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by Preservation Action
October 25, 2007

Over the past year, National Heritage Areas (NHAs) have received more legislative attention than any other federal preservation program. This session, Resources committees in both the House and the Senate have considered establishing several new NHAs, authorizing funding for these areas, and reauthorizing legislation supporting several existing NHAs. These proceedings have provoked several passionate endorsements of preservation’s value from Congressional leaders.

On Wednesday, October 24, House Natural Resources Committee chair Nick Rahall (D-WV) addressed his chamber prior to the successful passage (291-122) of an opus NHA bill that folded together many individual bills into Celebrating America’s Heritage Act (H.R. 1483). His remarks well illustrated the character of support that has moved NHAs to the top of many legislators’ priority lists.

Rahall noted, “today, as America continues to grapple with the war and citizens throughout the nation deal with the daily struggles of life, I think it is important for us to harken back to our heritage, and to celebrate our culture. From the coalfields of southern West Virginia, to the Land of Lincoln in Illinois. From the awesome beauty of Niagara Falls, to the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama. From the hallowed ground of the Virginia Piedmont, where battles were fought to reunify this Nation, to the Santa Cruz Valley of Arizona.”

“This is the fabric of America. This is her heartbeat. Let us take time to listen to it. And to celebrate it.”

Creating New NHAs, Re-up Support for Existing NHAs

The bipartisan bill would establish six new NHA’s, increase the funding authorization for nine existing areas, require a feasibility study for a potential new area, and make technical changes in the establishing legislation for several additional areas. H. R. 1483 would establish six new NHAs: Journey Through Hallowed Ground (VA, WV, MD, PA); Niagara Falls (NY), Muscle Shoals (AL), Freedom’s Way (MA and NH), Abraham Lincoln (IL), and Santa Cruz Valley (AZ).

The Act would authorize additional funding for nine NHA’s and require the Secretary of the Interior to evaluate the long-term viability of these existing NHAs: America’s Agricultural Partnerhsip (Silos and Smokestacks) (IA), Augusta Canal (GA), Essex (MA), Hudson River Valley (NY), Coal (WV), Ohio and Erie Canal (OH), Rivers of Steel (PA), South Carolina (SC), and Tennessee Civil War (TN).

The legislation would also require a study of Virginia’s Northern Neck as a future NHA (requested by the late Representative Jo Ann Davis), make changes to the management language governing the Ohio and Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor, National Coal Heritage Area, and Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor (NY), add counties to the South Carolina and Rivers of Steel NHA’s; and temporarily extend the authorization of the New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail Route.

Pushback: Property Rights Advocates and Budget Hawks

Though popular in Congress, support for NHAs hasn’t gone unquestioned. Earlier this year, on April 19th, the Heritage Foundation, a national conservative think tank based in Washington, DC, published a cover story characterizing the Journey Through Hallowed Ground NHA legislation as “another federal assault on property rights.” According to the article, if enacted, the legislation would “threaten the rights of property owners in a corridor encompassing four states … give environmental groups more influence over land use policies in the area and up to $1 million per year in tax payers money to fund their efforts and … largely benefit the well-to-do estate owners in the area by facilitating exclusionary policies.” The story’s author, Ronald Utt, PhD, suggested a voluntary compact among states and communities in the area that would require minimal federal involvement and no federal funding.

The property rights issue also figured into debate over the Niagara Falls NHA. In May of this year, Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT) argued that the designation would give government entities “significant influence” to use eminent domain. In response to Bishop’s concerns, National Parks Subcommittee Chair Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) noted that “no evidence of any adverse impacts on private property rights has ever materialized.”

Eminent domain was an extremely hot topic in the last Congress, but since, the issue has died down as a primary legislative flash point. Initial versions of the individual pieces of NHA legislation folded into H.R.1483 included language clearly outlining the role of private property. This underlying concern remains carefully clarified in the large bill for each of the individual NHAs proscribed.

An increase in funding for NHAs, within the current context of National Park maintenance backlog met with some opposition from budget hawks. Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ) offered an amendment to the Niagara Falls bill earlier this year that would delay that bill’s enactment until all backlogged maintenance projects in New York state were taken care of. Representative Flake is known for opposing earmarks, and most recently, during the passage of the House Interior Appropriations bill, offered amendments blocking federal funding to Save America’s Treasures projects (because of the earmark issue).

Insufficient funding for existing NHAs has been cited as another reason not to increase authorized funding for new NHAs. And, as a point of comparison, other authorized programs, like the Historic Preservation Fund’s State Historic Preservation Offices and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices receive less than half of what they’re authorized to receive.

The National Park Service, and by extension, the Administration, opposed a number of NHA bills earlier this year because an official NHA program had not been established by law. Programmatic legislation would, according to NPS Deputy Director Daniel Wenk, provide a framework for evaluating proposed NHAs, offer guidelines for successful planning and management, clarify roles and responsibilities of all involved, and standardize timeframes and funding for designated areas. Congressional support for unifying legislation is mixed in large part because each NHA is directly connected to specific legislation and specific legislators who prefer autonomy.

Pushing Ahead

Arguments for NHAs are compelling, however, and are winning over a majority of Congress. The 70% majority vote for H.R. 1483 bodes well for preservation, at least as a tool for economic development through heritage tourism. In his remarks to the House, Rahall cited fellow Representative Ralph Regula’s (R-OH) figures for NHA impact in Ohio: $8 million in federal NHA dollars yielded $270 million in nonfederal dollars.

“We are moving this legislation today because we support national heritage areas and we want to see them succeed,” Rahall said. “We must not turn our backs on the many benefits that heritage areas have provided over the years, and we simply cannot leave local communities to fend for themselves as they try to save those things that make them special – that make America special.”

“All of the areas comprised in this legislation are worthy of the Congress’ attention. These National Heritage Areas not only help to jumpstart local economies, but also act as a critical tool for preserving our communities’ and our citizens’ links to the past,” Rahall said.

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