The U.S. House of Representatives is considering the Celebrating
America's Heritage Act (H.R. 1483) as amended by Representative
Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). The bill would expand the cost and scope of
federally sanctioned and federally financed economic
development entities known as National Heritage Areas (NHAs).
Although there is no specific provision in federal law that
defines or authorizes the existence of such entities, Congress has
been authorizing their "designation" on a case-by-case basis since
1984. There are now 37 NHAs operating throughout the United
H.R. 1483 would add an additional six NHAs to the fold, expand
the boundaries of three that are now in operation, and increase by
50 percent the amount of federal funds available to NHAs by way of
the National Park Service (NPS) budget.
If enacted, H.R. 1483 will cost federal taxpayers an additional
$135 million. However, as reported by the Government Accountability
Office (GAO), NPS funding accounts for only a fraction of the total
federal funding received by NHAs every year. In fact, non-NPS funds
amount to nearly 70 percent of the costs associated with the NHAs.
If this pattern of broad public subsidies continues, H.R. 1483
would lead to an additional $270 million in NHA spending by
federal, state, local, and not-for-profit entities.
The process of identifying NHAs is highly dubious. An
NHA-eligible region is defined by the National Park Service as "a
place designated by the U.S. Congress where natural, cultural,
historic and recreational resources combine to form a cohesive,
nationally-distinctive landscape...[to] tell nationally
important stories about our nation." Nearly any parcel of land or
long-standing structure could be touted as an intricate part of
someone's history, thereby opening the door to all sorts of
opportunities for subsidies from the state, local, and federal
One of the most controversial aspects of H.R. 1483 is the
establishment of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground NHA, which
would span significant portions of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and
Virginia. This effort is sponsored and promoted mainly by two
factions: Virginia-based environmental groups with a long history
of opposition to most residential and commercial development in the
region and wealthy estate owners who would benefit from the
cachet and exclusivity that the designation might bring. The
opposition includes local property owners and a large minority in
Chief among the opponents' concerns is the likely impact on the
rights of property owners in the region. The sponsors and would-be
managers of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground NHA have a long
history of restricting the rights of property owners to develop
their land. For the most part, these efforts aim to preserve the
rural charm of the region, which would benefit wealthy estate
As research into some of the 37 existing NHAs reveals, other
NHAs have used their federally acquired authority to impose
restrictive zoning requirements on the region's property owners to
limit development and/or to force it into directions agreeable to
those who guide the management of the NHA. In a recent case in
Arizona, some property owners were so concerned with the intentions
of an NHA established in their region that they persuaded a
majority of the United States Congress to amend the authorizing
legislation to reduce the land area comprising the NHA.
Of the many problems associated with NHAs, three should be the
most compelling for Congress:
- NHAs divert NPS resources from the agency's core
- Federal costs for NHAs are increasing at a rapid rate, and
- NHAs threaten private property rights.
Rather than pursue a costly expansion of federal involvement in
local affairs, Congress should not create any more NHAs and should
move the existing NHAs toward financial independence.
Specifically, Congress should limit existing NHAs to their
initial federal funding caps and enforce the statutory
requirement that they become financially self-sufficient within 15
years. Congress should also encourage local communities to
establish their own heritage-based tourist and economic development
programs that are independent of federal oversight and funding.
Cheryl Chumley is a Virginia-based
journalist with a focus on land-use issues. Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D., is
Herbert and Joyce Morgan Senior Research Fellow in the Thomas A.
Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage