How do National Heritage Areas work?

National Heritage Areas (NHA)  expand on traditional approaches to resource stewardship by supporting large-scale, community centered initiatives that connect local citizens to the preservation and planning process. Inaugurated in 1984, with the designation of the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, the National Heritage Areas movement now encompasses 49 areas, ranging from factory towns and city neighborhoods to farmland and battlefields. By embracing large landscapes, National Heritage Areas have the ability to join together diverse practices such as education, recreation, heritage tourism and historic preservation. Committed to both protecting and promoting the historic, cultural and natural assets of a region, National Heritage Areas play a vital role in maintaining both the physical character and cultural legacy of the United States.

In National Heritage Areas, residents, businesses, governments and non-profit organizations collaborate to promote conservation, community revitalization and economic development projects. Through the facilitation of a local coordinating entity, such as a private non-profit corporation or a public commission, residents come together to improve regional quality of life through the protection of shared cultural and natural resources.

This cooperative approach allows National Heritage Areas to achieve both conservation and economic growth in ways that do not compromise local land use controls. Designation legislation does not provide the coordinating entity or any Federal agency authority to regulate land. Long-term National Heritage Area success depends upon the willing support and activities of partner organizations and residents, who collaborate from the very beginning to develop and implement an area's mission and goals. Participation in projects and programs is always voluntary with zoning and land-use decisions remaining under the jurisdiction of local governments. In addition, the coordinating entity is also prohibited from using the Federal funds it receives through enabling legislation to acquire real property.

What is the role of the National Park Service?

The National Park Service (NPS) provides technical, planning and limited financial assistance to National Heritage Areas. The NPS is a partner and advisor, leaving decision-making authority in the hands of local people and organizations.

How is it different from a National Park?

A National Heritage Area is not a unit of the National Park Service, nor is any land owned or managed by the NPS. National Park Service involvement is always advisory in nature; NPS neither makes nor carries out management decisions. After a heritage area is designated by Congress, NPS staff partner with local community members to plan and implement activities that emphasize heritage-centered interpretation, conservation and development projects.

How does a region become a National Heritage Area?

National Heritage Areas are designated by Congress. Each National Heritage Area is governed by separate authorizing legislation and operates under provisions unique to its resources and desired goals. For an area to be considered for designation, certain key elements must be present. First and foremost, the landscape must have nationally distinctive natural, cultural, historic, and scenic resources that, when linked together, tell a unique story about our country. A strong base of local, grassroots support is also essential, with the visible involvement and commitment of key constituencies such as residents, government, community groups, non-profits and businesses. A feasibility study, conducted with extensive public involvement, is also strongly recommended. This document defines the region's story, identifies significant assets, and shows local support for the initiative. Interested communities can review the National Park Service's draft feasibility study guidelines or contact a National Park Service office in their region of the country.

Newly designated National Heritage Areas have three years to develop a management plan, which, upon completion, must be approved by the Secretary of the Interior. The plan defines the mission, vision and goals of the National Heritage Area and outlines the strategies that the coordinating entity, partners and residents will use to achieve these objectives. Implementation of the plan rests in the hands of local citizens, officials, organizations and businesses - not the Federal government.

How do communities benefit from the National Heritage Area designation?

The designation has both tangible and intangible benefits. Heritage conservation efforts are grounded in a community's pride in its history and traditions, and in residents' interest and involvement in retaining and interpreting the landscape for future generations. Preserving the integrity of the cultural landscape and local stories means that future generations will be able to understand their relationship to the land. Heritage areas provide educational and inspirational opportunities, which encourage residents and visitors to stay in a place, but they also offer a collaborative approach to conservation that does not compromise traditional local control over and use of the landscape.

In addition to enhancing local pride and retaining residents, designation comes with limited technical and financial assistance from the National Park Service. NPS primarily provides planning and interpretation assistance and expertise, but also connects regions with other Federal agencies. Federal financial assistance provides valuable "seed" money that covers basic expenses such as staffing, and leverages other money from state, local and private sources. The region also benefits from national recognition due to its association with the National Park Service through the use of the NPS arrowhead symbol as a branding strategy.

 Why utilize the heritage areas strategy?

The heritage area concept offers an innovative method for citizens, in partnership with local, state, and Federal government, and nonprofit and private sector interests, to shape the long-term future of their communities. The partnership approach creates the opportunity for a diverse range of constituents to come together to voice a range of visions and perspectives.Heritage Areas work across boundaries by identifying cultural landscapes that are linked thematically, historically, or geographically. Residents collaborate to shape a plan and implement a strategy that focuses on the distinct qualities that make their region special.

What kinds of activities does a National Heritage Area offer to outside visitors?

National Heritage Areas offer recreational activities and cultural events for all ages and interests. There are opportunities for walking, hiking, biking and paddling; there are festivals to attend and museums to visit. Stroll through a historic downtown or visit a wildlife reserve - there is always something to do or to see, the whole year-round. Many Areas provide volunteer opportunities, group tours, and multiple-day excursions and can also be visited in combination with over 80 units of the National Park Service.

Note:  This page was excerpted from the National Park Service’s website on the National Heritage Area Program (

What is a National Heritage Area?

A "national heritage area" is a place designated by the United States Congress where natural, cultural, historic and recreational resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally-distinctive landscape arising from patterns of human activity shaped by geography. These areas tell nationally important stories about our nation and are representative of the national experience through both the physical features that remain and the traditions that have evolved within them.

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