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Communities seek national heritage designation

Sunday, November 25, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Every region of the country has its own piece of Americana that locals brag about to visitors.

Increasingly, they are asking Congress to help spread the word through a little-known federal program that designates National Heritage Areas.

After approving just two dozen such areas since the early 1980s, Congress adopted 10 last year. The House signed off on six more last month, and the wait list is growing.

Illinois wants recognition for Abraham Lincoln's early stomping grounds; New York is bidding for the area around Niagara Falls. Alabama is pushing a region along the Tennessee River where the Tennessee Valley Authority was born and where "Father of the Blues" W.C. Handy first picked a guitar.

Yet for the first time, the program is facing resistance on Capitol Hill from budget hawks and property-rights advocates. The National Park Service has called for a freeze on new designations until lawmakers approve more formal guidelines for the program.

Regional stories

"This is a relatively new model for conservation," said John Cosgrove, executive director of the Alliance of National Heritage Areas. "More and more community leaders want to apply it to their own regional stories."

Modeled after European practices, heritage areas are billed as a cost-effective, locally driven alternative to government-managed historic sites. The government does not buy property, impose land restrictions or provide staff. In fact, the heritage program is expanding in part because little money is available for new publicly owned park facilities.

Instead, grassroots groups are encouraged to preserve geography and history within livable communities. A heritage designation comes with a federal grant of up to $1 million a year, to be matched with local money.

The local groups have flexibility in managing the areas, and the 37 existing sites have taken various approaches since the first was named in 1984, designating a historic canal linking the Great Lakes and the Illinois River.

While tourism is not necessarily the goal, drawing visitors is a major incentive, and the heritage tag has helped turn around many local economies. A 2004 Michigan State University study found that visitors to a heritage area celebrating southeast Michigan's auto industry spent $123 million and helped create some 2,100 jobs.

"The reason for the increased demand is that they're successful," said Marge Darby, who has helped lead a bid for a "Freedom's Way" heritage area highlighting early American history in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. "They're not just good at helping communities develop their heritage. They also happen to be economically beneficial."

Pros and cons

With the popularity of the program growing, critics have emerged.

"This is backdoor federal land-use planning," said Ann Corcoran, who is fighting a "Hallowed Ground" Civil War heritage designation around her western Maryland farm. "Once this is in place, there will be pressure on the local governments to plan their land use around the theme of heritage preservation."

More than 120 lawmakers voted against the recent House bill approving the "Hallowed Ground" and "Freedom's Way" areas, as well as others in Illinois, New York, Alabama and Arizona. The designations, which await Senate approval, drew opposition from groups such as the American Conservative Union and the Property Rights Alliance.

Along with concerns about land restrictions, critics say the federal government has no business funding local conservation.

"I believe in preservation. I just believe in doing it privately," said Corcoran, who once erected plastic pink flamingos on her farm to make the point that landowners are entitled to bad taste. "Why should some poor schmuck who's never going to visit an area pay taxes so that some elitist can go on a historic tour?"

But with a budget of about $13 million, heritage areas cost a fraction of what publicly owned facilities cost. Although many heritage area campaigns have cited threats from development, supporters argue that the program does not lead to land-use restrictions. A 2004 report from independent auditors at what is now the Government Accountability Office backed their claim, saying researchers found no evidence that heritage designations had directly affected private property.

Darby likened the program to drawing an imaginary line around an area and marking it as important.

"The community is the classroom," she said. "You say to children: `Here's where it happened, right here. Here's a bullet hole in this house, and it was a British bullet, and the man who lived in this house was shot right here."'

The Park Service so far has failed to persuade Congress to establish formal criteria for heritage areas. As a result, the agency has withheld its support for new designations. But officials say the service strongly supports the overall program, particularly with strained budgets for public facilities.

"Getting a park unit is pretty difficult," said Alma Ripps, a legislative affairs specialist for the agency. "Heritage areas are less expensive and are maybe a little easier, although it's still a very high standard. ... There has to be very strong local interest."

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