National Heritage Areas — Congressional Testimony — Knight
Submitted to the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks Concerning the National Heritage Partnership Act (S. 2543) and its impact on property rights, private lands, and local communities, June 24, 2004:
Chairman Thomas and members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to submit the following testimony on the behalf of property rights advocates across the country who are concerned with the impact of National Heritage Areas (NHAs), and the “National Heritage Partnership Act” (S. 2543) in particular, on land use, private property rights and local communities.
National Heritage Areas undoubtedly lead to restrictive federal zoning and land use planning. Funding and technical assistance for Heritage Areas is administered through the National Park Service (NPS), a federal agency with a long history of hostility toward private landowners. The recipient of these funds and NPS direction is a management entity, which typically consists of strictly ideological special interest groups and local government officials. This public/private juggernaut then imposes its narrow vision of land use planning on unsuspecting landowners within a Heritage Area’s boundaries. The result is a top-down approach to local zoning, with little or no involvement from the local citizenry.
Heritage Areas are not innocuous designations bestowed upon local communities simply for the purpose of national recognition. Rather, they are land use mandates foisted upon property owners in the name of preservation. Quite simply: Heritage Areas have boundaries, and those boundaries have consequences for property owners unfortunate enough to reside within them. Incredibly, proponents of Heritage Areas argue that despite their mission of “preservation,” Heritage Areas do not influence zoning or land use planning. Yet by definition this is precisely what they do.
According to S. 2543, a NHA is an area that has “an assemblage of natural, historic, cultural, educational, scenic, or recreational resources” that are “nationally significant to the heritage of the United States.” The legislation goes on to dictate that a NHA “provides outstanding opportunities to conserve natural, historical, cultural, or scenic features.” As for the absurdly arbitrary term “national significance,” it is defined in the bill as “possession of unique natural, historical, cultural, educational, scenic, or recreational resources of exceptional value or quality.”
This sweeping definition ensures that every single square inch of land in the United States can arguably qualify as a National Heritage Area—and therefore be eligible for millions of taxpayer dollars, federal protection, federal oversight, and federal land use restrictions. No wonder when the first incarnation of S. 2543 (the “American Heritage Areas Partnership Program”) first surfaced ten years ago, the late Representative Gerald Solomon (R-NY) strongly warned his colleagues against the scheme. In a letter dated September 19, 1994, Solomon wrote:
I urge you to defend property rights and strongly oppose the American Heritage Area Participation Program…The environmentalists advocating this bill have FEDERAL LAND USE CONTROL as their primary objective.
The bill wastes tax dollars that could be more appropriately spent on maintaining our national parks…Property rights defenders have legitimate concerns about the provision in the bill requiring localities to obtain approval by the Secretary of Interior or land use plans…
WHY SPEND $35 MILLION ON NON-FEDERAL HERITAGE AREAS WHEN OUR NATIONAL PARKS DESPERATELY NEED FUNDS FOR MAINTENANCE AND REPAIR?
Again, I ask you to defend property rights and oppose this bill. (The emphasis is Rep. Solomon’s—not mine.)
Little has changed in the ten years since Gerald Solomon warned his congressional colleagues about the foolishness and danger of a National Heritage Areas program. The advocates of NHA program still have federal land use control as their primary objective. The bill still wastes tax dollars that would be better spent on a Park Service maintenance backlog that now numbers in the billions of dollars. And the Secretary of Interior still has the ultimate say over the management and land use plans that govern a National Heritage Area, as is stated in section 5(b) of S. 2543. Again, a National Heritage Areas program is nothing less than federal land use policy.
Also on September 19, 1994, Rep. Bob Smith (R-OR) penned a letter to fellow Congressman Richard Pombo, warning him about the inherent dangers of a National Heritage Area program:
On Tuesday, the House will consider legislation that I consider to be the most significant threat to private property rights I have seen during my twelve years in Congress.
This legislation…will threaten private property by authorizing a broad new program of federal land use controls, extending from coast to coast. There are nearly 100 Heritage Areas currently under consideration and it’s likely that your constituents will be impacted by these incredible restrictions on private property.
This program is based on the existing Columbia Gorge Scenic Area in Oregon and Washington.
The management plan for the Gorge regulates nearly every detail of private property use, including the color landowners can paint their homes and the species of trees they can plant in their own yard. Your constituents, like mine, will be outraged at this gross abuse of government over-regulation if this bill is enacted. Believe me, you do not want to be part of a town hall meeting after masses of your constituents learn the federal government has the final say over what they can do on their own property.
Two NHAs that recently passed the House Resources Committee illustrate this federal encroachment on local land use policy. Both the National Aviation and the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area Acts specifically direct the management entity to “encourage local governments to adopt land use policies consistent with the management of the Heritage Area and the goals of the Management Plan.” This can be construed as nothing less than a top-down, federal zoning mandate.
In the Oil Region National Heritage Area Act, section 5 (b) 5 calls for creating an “inventory of the resources contained in the Heritage Area, including a list of any property in the Heritage Area that is related to the themes of the Heritage Area and that should be preserved, restored, managed, developed, or maintained because of its natural, cultural, historic, recreational, or scenic significance.” Thus, landowners are subject to the whimsical interpretations of the preservation-driven management entity.
Should their property be deemed “significant” in any way to the Heritage Area, you can bet that its use will be strictly curtailed. Again, this is a federal zoning mandate.
S. 2543 is no different than these examples above, as it too calls for the creation of an “inventory” of property to be set aside for “resource protection” (read: land use restrictions and lost property rights).
The National Heritage Partnership Act establishes a program whereby federal funds are dangled as a carrot in front of local authorities, environmental organizations, and preservation societies, while the stick of federal zoning and land use mandates are firmly applied. For example, when the Augusta Canal National Heritage Area in Georgia was in its developmental stages in 1994, NPS Associate Director of Planning and Development Denis P. Galvin refused to accept the management plan put forth by the planning committee until they succumbed to the Park Service’s vision of zoning and land use. Specifically, the Park Service testified that the Augusta Heritage Area needed to submit “evidence of commitment to modify zoning regulations, and evidence of commitment to create a State Park.” Of course, S. 2543 provides the same opportunity for the Park Service to make heavy-handed dictates.
Property rights and limited government advocates are also concerned that National Heritage Areas will effectively become a feeder program for a ravenous national parks program. These fears are well founded.
The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in southwestern Pennsylvania states boldly on its website:
“Rivers of Steel is spearheading a drive to create a national park on 38 acres of original mill site…bills have been introduced before the U.S. Congress to make this urban national park a reality.”
Thus, here is an example of a National Heritage Area, funded and guided by the National Park Service, taking the initiative in lobbying Congress for land acquisition authority and the creation of yet another national park. It hardly appears that Heritage Areas and National Parks are strictly dichotomous.
Given the adverse impacts that Heritage Areas can have on property owners, it is absolutely appalling that S. 2543 does not provide for landowner notification prior to an NHA designation. It is morally imperative that each and every property owner within the boundaries of a proposed National Heritage Area be notified on an individual basis (i.e. a simple, one-page letter sent via U.S. Postal Service), and given the opportunity to opt-in to the designation. This is far more than a common courtesy to landowners. It is the only way to truly gauge whether or not the local population is supportive of the designation. Advocates of S. 2543 claim that local support is a prerequisite for the creation of a National Heritage Area. However, they refuse to document this so-called support, and when commonsense mechanisms to gauge support are suggested, they stonewall them at every turn. In reality, input from the local citizenry is shunned by NHA proponents as they prefer to steamroll these designations into existence and spring them on unsuspecting landowners.
In conclusion, the National Heritage Partnership Act is a worse idea now than it was ten years ago. Experience shows that it will not only become a funding albatross, as more and more special interest groups and local governments gather around the federal trough, but also a program that quashes property rights and local economies through restrictive federal zoning practices. The real beneficiaries of a National Heritage Areas program are conservation groups, preservation societies, land trusts and the National Park Service—essentially, organizations that are in constant pursuit of federal dollars, land acquisition, and restrictions on property rights.
The National Heritage Partnership Act represents federal policy-making at its worst. Should it become law, S. 2543 will quickly build a legacy of wasted tax dollars, lost property rights, and local communities swallowed by federal land use restrictions.