Powerful Preservation Program You May Not Know About (Part 1)


Map of all National Heritage Areas. Click to jump to interactive map. Credit: NPS.

Have you ever heard of National Heritage Areas? Most Americans are entirely unfamiliar with the concept of National Heritage Areas, even though they might actually live within one (e.g., the entire state of Tennessee). This two-part series explains what National Heritage Areas are and why they might be the most powerful preservation program you’ve never heard of.

What’s a National Heritage Area?

As explained by the National Park Service, National Heritage Areas are areas of land and water in the United States “designated by Congress as places where natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape.” While this is a good general definition, National Heritage Areas (NHAs) require more detailed explanation.

Brief History of NHAs

The first National Heritage Area, established in 1984, was the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor. Since that time, Congress has designated forty-nine total National Heritage Areas, covering parts of 32 states and countless local governments.

According to retired NPS employee Glenn Eugester, evolution of the idea of National Heritage Areas can be traced to several “separate, but related ideas to coordinate natural resource conservation, historic preservation, land use and economic development on a regional scale. While there were multiple factors at work, in his opinion what defines the movement is its focus on place and story of place combined with advocacy, civic engagement, inter-disciplinary planning, and action.”

President Ronald Reagan signing the first NHA legislation.

President Ronald Reagan signing the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor legislation on August 24, 1984. Credit: Canal Corridor Association.

At its inception in the 1980s, and perhaps still today to a degree, the NHA program was viewed as a “new and revolutionary way for the National Park Service (NPS) to engage public/private partnerships in conserving large landscapes such as river corridors, canal systems, industrial complexes, and agricultural regions.”

In fact, when the National Heritage Area program was originally conceived, the concept was considered “untested and experimental.” As a result of its uncertain future and doubtful prospects, Congress only authorized funding for National Heritage Areas for a period of 10 or 15 years. However, as Congress has recognized “the value of the NHA programs, the challenge of finding dollars for regional initiatives, and the program’s growing popularity, [it] has provided the earliest NHAs with multiple funding extensions.”

In 2008, Congress extended funding for nine NHAs in an omnibus bill that tied NHA funding to its performance and accomplishments. “This approach was seen as a possible model for evaluating all the NHAs within the program.” Further, such performance-based financing is a prime example of how the structure of the NHA program itself is representative of American culture (more on that below), namely the traditional notions of capitalism and laissez-faire economics.

What Makes NHAs Special?

The National Heritage Area program in the United States is unique in several ways, especially when compared with other national preservation programs and the traditional national park system:

  1. The NHA “program” is not a formal program at all—there is no federal enabling legislation or agency regulation that establishes a uniform and systematic NHA structure. The National Park Service is a partner of every NHA (which allows them to use the coveted NPS arrowhead logo), but NHAs are not a unit of the National Park Service.


    NPS Arrowhead. Credit: Wikimedia.

  2. Since there is no formal program, every National Heritage Area is created by an act of Congress on an individual, ad hoc basis, with limited oversight assigned to the National Park Service. This process differs greatly from nominating a historic site or district to the National Register of Historic Places, which only requires agency approval.
  3. Unlike other types of NPS-related designations (e.g., national parks, national monuments, or national historic sites), the successful designation of National Heritage Areas requires a combination of natural, cultural, historic, and scenic resources, instead of just one type of resource. This requirement sets a higher standard for NHA designation.
  4. National Heritage Area boundaries can cross many political subdivisions (possibly spanning cities, counties, or even states), yet without regulating land use. NHAs are all about fostering consensus within regions; they’re not concerned with how you use your land. That’s why National Heritage Areas are managed by the people who live there, whether it be a pre-existing governmental or nonprofit entity, or one that was established solely to manage the new NHA.

Conclusion (of Part 1)

In many ways, the decentralized structure of the NHA program itself reflects the cultural heritage of America. Just as the federal government is one of limited powers, with plenary power vested in the states, the real “power” in National Heritage Areas is vested in the local organization that manages the Area and the communities that the managing organization supports.

This “hands off” approach allows flexibility and creativity on the part of National Heritage Areas. As part of a federal system of shared powers and limited government, the NHA program is a quintessential example of how local, public-private innovation can be achieved with a nudge from the federal government.

Click here for Part 2, which summarizes the benefits and motivations behind National Heritage Areas, and briefly highlights the accomplishments of three successful NHAs.

Clint Tankersley is a Georgia attorney specializing in cultural heritage law. Read my bio here.