National Heritage Areas (NHA)

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An environmental summary by the ENVS 560/L Watershed Systems class at CSUMB with relevance to the Central Coast region and the Range of the Condor National Heritage Area.

National Heritage Areas (NHAs) are nationally important landscapes, recognized for their natural, cultural, and historical resources. NHAs are designated by Congress but created at the request of local organizations and state governments. These areas are administered by local coordinating entities (i.e., local organizations, state governments). The local coordinating entities form a partnership with the National Park Service (NPS), which has a limited advisory role.

The NHA designation fosters a community-driven approach to heritage conservation and economic development. Through public-private partnerships, NHA entities support historic preservation, natural resource conservation, recreation, heritage tourism, and educational projects. Leveraging funds and long-term support for projects, NHA partnerships foster pride of place and an enduring stewardship ethic [1]. NHAs receive limited federal funding and do not affect private property rights [1].

Currently, there are 55 NHAs [2].

How NHAs are formed

Designation as an NHA begins at the local level. A local initiative must consider applying, then following a series of steps:

  • Heritage groups, tourism groups, or jurisdictions decide to pursue designation as a National Heritage Area.
  • The original supporters work to build support, reaching out to other groups, jurisdictions, and the public.
  • A formal feasibility study evaluates the quality of the heritage resources, potential sustainability, and local support for the proposed Heritage Area
  • The National Park Service reviews the feasibility study and advises Congress on the eligibility of the proposed Heritage Area.
  • Congress passes legislation authorizing the Heritage Area (public laws)
  • The new Heritage Area has three years to complete a management plan to meet the local goals of the Heritage Area [3].

Legislation related to NHAs

There is no systemic law outlining a standardized process and criteria for designating NHAs.[4] Indeed the first four areas now included in the NHA system are named "National Heritage Corridors". The first NHA named "National Heritage Area" was the fifth NHA to be designated: the Cane River NHA authorized in 1994.

Some examples of specific legislation enabling NHAs are as follows:

  • On August 21, 1984, President Regan signed the first created NHA, the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor, into law.[5]
  • On March 30, 2009, President Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-11). This law is composed of 15 titles and designated millions of acres in the US are protected, it established a National Landscape Conservation System, and provided funding for programs and other activities by the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture [6]. This act designated 10 new NHAs.
  • On March 12, 2019, President Trump signed the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act (P.L. 116-9). This was the first law to establish new NHAs since the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. This law protects public lands and modified management provisions. This act designated six new NHAs.
  • Two bills (H.R. 1049 and S. 3217) created during the 116th Congress (January 3, 2019- January 3, 2021) aimed to establish a system to help govern the designation, management, and funding of NHAs [7]. H.R. 1049 passed the House and was read twice in the Senate and has been referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources [8]. S. 3217 S. 3217 has been introduced in the Senate. It was read twice and referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources [9]. The two laws have similar provisions that aim to establish a standardized NHA system and set out the relationship between the NHAs and the National Park System [10]. These provisions include ensuring that NHAs are not considered units of the National Park Service, requiring that the Secretary of the Interior conduct feasibility studies, or reviewing feasibility studies conducted by groups other than Congress.

Criteria for evaluation of candidate NHAs

The National Park Service has the following ten criteria for evaluation of candidate areas by the National Park Service, Congress, and the public:

  • The area has an assemblage of natural, historic, or cultural resources that together represent distinctive aspects of American heritage worthy of recognition, conservation, interpretation, and continuing use, and are best managed as such an assemblage through partnerships among public and private entities, and by combining diverse and sometimes noncontiguous resources and active communities
  • The area reflects traditions, customs, beliefs, and folklife that are a valuable part of the national story
  • The area provides outstanding opportunities to conserve natural, cultural, historic, and/or scenic features
  • The area provides outstanding recreational and educational opportunities
  • Resources that are important to the identified theme or themes of the area retain a degree of integrity capable of supporting interpretation
  • Residents, business interests, nonprofit organizations, and governments within the proposed area that are involved in the planning have developed a conceptual financial plan that outlines the roles for all participants including the federal government, and have demonstrated support for designation of the area
  • The proposed management entity and units of government supporting the designation are willing to commit to working in partnership to develop the heritage area
  • The proposal is consistent with continued economic activity in the area
  • A conceptual boundary map is supported by the public
  • The management entity proposed to plan and implement the project is described

The National Park Service uses these criteria to evaluate potential areas and references them in subsequent testimony before congressional authorizing committees regarding legislation proposing designation of specific national heritage areas.[11].

NHA missions, planning, and administration


NHAs vary widely in their individual missions and the type of heritage they preserve. Some examples of NHA goals include:

  • preserving landmarks related to the American Revolution[12] and Civil War[13]
  • recognizing major historical events (i.e. Industrial Revolution[14] , land acquisition[15] )
  • preserving the cultures of Native Americans[16] , African Americans[17] , and other marginalized groups</ref>
  • highlighting important local industries[18] [19] [20]
  • acknowledging connections between communities created by natural[21] and manmade infrastructure[22]
  • promoting tourism/recreation by generating interest in local music, arts, food[23] [24]
  • conserving important ecosystems and promoting environmental stewardship[25] [26][27]

Heritage Management Plans

Typically, the legislation for a NHA will require the development of a management plan within three years of designation. A heritage area management plan is completed by a local management entity[11]. Management plan requirements often differ, but should include: long-range policies, goals, strategies, and actions; an implementation plan with short, mid and long range actions and performance goals; a business plan for the heritage area coordinating entity; and an interpretive plan. NHA management plans are approved by the Secretary of the Interior, which requires the plan to be in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other federal environmental laws. The NPS provides assistance to Heritage Area entities on the development of management plans to ensure that they address all Federal requirements.[28].

The NPS provides the following guidance documents for NHA management plans:

  • Interpretive Planning for Heritage Areas[29]
  • Business Planning Toolkit for Heritage Areas[30]
  • National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Guide for National Heritage Area Management Plans[31]

NHA administration

  • Local Coordinating Entity (LCE)
  • National Park Service
  • State governments
  • Local interest groups
  • Memoranda of Understanding

In some NHA legislation, the act will require the coordinating agency to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Secretary of Interior along with state governors and tribal governments participating in the NHA to define, discuss, and plan the objectives and management of the NHA. Two examples of NHAs with this type of MOU are the Oil Region National Heritage Area and the Great Basin National Heritage Area. [32] The coordinating agency may also enter into MOUs with interested partner organizations (i.e., environmental groups, chambers of commerce, etc.) in conjunction with the management plan. These agreements would enable the partner organizations to raise funds for NHA projects and activities that are outlined in the management plan. [33]


Contemporary NHA legislation provides federal funding authorizations of up to $1 million a year over a 15-year period with a required 50:50 non-federal match to any federal funds from this program, however, newly designated NHAs rarely receive $1 million in the first few years[11].

Typically, for any year a NHA receives federal funds, the management entity will be required to:

  • submit an annual report to the Secretary of the Interior that describes any accomplishments of the management entity and its expenses and income
  • make all records relating to the expenditure of such funds and any matching funds available to the Secretary for audit
  • require, with respect to all agreements authorizing expenditure of Federal funds by other organizations, that the receiving organizations make available to the Secretary for audit all records concerning the expenditure of such funds.[34]

Public Meetings

NHA legislation often requires the coordinating agency to conduct meetings open to the public at least semiannually to discuss the development and implementation of the management plan.[35][36]

Notable NHAs Relevant to the Range of the Condor NHA

Mountains to Sound Greenway NHA 

The Greenway NHA was designated by Congress in 2019. The main mission of this NHA is long-term stewardship of the 1.5 million acres of land that connects Central Washington, the Cascade Mountains, and Puget Sound. The area promotes many activities such as nature and wildlife conservation, cultural and traditional practices, and outdoor recreation and education. The Greenway Trust has a 60-member Board of Directors, a 40-member Board of Advisors, a 50-member Technical Advisory Council, and a conservation corps. In collaboration with AmeriCorps, the Greenway conservation corps carries out restoration projects in the many parks and waterways of the NHA under the direction of several restoration scientists and trail crew specialists. The Greenway NHA has an education program that provides lesson plans for teachers, hosts field trips, and holds seminars and other informational classes. The NHA also coordinates between municipalities and land managers in the region to compile information, maps, and newsletters about the natural resources in the area for the public. Volunteer Trailhead Ambassadors also represent the NHA in the many parks and wilderness areas in the region, and provide information to visitors about how they can be good stewards to the environment during their visit. Support from several large corporations such as Boeing, Subaru, and Microsoft help the Greenway NHA operate independently with its own large staff.[37]

Great Basin NHA 

Great Basin NHA was designated in 2006 and spans 10.2 million acres along the border of Nevada and Utah. This NHA strives to preserve the nation’s wide open spaces and the rich cultures that have thrived in these rugged terrains over thousands of years. The Great Basin Heritage Area Partnership runs a grant program that funds projects that contribute to their mission of “protecting and promoting the unique natural and cultural heritage” of the area. Five types of grants are available for non-profit organizations, private organizations, local or regional government entities, federally recognized Indian tribes, or individuals, ranging from $250 to $20,000. The NHA has partnered with the United States Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, National Speleological Society, and more than 60 other local organizations to compile information about parks and wilderness areas, museums, historical sites, and ecotourism attractions in the area. [38].

Freedom’s Way NHA 

Freedom’s Way National Heritage Area encompasses portions of northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire that were integral to the birth of the United States. It was designated in 2009 with the goal of connecting “the people, places, and communities…through preservation, conservation, and educational initiatives.” The Freedom’s Way Heritage Association emphasizes the importance of our connection with natural resources throughout the nation’s history, and organizes many events, oral history projects, and outreach programs that connect historical events and the natural environment. A popular program provided by the NHA is Connecting Communities: Walks & Talks – guided outdoor tours led by heritage experts. The heritage association implemented a Partnership Grant Program in 2019, which awarded almost $30,000 to nine local projects in its first year. Freedom’s Way Heritage Association collaborates with USFWS, Massachusetts Dept. of Conservation and Recreation, the American Antiquarian Society, and several other local organizations.[39]

Muscle Shoals NHA 

The Muscle Shoals NHA spans an 80 mile stretch of the Tennessee River in northern Alabama. This NHA was designated in 2009 “to promote cultural tourism by education, preservation and conservation of the heritage and culture” along the river. The NHA works with the University of North Alabama, Athens State University Foundation, and other local schools and organizations to create lesson plans and provide funding to teachers for field trips and digital learning tools. The Muscle Shoals NHA participates in the NPS passport stamp program, which helps encourage tourists to visit sites of historical importance within the NHA. NHA merchandise provides additional funding, which helps support the Pollination Operation initiative and the League of Outdoor Women program, which aims to make camping, hiking, and other outdoor activities more accessible for women. The League of Outdoor Women hosts workshops, campouts, and group hikes throughout the NHA.[40]

Blue Ridge NHA 

The Blue Ridge NHA is one of the earliest NHAs and was designated in 2003. It encompasses 25 counties in north-western North Carolina that surround the Blue Ridge Mountain range. The Blue Ridge Mountains are some of the oldest mountains on the planet, and this area is home to the rich cultural heritage of the Cherokee Indians. The NHA strives to be a steward of the living traditions of the region and the natural resources that provided the foundation for the many communities that have resided in the mountains. Promotion of local music, crafts, foods, and Cherokee culture is an important function of this NHA, in addition to organizing resources to help visitors to make the most of the waterways, hiking trails, fall foliage, and unique gems and minerals found throughout the mountain range. The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Partnership also offers grants to assist local projects that align with their mission and stimulate local economic opportunities. The Blue Ridge Craft Trails program also provides opportunities for local artists through an interactive website that allows visitors to select artists/studios of interest and generate an itinerary that provides a scenic route between desired locations within the NHA.[41]

Appalachian Forest NHA 

The Appalachian Forest NHA was designated in 2019 and spans over one million acres in western Maryland and the highlands of West Virginia. This mission of this NHA is to conserve and promote forest-based resources and share the unique heritage of communities that have developed in these isolated forests. The NHA hopes to educate the public on the past, present, and future of the forestry industry through interpretive programs and signage. Appalachian Forest NHA also manages a pollinator initiative to improve and increase pollinator habitat by developing a "nectar corridor" for migratory pollinator species. Partnerships with the United States Forest Service, Appalachian Regional Commission, USFWS, The Nature Conservancy, and many regional partners help to share the music, folklore, and forest-based products of Native Americans and early European settlers in Appalachia. The NHA also hosts AmeriCorps members, who serve a one-year term to assist with ecosystem restoration, habitat monitoring, environmental education, and community development initiatives.[42]

Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta NHA 

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta NHA was established in 2109 and is California's only NHA. The NHA is committed to boosting the economic development of the delta region by promoting ecotourism and agritourism by creating programs that entertain and educate visitors about the heritage of one of the nation's biggest agricultural regions. The NHA also draws attention to the challenges faced due to California's routine lack of water and the importance of working to improve the management of water resources.[43]

For more information about NHAs with missions related to environmental conservation and preserving natural history, see the complete list of relevant NHAs .

NHAs in California's Central Coast Region

The only NHA in California's Central Coast region is the proposed Range of the Condor National Heritage Area. The only existing NHA in California is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area.



  1. 1.0 1.1
  4. White paper on NHAs by Vincent and Comay (2013) later updated 2020
  5. P.L. 98-398
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2


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