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Heritage Areas: Background, Proposals, and Current Issues

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Over the past 20 years, Congress has established 27 National Heritage Areas (NHAs) to commemorate, conserve, and promote areas that include important natural, scenic, historic, cultural, and recreational resources. NHAs are partnerships among the National Park Service (NPS), states, and local communities, where the NPS supports state and local conservation through federal recognition, seed money, and technical assistance. NHAs are not part of the National Park System, where lands are federally owned and managed. Rather, lands within heritage areas typically remain in state, local, or private ownership or a combination thereof. Heritage areas have been supported as protecting lands and traditions and promoting tourism and community revitalization, but opposed as potentially costly and possibly leading to federal control over nonfederal lands. Other heritage areas have been designated by states and local governments and announcements. This report focuses on heritage areas designated by Congress, and related issues and legislation.

NHAs might receive funding from a wide variety of sources, and Congress and the NPS do not ordinarily expect to provide NHAs with permanent federal funding. Congress determines the total level of federal funding for NHAs in annual Interior appropriations bills and typically specifies the funds for each area. NHAs can use federal funds for many purposes, including staffing, planning, and projects. The FY2006 appropriation for the NPS for assistance to heritage areas was $13.3 million. For FY2007, the Administration requested $7.4 million, and the House approved $13.9 million.

There is no comprehensive statute that establishes criteria for designating NHAs or provides standards for their funding and management. Rather, particulars for each area are provided in its enabling legislation. Congress designates a management entity, usually nonfederal, to coordinate the work of the partners. This entity typically develops and implements a plan for managing the NHA, in collaboration with other parties. Once approved by the Secretary of the Interior, the management plan becomes the blueprint for managing the area.

Some 40 measures to designate NHAs or study the suitability and feasibility of areas for heritage status have been introduced in the 109th Congress. Some of these have passed the House -- H.R. 412, H.R. 694, H.R. 938, H.R. 2099, and H.R. 5311. A Senate-passed bill, S. 203, would establish 10 new areas and authorize 3 area studies. The sizeable number of existing NHAs, together with the number of measures proposed in recent Congresses to study and designate new ones, has intensified interest by the Administration and some Members in enacting a law providing criteria for designating NHAs, standards for their management, and limits on federal funding support. Two such measures have been introduced in the 109th Congress -- H.R. 760 and S. 243 -- and the Senate bill has passed the Senate. A related bill passed the Senate in the 108th Congress, but no further action was taken.

This report replaces CRS Issue Brief IB10126, Heritage Areas: Background, Proposals, and Current Issues. It will be updated periodically.