30 national heritage areas, unique partnerships overseen by the National Park Service, could lose their federal funding this fall, sending a chilling effect throughout the many communities they serve.
When President Ronald Reagan signed the law creating the first national heritage area in 1984, he declared the site a “new kind of national park.” Supported but not directly managed by the National Park Service, these large, lived-in landscapes bring history, conservation and recreation together in ways that significantly boost tourism and regional pride.
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In the 37 years since, national heritage areas have become one of the Park Service’s most cost-effective programs. Congress allocates a modest amount of funding to these federally protected landscapes, and each heritage area must match this funding dollar for dollar with non-federal sources. Across the board, heritage areas exceed this minimum requirement, raising an average of $5.50 for every dollar they receive and investing that money in the communities they serve.
But this fall, 30 of the 55 national heritage areas are set to lose this meager federal funding if Congress does not act — soon — to renew it. In the meantime, staff are concerned about layoffs, the future of their diverse programs, and the vibrancy of their communities.
I spoke with several directors of national heritage areas to better understand what this funding supports and the wide range of regionally tailored programs that are now in jeopardy.
A new vision for a historic city
In the southwestern corner of Arizona, staff at the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area helped revitalize a historic downtown, bringing new tourism opportunities to its business community and better quality of life for its residents. Working in partnership with the city of Yuma, staff worked to restore a blighted riverfront, redesign the city’s Main Street and create a holistic vision of the region as a destination that is “more than just a gas-up between Phoenix and San Diego,” in the words of Executive Director Lowell Perry.
Among the numerous improvements the heritage area has helped to fund, plan and implement, Perry’s staff worked with partners to transform overgrown wetlands adjacent to the riverfront business district from an inaccessible and dangerous eyesore to a thriving recreational attraction. Staff removed thickets of invasive plants, replanted native trees and bushes, and created a vibrant park and historic trail in an area that had previously been home to criminal activity and a dumping ground for mattresses, refrigerators and other trash. Not only did this project provide a safe place to enjoy nature, it contributed to the economic development of the city — and brought rarely seen birds, including the yellow-billed cuckoo, back to the area.
Above: A video on the restoration of Yuma’s wetlands and other revitalization projects, produced by the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.
Heritage area staff also stepped in when, about a decade ago, the state announced it was planning to close the Yuma Territorial Prison and the Colorado River State Historic Park, two key city attractions. At the time, both sites were in disrepair, and the state lacked the funding to keep them open. Staff at the heritage area raised $70,000 in two months and took over the operation of both parks in partnership with the state.
“The territorial prison is one of the most visited attractions in all of Arizona. It’s certainly the crown jewel of Yuma,” said Lowell. “The community really got behind the effort, and the results are pretty astounding.”
All of these programs would suffer if the heritage area loses its funding, as would the heritage area staff of 20 people who help raise funds and create jobs throughout the region. But Perry emphasizes the less tangible losses that are also at stake, including the greater vision for the city and the relationships his staff are building to bring stakeholders from across the region together, including people who have not traditionally been at the table. He emphasizes efforts to highlight and include the Black families, who have been a major part of the city’s agricultural history, and the Latino community, which is often overlooked in the city where Cesar Chavez was born. He holds up the valued partnership his staff have with the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe, whose stories are too often told through the eyes of colonizers instead of the Quechan themselves. His staff are even working with Tribal members to help preserve the traditional Quechan language.
“We feel like we’re a vehicle that can be utilized to tell those stories that lift up all the participants,” said Perry. He added, “When you have people that are here locally, if you engage them in what you are doing on a more intentional basis, that’s going to have an impact on the economy. But … who’s gonna think of that stuff but the heritage area?”
Finding shared humanity and healing communities
In northeast Mississippi, the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area helps preserve and interpret cultural history from a storied part of the South, where the blues and rock and roll both have their roots and where notable events in the civil rights movement took place. The heritage area provides support to a diversity of programs throughout the 18 counties it serves, but what many people don’t recognize, according to Executive Director Rolando Herts, is how the work is “touching lives on the ground and healing communities.”
Herts points to the Delta Jewels Oral History Partnership as a prime example of how heritage areas are “standing in the gap and creating the spaces and the opportunities for voices to be heard that have not been heard.”
The partnership centered around the 2015 book “Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother’s Wisdom” by Alysia Burton Steele, a tribute to church mothers of the Mississippi Delta region. After the book was released, the publisher didn’t schedule book signings in any of the towns where these church mothers lived. The heritage area worked with residents and businesses across the region to honor these influential community elders and share their stories.
“They lived through the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement, they survived sharecropping, they raised families — they raised entire communities. They are central to the life of communities via the church,” said Herts. “We did a series of community gatherings in Delta communities to highlight these mothers — who they are, what they’ve accomplished and what they’ve contributed, and many of them came out for this.”
Hundreds of people were touched by the events. As part of each gathering, the organizers opened the floor to questions and testimonials. At one event in Tallahatchie County — the same county where Emmett Till was murdered in 1955 — a white sheriff got up to speak.
“He talked about one of the Delta Jewels who had been a teacher and educator in his community and what it meant for him to be around her,” said Herts. “He started crying. It moved other people to tears. It created this moment where our shared humanity was what was most important.”
Those moments of shared humanity are a common theme through much of the heritage area’s work, and often what gets lost in focusing on economic impact alone. So many of the heritage area’s programs interpret the region’s civil rights struggles. The Shaw Civil Rights Project, for example, shares the story of the Hawkins family of Shaw, Mississippi, who sued the local utility company for unfair treatment based on race. The heritage area worked with partners to host a panel discussion with Congressman Bennie Thompson on the 50th anniversary of the lawsuit, put on a play about the family, honor the family’s descendants, and even name part of a local highway after them, illuminating a lesser-known part of the area’s history.
The heritage area also funded an oral history and documentary project about 52 Black students who staged a sit-in at Delta State University shortly after its integration in 1969 to demand that the administration address issues of racial equality, including hiring Black staff and teaching Black history. The students were arrested and imprisoned overnight at the Parchman State Penitentiary, a notorious prison built on a former plantation. The short film will bring the students’ stories to light and recognize how they paved the way for the Black students who came after them.
“There have been so many efforts over the years to erase these stories — de-emphasize them — and that leads to the disempowerment of voices and of people,” said Herts. This empowerment — and community pride — in the face of historic injustice are some of what is at risk if heritage area funding is not renewed.
Over the past year, there has been a resurgence of interest in issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, according to Herts. “Heritage areas have been doing this work all along,” he said. “We may not have been calling it DEI. We may not have even been calling it civil rights work — but that’s what we have been doing, collectively and individually.”
An umbrella of security and support
In the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts and Connecticut, staff at the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area have found innovative ways to support their communities during difficult times — including expanding markets for some of the people who need them most.
According to Executive Director Dan Bolognani, the Northwest Connecticut Regional Food Hub is a prime example of how the heritage area leverages small amounts of federal funding to create a ripple effect that benefits the region.
The main purpose of the food hub is to connect local growers and food producers with buyers. Staff at the food hub advise members on the foods that are most in demand, the best prices that growers and producers can earn at market, and even which crops different farmlands are best suited for, to improve productivity and profitability. The food hub connects growers and producers with individual buyers as well as institutional buyers, such as schools and supermarkets, increasing not just the economic potential for farmers, but food security for residents — which was a huge issue during the pandemic.
Bolognani emphasizes that by keeping small farms profitable, it prevents urban sprawl and loss of farmland — helping to maintain the rural character of the region.
“In many cases, a great heritage idea only becomes a great heritage program when there is seed funding,” he said. “In a lot of cases, we will be one of the first funders to look at something like this. We do our homework. Is there a broad public support? Is there a reasonable chance for success? Are there other funders that we believe will come to the table? … There are a lot of different ways that we use federal money to lift up different segments of our economy.”
Another way is art. The heritage area provided a grant for an initiative proposed by the regional arts council to create a digital marketplace for local artisans.
“We have so many local artists, everybody trying to do their own storefront or table at the farmers market or the arts fair,” said Bolognani. When the arts council proposed creating an Etsy-style platform specifically for the region, it made sense. Then the pandemic hit, and the website provided an outlet for independent businesspeople when physical storefronts and fairs were closed and cancelled.
“It was just very fortunate that it was happening at the time when it was most needed,” Bolognani said.
In this way, the heritage area serves as a kind of umbrella for the larger community, using its nonprofit status, technical expertise and connections with the Park Service to benefit grantees, putting the program planning in the hands of the residents themselves.
For example, when a historic African American church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, the Clinton AME Zion Church, fell into disuse and disrepair, a concerned group of residents, including former congregants, looked for a way to repair it. Now, the group is hoping to leverage federal funding via a grant from the heritage area to rehabilitate the building into a visitor center for the area’s African American Heritage Trail.
“I had been involved for about a year at that point trying to brainstorm, who could buy this? Who could restore this? We agreed the national heritage area should take this on as one of our fiscal agency projects,” said Bolognani, clarifying that, “we will provide logistical support, modest grant funding, technical expertise, connections to the National Park service — and really help get this off the ground.”
This rehabilitation project, not yet underway, is one of the many programs that will be in jeopardy if the heritage area loses its funding. It could also put heritage area staff in the awkward position of competing with the very partners they work with for other sources of funding.
“Nothing good will come of that,” said Bolognani.
Why are these cost-effective programs in a ‘Hunger Games’ for funding?
According to Sara Capen, who serves as president of the Alliance of National Heritage Areas and executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area, two simultaneous issues create enormous fiscal problems for heritage areas. First, heritage areas must regularly reapply for funding every two to three years, taking time and attention away from the programs they serve. Second, many heritage areas have never received the full amount of money they were authorized to receive, and the overall pot of money that has been allocated to the entire program is inadequate to cover its costs. Worse, the pot has not gotten larger as the number of heritage areas has increased. This creates a “Hunger Games” sense of competition over scant resources. Each program typically receives less than $400,000 a year — peanuts in the federal budget.
Capen and others, including NPCA, have been advocating for more money overall for this program, as well as legislation that would extend the amount of time heritage areas can receive federal funding without having to reapply.
“This program works for local communities,” said Capen. “It leverages federal dollars five-to-one. Instead of putting stress on these individual organizations that are doing important work, let’s extend that authorization period to at least 15 years.”
Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) introduced legislation on June 7 that would provide this longer authorization period, among other benefits. Congress now has just two months to pass it before 30 heritage areas begin losing their funding — a nail-biter of a deadline.
Advocates have been working for years to try to get lawmakers to solve the issue, and the looming crisis simply makes no sense — especially given how little money the entire program represents in the federal budget.
Capen emphasizes that improving the funding process would provide certainty for the many community partners heritage areas work with and improve their ability to plan in advance to build programs and effectively match grant funds.
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“It’s an effective model because it creates joint responsibility. It’s not the federal government that’s necessarily responsible for that project — it’s all the partners who contribute,” Capen said. “It’s a better form of stewardship, and it’s a better way to use funding, generally speaking, as you get everybody to commit funding, then it’s shared.”
Lowell Perry offered more incentive to move the bill forward. In his words, “If somebody were to come to me and ask if I would want to invest in a business with a five-to-one — almost six-to-one — return, I’d take that bet pretty quick.”
The clock is ticking, and whether Congress will act in time to save these programs is anyone’s bet.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer writes, edits and moderates online content for NPCA.