How National Heritage Areas Fit into the National Park System

The list of new stamps for October inspired me to write a little background post on National Heritage Areas.

A National Heritage Area (NHA) is one of several partnership programs managed by the National Park Service.  All National Heritage Areas are designated by Congress, and apply to a specific geographic area, usually an area of multiple counties.  A National Heritage Area generally does not have any sites that are directly manged by the Naitonal Park Service.  Instead, each National Heritage Area authorization also designates an official “partnerhip organization” that will work with the National Park Service to develop projects and programs within the geographic area of the NHA.   The projects and programs developed within an NHA can include things like historic preservation, development of interpretive displays, educational outreach projects,  resource conservation, and tourism promotion.  The Alliance of National Heritage Areas is the industry association for the various NHA partnership organizations around the country.

Like many things in the National Park System (and in fairness, like many things that originate in Congress), designations are not always done consistently.   Although the vast majority of NHA’s carry the name National Heritage Area, such as the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area in northeastern Alabama, several other designations abound.  The very first National Heritage Area, the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in northeastern Illinois, was designated 30 years ago in 1984.   Around a half-dozen other NHA’s go by the designation of national heritage corridor, although there is no distinction between that and a national heritage area.   Several others have unique designations including the National Coal Heritage Area in south-central West Virginia, the National Aviation Heritage Area in and around Dayton, Ohio, the Great Basin National Heritage Route in Nevada and Utah, and the Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership along the New York-Vermont border.

Just as there are a variety of designations, National Heritage Areas can vary greatly in size and scope.  The Wheeling National Heritage Area consists of just the city of Wheeling, WV, tucked in to a sliver of land between Pennsylvania and Ohio.  On the other hand, the Gullah-Geechee National Heritage Corridor stretches along the Atlantic Coast from southern North Carolina through South Carolina and Georgia and into northern Florida.  The Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area is particularly unusual, covering the all civil war sites across the whole state of Tennessee.   Go figure.

Similarly, when it comes to the Passport Program, the 49 National Heritage Areas are all over the map.   Currently, 9 of them don’t have any Passport stamps at all.  One of those is because the partner association for the Heritage Area went out of business.  Another originally put two passport stamps in regional visitor centers, but later decided to discontinue the visitor center operations and focus on other activities.   Two others of those nine offer a picture stamp, but which unlike traditional Passport cancellations, does not have a date in the center.  The other five have all been established within the last ten years and have simply never participated in the program.

Of the remainder, 21 National Heritage Areas have either just one stamp located at the headquarters offices or a central visitor’s center, or else have just two stamps.

That leaves 19 National Heritage Areas that fully participate in the Passport Program with cancellations available at multiple locations in the area.   Even here, there is a broad range.   The Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area in south-central Alaska has three locations.   By contrast, the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area in New York State has a whopping 67 Passport cancellations – enough to fill the North Atlantic section of a traditional blue Passport book more than three times over!

Suffice to say, National Heritage Areas come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and flavors.  At their best, National Heritage Areas bring in to the National Park System areas that would not otherwise be suitable for direct management like the National Park System.  A great example of this is the Motorcities National Heritage Area in eastern Michigan, which includes many of that area’s world-class automotive museums.   Among those is The Henry Ford Museum, which is on many people’s bucket list, even without being Parks Passport completists.   The downside is that since National Heritage Areas operate via local partnerships, and without direct management by the National Park Service, they sometimes fail to provide the consistent visitation experience that we have come to expect from out-and-out national parks.

With that being said, I am strong believe that the National Park System, and by extension, the Passport Program, should include all of the United States’ most-significant natural, historical, and cultural sites.  The National Heritage Area program is at its best when its bringing some of America’s treasures into the National Park System, even though they will probably never be suitable for direct management by the National Park Service.   The National Park System is a better place when it includes the Motorcities, the Erie Canalway, and Niagara Falls – all of which would surely be worthy for inclusion in the National Park Service based on their national significance alone, but which either do not lend themselves easily to a traditional national park, or else are already being well- managed by outside entities, or both.

As Congress has become more budget-conscious in recent year, there have not been any new National Heritage Area designations since 9 were designated in 2009.   Both the career staff of the National Park Service and the Government Acountability Office have called for Congress to establish a stronger vision for what a National Heritage Area should be, and what the criteria should be for establishing such an area.   The rapid proliferation of National Heritage Areas in the 2000’s, in which 31 out of the 49 National Heritage Areas were established between 2000 and 2009 probably represented too-fast growth.    Nevertheless, the National Park System and the Passport Program would have some clear missing holes without them.

 

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