Powerful Preservation Program You May Not Know About (Part 2)

Aux Sable Locktender's House & Lock 8, IMCNHC. Credit: Canal Corridor Association.

Aux Sable Locktender’s House & Lock 8, IMCNHC. Credit: Canal Corridor Association.

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. Part 1 explained the history of NHAs and what makes them special. This final installment summarizes the benefits and motivations behind National Heritage Areas, and briefly highlights the accomplishments of three successful NHAs.

Benefits and Motivations for Designating NHAs

Perhaps the most important benefit and motivation for having a place designated as a National Heritage Area is to be able to synergize efforts across political subdivisions (i.e. neighboring cities, counties, or states). By having one local, federally-funded (at least in part) organization that is singularly focused on coordinating, supporting, and facilitating preservation efforts, diverse stakeholders are able to more efficiently further the cause of preservation and conservation of natural, cultural, and historic resources.

In addition to enabling regional synergy, National Heritage Areas are beneficial because they:

  1. Promote economic development. According to one study, “NHAs leverage federal funds (NHAs average [returns of] $5.50 for every $1.00 of federal investment) to create jobs, generate revenue for local governments, and sustain local communities through revitalization and heritage tourism.”
  2. Encourage healthy lifestyle and environments.
  3. Improve quality of life, education and stewardship.
  4. Increase community engagement and pride.

To illustrate these benefits, here are examples of three successful National Heritage Areas. (Please note that while the NHAs highlighted below all relate to bodies of water, this is not a requirement for NHA designation.)

Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor

As the first National Heritage Area, the Illinois and Michigan National Heritage Corridor (IMCNHC) was a successful experiment. In the Congressional act establishing it, the Area is justified for designation by its “abundance of sites and structures” that “symbolize in physical form the cultural evolution from prehistoric aboriginal tribes living in naturally formed ecosystems through European exploration, nineteenth century settlement, commerce, and industry right up to present-day social patterns and industrial technology.”

The Illinois and Michigan Canal was built in the 1830s and 1840s to connect Lake Michigan and Chicago with the Illinois River and LaSalle. By making this vital connection, Chicago was “rapidly transformed…from an isolated crossroads into a critical transportation hub between the East and the developing Midwest.”

Now in its 30th year, the newly revitalized IMCNHC “is now becoming a splendid living history museum of American enterprise, technological invention, ethnic diversity, and cultural creativity – a terrific visitor destination for recreation and heritage tourism.” One of the main attractions of the Canal Corridor (which spans over a thousand local government units across 3,600 square miles) is mule-pulled boat rides from the LaSalle Canal Boat & Lock 16 Visitor Center.

Augusta Canal National Heritage Area


‘Petersburg Boat’ extensively used along Upper Savannah River until late 19th century. Credit: Wikimedia.

As “one of the last unspoiled areas in the State of Georgia,” the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area (ACNHA) was designated because it “possesses excellent water quality, beautiful rural and historic cultural landscapes, architecturally significant mill structures and mill villages, and large acreages of parks and permanent open space.” The cohesive story told by these resources is multi-faceted, and includes the development of the cotton textile industry and associated Southern agriculture and trade, the economic transition from agriculture to industry, and numerous sites associated with “the American Revolution, the Civil War, Native Americans, Colonial Americans, African Americans, Chinese Americans, and Irish Americans.”

The Augusta Canal—the focus of the ACNHA—runs eleven miles, and originates “in Columbia County, GA and runs parallel (southwest) to the Savannah River into the City of Augusta and Richmond County, GA.” The ACNHA has had great success in all aspects of its mission, especially historic preservation. Examples of historic rehabilitation projects include “restoration of the Enterprise Mill, and renovation of four historic buildings at the Headgates area, and the Gatehouse and Canal lock system. The most recent restoration involved the Confederate States Powder Works chimney adjoining one of the mills.”

The ACNHA is currently working to rehabilitate “historic mill workers‘ neighborhoods (homes and lands) and schools that mill workers‘ children attended in the 1800s.” The ACNHA also offers rides in replicas of historic Petersburg boats, including guided tours of the entire length of the canal. These boat tours average between 15,000 to 20,000 guests each year.

Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area

Main Gate to the Yuma Territorial Prison. Credit: Wikimedia.

Main Gate to the Yuma Territorial Prison. Credit: Wikimedia.

Located in southwestern Arizona, the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area (YCNHA) was designated because it was an important crossing place on the Colorado River when America was expanding westward in the the mid-19th century. Since its designation in 2000, the YCNHA has played an important role in maintaining and managing the historic resources with the Area.

For example, after the 2008 economic recession resulted in the closing of the Yuma Quartermaster Depot and the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, the YCNHA was able to step in to help re-open these important sites. “In October 2009, the City of Yuma agreed to lease the Yuma Quartermaster Depot and asked the [YCNHA] to manage the park on the community’s behalf. On April 1, 2010, Arizona State Parks similarly turned over operations of the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park (YTP) to the Yuma community.”

If the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area had not been around to coordinate these efforts, it is not likely that these parks would have been re-opened at all.


Although not official units of the National Park System, National Heritage Areas accomplish much by way of environmental conservation and historic preservation. The unique, collaboration-based model of the NHA framework allows preservation efforts to be coordinated across governmental units to involve all affected stakeholders.

In fact, this public-private partnership furthers conservation and preservation goals in a way that could not be achieved by National Park designation. Instead of acquiring the property for an NHA through eminent domain, the Area remains a lived-in community that is very much alive. National Heritage Areas serve as models for how communities can harmonize conservation and preservation efforts without infringing upon private property rights.

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