must be present. First and foremost, the landscape must have nationally distinctive natural, cultural, historic and scenic resources that, when linked together, tell a unique story about our country.
There are National Heritage Area Program Coordinators that can assist communities looking into this process.
Do NHAs impact private property rights?
No. National Heritage Areas do not affect private property rights within their designated areas, period.
Though NHAs are funded through the National Park Service, they are not National Park units. NPS does not assume ownership of land inside heritage areas or impose land use controls. NHAs are – and will always be – community-driven, based on cooperation. Participation in an NHA is entirely voluntary.
Legislation that authorizes National Heritage Areas includes specific language that guarantees that NHAs will protect private property rights. In fact, in the National Heritage Area Act of 2021, the bill states: “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to abridge the rights of any property owner, whether public or private, including the right to refrain from participating in any plan, project, program, or activity conducted within the National Heritage Area.”
Indeed, a review of NHAs by General Accounting Office directed by Congress was unable to find a single instance of an NHA directly affecting how a private property can be used. Groups interviewed for the study included private property rights advocates such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Land Rights Association, and the Private Property Foundation of America.
How transparent is the creation and reauthorization of NHAs and what public involvement is included?
The creation and extension of NHAs are driven by community leaders, businesses, and stakeholders. They are then sponsored and championed by Members of Congress, usually from the states and districts in which they are located. There is nothing secretive about them.
Some of the early adopters of National Heritage Areas were “Rust Belt” communities that sought a new way to spur economic development and tourism in the region. Their success and popularity spread to other communities throughout the country.
What’s more, if communities have concerns about or don’t want an NHA, they won’t become a reality. To date, 55 NHAs have been created precisely because the cities, counties, and states in which they are located saw their value and pushed for their creation, and sought input from residents and other local stakeholders. Community support will always be a foundation for NHAs.
What can I do to support National Heritage Areas?
Visit one! NHAs’ success depends on regular visitors. There are 55 located in places across the country – plan your next trip around going to one (or several!).
You can also contact your Member of Congress and let them know you support National Heritage Areas, and specifically the National Heritage Area Act of 2021 (S. 1942 / H.R. 1316). Elected officials need to know that NHAs have public support and need to be reauthorized.
And finally, NHAs could not function without volunteers, who help NHAs with a range of services. More than 23,000 volunteers contributed nearly 400,000 hours to support NHAs in 2020 – even amid the challenges of a global pandemic. If you’d like to volunteer, contact your local NHA!
Where is there more information?
You can visit our website at www.nationalheritageareas.us to learn more about NHAs. There is also a page on the National Park Service’s website at https://www.nps.gov/subjects/heritageareas/index.htm.
What if I want to promote a new NHA in my community?
Contact us! Many of the people associated with ANHA have gone through the process of creating and sustaining an NHA. We would be happy to walk you through the process to ensure you have all the information you need to know before you embark on the process of creating an NHA.