National Park Service Press Release

For Immediate Release:
August 22, 2014
Mike Litterst, 202-513-0354
Heather Scotten, 202-513-7057

National Heritage Areas - 30 Years Telling America's Stories and Making a Difference

Washington – The National Park Service is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first national heritage area, which led the way for a program that uses a grassroots, community-driven approach to support historic preservation, natural resource conservation, recreation, heritage tourism, and educational projects across the country. Through their resources, national heritage areas tell nationally important stories that celebrate our nation’s diverse culture and heritage.

“For three decades, national heritage area entities and their partners across the country have been reviving historic downtowns, preserving battlefields and industrial sites, providing new and improved recreation opportunities, and conserving forgotten waterways and wetlands all while telling our nation’s history in innovative ways,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.  “These are places where small investments pay huge dividends, providing demonstrable benefits in communities across the country and in partnership with our national parks.”

On August 24, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a law establishing the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor as the nation’s first national heritage area.  This ground-breaking approach to historic preservation included large, lived-in landscapes with active communities, a multidisciplinary emphasis, and community-based coordination.

Thirty years ago, the national heritage area designation was conceived by community and National Park Service leaders looking for a new approach to conserve and develop the historic Illinois and Michigan Canal, which extends from Chicago to LaSalle-Peru, Illinois.  From 1848 to 1933 the canal was the primary transportation corridor that linked Chicago to other parts of the country, but by the early 1980s it had been all but forgotten when visionary community leaders sought to unite the 96-mile Illinois and Michigan Canal region.

They envisioned a large landscape focused not only on the preservation of the area’s historic, cultural and natural sites but that would also include active roadways, businesses, and residential and industrial districts, an unheard of concept at the time. Today, the 830-square mile Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor is comprised of historic canal towns, nature preserves, state parks, museums, and more than 80 miles of recreational trails, which collectively draw more than a million visitors annually.

From that first national heritage area in 1984, the program has grown to number 49 areas in 32 states, telling the stories of a broad range of American history and culture, from the influence of Illinois on the development and rise of our nation’s 16th president at Abraham Lincoln National Heritage Area; to farm life agribusiness and rural communities at Iowa’s Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area; to the industrial heritage of Big Steel and its related industries at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area in western Pennsylvania.

Along with the goals of cultural, historical, and natural resource protection, national heritage areas also strive to improve the quality of life in their regions by fostering the development of sustainable economies.  According to an economic impact study completed by the Alliance of National Heritage Areas and the National Park Service in 2013, the 49 national heritage areas contribute $12.9 billion to the U.S. economy on an annual basis and their activities support 148,000 jobs annually.

Additionally, in 2013, national heritage areas leveraged approximately $48 million from the $16 million invested by the National Park Service’s National Heritage Partnership Program, a four dollar return for every dollar of tax-payer money invested.  Funds were used to carry out diverse preservation, conservation, recreation and education projects.

Although the National Park Service provides technical, planning and limited financial assistance, national heritage areas are not a part of the National Park System.  The National Park Service is a partner and advisor, but decision-making authority is left in the hands of local residents and organizations. Thirty years later, the program has grown the designation of an additional 48 national heritage areas across the country.

The National Park Service National Heritage Areas Program is celebrating its 30years of historic preservation partnerships and community conservation accomplishments during the week of August 24 – 30, 2014. Join the national celebration on the National Park Service’s Heritage & Historic Preservation Facebook and Twitter sites - and Take part in the conversation by sharing your favorite story or image from a national heritage area using #HeritageArea30.

For more information on national heritage areas, including links to all 49 sites, an interactive map and additional economic impact data, visit


About the National Park Service. More than 20,000 National Park Service employees care for America's 401 national parks and work with communities across the nation to help preserve local history and create close-to-home recreational opportunities. Visit us at, on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube