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General Accounting Office Issues Whitewash Report
LaGrasse Testifies Before U.S. Senate Against National Heritage Areas
Generic National Heritage Area Bill is Likely to Receive Bi-Partisan Support

A hearing held by Senator Craig Thomas before the U.S. Senate Energy and Resources Committee on March 30 gave a unique opportunity for the Property Rights Foundation of America to convey a perspective from over ten years of work against National Heritage Areas. Five agencies, organizations, and experts that profit and derive power from the National Heritage Area program spoke at this oversight hearing, which had the specific additional purpose of releasing the General Accounting Office (GAO) report on the program. The GAO's report called for more fiscal and programmatic definition while dismissing property rights concerns, which left the seventh witness, Carol LaGrasse, the President of the Property Rights Foundation of America, with the task of conveying the opposition viewpoint alone.

Thus far, the Congress has designated 24 Heritage Areas under this National Park Service program, beginning with the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in 1984, with the latest being the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area in 2003. It is generally assumed that about $10 million is allotted to each Heritage Area from the Park Service over the first ten years. New York has received many heritage area designations from various federal, state and local agencies. The Park Service's Heritage Area program is the most powerful. In New York, it now includes the Hudson River National Heritage Area from Saratoga County south to New York City, and the Erie Canalway National Heritage Area from Buffalo to Albany and thence north to Whitehall on Lake Champlain. The Hudson designation followed intense controversy, initially including vociferous opposition by Rep. Jerry Solomon. The elusive Great Northern Frontier National Heritage Area encompassing all of New York's colonial Tryon County and the Champlain Valley National Heritage Area are still pending. The Champlain designation, supported by the federal Lake Champlain Basin Program and organizations seeking history-related grants, has consistently received stiff local opposition from both New York and Vermont citizens.

At the hearing in March, the Deputy Director of the National Park Service, which heads the twenty-year-old program, presented the Department of Interior's legislative proposal for a National Heritage Partnership Act. He testified, "National heritage areas are locally driven, initiated and managed by the people who live there and do not impose Federal zoning, land use controls nor do they require land acquisition." He emphasized the importance of the approval of the management plans, and urged that a fifteen-year period of $10 million federal funding be the maximum. He said that in 2003 the 24 National Heritage Areas reported 996 formalized partnerships and 2,480 informal partnerships; grants leveraged $29,276,585 in additional funds.

Barry T. Hill, the Director of the Natural Resource and Environmental Issues of the U.S. General Accounting Office, which issued its audit of the program at the hearing, reached the conclusion that the Heritage Areas did not cause any property rights impacts. However, the agency failed to investigate the concerns in a way that could unearth negative impacts. One investigatory method would have been to trace the imposition of regional and local zoning as a result of the instigation of the program and to trace litigation. The GAO testified that no systematic method exists for designation and that the Park Service lacks an effective process for ensuring that National Heritage Areas are accountable for their use of federal funds. The agency reported that funding from all sources from 1997 to 2002 for the program was $310,017,525. GAO proposed criteria for establishing National Heritage Areas and standards to improve their accountability.

August R. Carlino, the President and CEO of the Steel Industry Heritage Corporation, the entity that manages the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in and around Pittsburgh and parts of southwestern Pennsylvania, testified about the benefits of the Heritage Area program. Carlino, who is also Chairman of the Alliance of National Heritage Areas, testified that "heritage areas have sprouted in more than 150 places throughout the U.S." He testified that the program has "become the catalyst for the creation of investment and economic development strategies in a number of states and through the federally-sponsored initiatives in the National Heritage Areas with National park Service and many other federal agencies and departments."

Lisa Benton-Short, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Geography and Director of the Center for Urban Environmental Research at George Washington University, who is an advocate for non-traditional urban heritage parks found it "worrisome that no legislative criteria exist for designation in the National Heritage Areas Program." She said that such vagueness allows "any cultural landscape anywhere in the US" to be included. Edward F. Sanderson, President of the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers and Executive Director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, mentioned his involvement with the Blackstone River National Heritage Area. His testimony was a systematic outline for strengthening the National Heritage Area program, his suggestions including increasing the partnerships and the number of federal agencies involved.

Dennis Frenchman, who heads the City Planning Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had an interesting twist to his testimony about the importance of Heritage Areas. He testified, "My experience with national heritage began in the 1970's when I prepared the plan for Lowell National Historical Park, which became a model for many heritage areas." To give weight to his words, he pointed out, "Since then, my firm, ICON architecture, has helped to plan almost half of the National Heritage Areas in the US." He spoke of his involvement in heritage areas in Europe from Spain to Scandinavia. He advocated heritage areas to rescue derelict areas and resist homogeneous development. Like the others testifying, his prestige parallels the success of the program.

LaGrasse began testifying with the words, " My criticism has been and remains that the National Heritage Area program is meant to gradually accomplish federal land use control." A reporter said afterwards that when this statement began, the other reporters sat up in their seats and started taking notes. LaGrasse proceeded to explain how the National Heritage Areas were a regulatory greenway program and to enumerate other threats to private property rights, including the "partnerships" with local and regional government, the ties to non-profits, and the establishment of National Park Service trails with associated eminent domain.

"The main selling points for Heritage Areas are tourism, economic development, historic preservation, and protection of riverways," LaGrasse stated. "The word 'greenway' is not used. Yet, Heritage Areas are plainly greenways, areas where the purpose is landscape preservation by land use regulation and land acquisition by government and its surrogates."

"A theme trail is associated with each greenway," LaGrasse pointed out. "The Heritage Area elements fulfill the goal of 'landscape connectedness,' a textbook purpose of greenways. A greenway needs an 'ensemblage' of sites related to the theme, the ostensible reason for the overall geographic definition, without which the real goal of landscape preservation could not be accomplished."

The statement that LaGrasse presented was accompanied by almost two pages of footnotes, and is available on the PRFA web site, prfamerica.org, or upon request. It includes numerous suggestions to alter the Heritage Area program to eliminate the greenway purpose and the involvement of the National Park Service and the ubiquitous non-profits, and to reform and limit trails associated with Heritage Areas. The statement calls for an inventory of the amount of land owned by the federal government, as well as the full extent of the Heritage Area and trail programs.

The Property Rights Foundation of America has played a key role in opposing land designations for a decade. LaGrasse has previously testified four times before the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives about National Heritage Areas, American Heritage Rivers (these instituted under Pres. William Clinton's executive order) and UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. With the likelihood of a generic bi-partisan bill to establish a system of National Heritage Areas, the importance of the property rights movement at this time cannot be overemphasized.

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