Heritage areas face loss of funding if not reauthorized
WASHINGTON, D.C.—When leaders of national heritage areas gathered last week, their main focus was the need for Congress to pass reauthorizing legislation so the heritage areas can continue in business.
The Alliance of National Heritage Areas (ANHA), an association that includes most of the 49 heritage areas around the country, met Tuesday through Thursday, Feb. 12-14, in Washington, D.C.
The Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area (MPNHA), which operates in counties along U.S. 89 from U.S. 6 to the Arizona border, was represented by Suzanne Dean, publisher of the Sanpete Messenger. The Messenger has done contract work for the MPNHA.
Monte Bona, executive director, said MPNHA has accomplished a lot since 2010, when the Department of Interior approved its management plan. But he said there’s a lot more to do, which is why reauthorization is so important.
“Since we were founded, we’ve received $2.4 million, but we’ve leveraged that to support over $40 million in projects,” Bona said. “That shows we are a heritage area that uses its money to leverage money and do projects on the ground.”
The research that went into the management plan showed the MPNHA, which takes in Sanpete, Sevier, Piute, Wayne, Kane and Garfield counties, has 1,000 buildings listed or qualified to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Bona said.
“That’s a lot of buildings that potentially could be restored,” he said. “The heritage area can only afford to assist a few projects each year. It needs to continue its work, on a community-by-community basis, to preserve and interpret the Mormon pioneer heritage.”
A heritage area is a designated geographic area that has a nationally significant historical or cultural theme. Some areas are contained within a single city or county. Many, like the MPNHA, take in several counties. Some cover most of a state.
Unlike national parks and monuments, heritage areas don’t own any land. They aren’t staffed by federal employees. Rather, each heritage area is managed by some sort of nonprofit entity, generally one set up by the local people who originally campaigned to get the area established. The areas use federal funds with local matching dollars to do projects to preserve and interpret their historical or cultural themes.
The 49 heritage areas were created one at a time, or a few at a time, by bills that went through the U.S. Congress between the 1980s and 2014. The MPNHA was created in 2006. Over the years, different areas have received markedly different levels of federal funding.
However, one common feature in all heritage-area legislation is that after a certain period, generally 15 years, the areas “sunset,” or cease to receive federal funds, unless Congress reauthorizes them. In most cases, if federal funds were cut off, the areas couldn’t continue operating.
It turns out that sunset dates for 45 of the 49 areas fall between 2019 and 2024. The MPNHA sunsets in 2021.
At one point, it appeared each heritage area would be on its own trying to get reauthorized. Then the week before the ANHA meeting, Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y. and Rep. David McKinley, R-W.V., introduced a single bill to reauthorize all 49 areas at once. This time, authorization would extend for 20 years rather 15.
In a letter to all members of the House of Representatives, Tonko and McKinley wrote, “National heritage areas are considered one of the Department of Interior’s most cost-effective initiatives, relying on a public/private partnership in which every federal dollar is matched with an average of $5.50 in other public and private financing.”
Another thing the Tonko-McKinley bill seeks to do is equalize funding for all heritage areas. Growing out of the complexities of the authorization and appropriations processes, and the discretion given to the U.S. Department of Interior to divide the total amount appropriated for heritage areas among the 49 areas, funding per area has been ranging from about $300,000 to $700,000 per year.
The proposed legislation proposes to increase total heritage-area funding from $20 million to $32 million per year, which would bring all areas up to what the best-funded areas are receiving. In recent years, the MPNHA has received about $320,000. So if equalization were approved, funding to the local heritage area could nearly double.
The MPNHA was originally authorized for $10 million over its 15-year-life. “But we haven’t received anything close to that,” Bona said. “If for no other reason, we ought to be reauthorized so we can get close to the amount we were originally authorized.”
In recent years, Congress has been reluctant to take up “program legislation,” bills establishing or reshaping federal programs. It has preferred to leave existing programs in place and focus on how much to appropriate to the programs.
“This time we need to go for and can go for a program bill,” said Sara Cappen, ANHA chairwoman. “I’m committed to giving it our very best effort, and hopefully it will stick.”
Referring to a graphic the AHNA has created depicting the “legislative logjam” that would be created if Congress had to pass an individual bill for each heritage area, Charles Flynn, AHNA treasurer, said, “You show this to the (congressional) committee staffs, and either they’re going to be incredibly hassled for the next four years, or they need to go for the blanket approach.”
But Shawn Pomaville-Size, chairwoman of the ANHA Advocacy Committee, said local heritage areas still need to be prepared to go for individual authorizations “in case the program bill doesn’t pass.”