National Heritage Areas FAQs

National Heritage Areas are places where historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes. Unlike national parks, NHAs are lived in communities and not federally owned, but they may contain parks or other federally owned property. Consequently, National Heritage Areas entities collaborate with communities to determine how to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs. The FAQs below address questions of land use in NHAs and the federal government’s role.

Designation of National Heritage Areas (NHAs) and Land Use

No. NHA designation does not affect private property owners or restrict their property rights, nor does it require that they maintain their property to particular specifications.

Recent laws establishing National Heritage Areas have contained provisions intended to address concerns about potential loss of, or restrictions on use of, private property. For example, the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, which established six NHAs in 2019, stated that designation of the new NHAs would not reduce the rights of any property owner; require any property owner to permit public access to the property; alter any land use regulation; or diminish the authority of the state to manage fish and wildlife, including the regulation of fishing and hunting within the NHA.   

In a 2004 U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) Report, GOA found that “heritage areas do not appear to have affected property owners’ rights. In fact, the designating legislation of 13 areas and the management plans of at least 6 provide assurances that such rights will be protected.” 

No. NHA designation does not confer to the local coordinating entity any powers of eminent domain. There is no real, implied, or intended additional restrictions on local land use regulation generated by NHA designation. 

Inclusion of private property within the boundary of a NHA does not change or prohibit any actions or use which may otherwise be taken by the property owner with respect to the private property according to federal law or regulations. Owners should keep in mind that state laws or local ordinances may affect National Heritage Areas if these legal mechanisms recognize and protect resources within the National Heritage Area, independent of federal law. 

No. Private property owners are not required to allow public access to their lands because of National Heritage Area designation. Designation of a National Heritage Area does not establish public right-of way or change land ownership or authority over private property. Any public access to private property associated with NHA programs or projects is on a voluntary basis.

No. The creation of a new NHA does not come with new federal historic preservation requirements; zoning or other land use regulation overlays; or renovation, redevelopment, or demolition rules.  

No. NHAs are not intended to be federally-owned entities. Many of the laws which created individual NHAs did not give any federal government agency the authority to acquire property. In other cases, laws creating NHAs state that the NHA local coordinating entity cannot use federal funding to acquire real property. Once designated, the wide variety of property ownership patterns existing prior to designation continue, meaning properties remain in private, state, or local government ownership.  

Congress did authorize federal acquisition of land in two National Heritage Areas when they created National Park units in the same areas. Cane River Creole National Historical Park and the Cane River NHA were authorized in the same law in 1994. Congress established the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park in 2014 within the existing John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, designated in 1986. In both cases lands were acquired from willing sellers.

Yes, potentially. Property owners can voice any concerns about being within a proposed boundary to those leading a National Heritage Area feasibility study. The proposed boundary should have public support. The group leading the feasibility study should take public input into consideration when finalizing the study. Only the federal legislation creating a new NHA – and not the feasibility study – has the authority to include or exclude properties from a new National Heritage Area boundary.

The NPS recommends a feasibility study be completed prior to designation of an NHA to determine if NHA designation is appropriate and feasible. The NHA feasibility study process involves significant levels of public engagement. An effective public involvement strategy assumes that a successful NHA study can only be achieved with the active participation of stakeholders within the region. The feasibility study criteria require findings of public support and commitment to National Heritage Area designation.  As National Heritage Areas are designated by Congress, there is opportunity to reach out to Congressional representatives regarding a proposed NHA and an associated bill, should it be introduced.

Federal Involvement

Federal Administration:
Each National Heritage Area is established by law and assigned for administration to the Secretary of the Interior via the National Park Service. Subject to available funding, the National Park Service administers financial assistance and provides oversight of federal funds via legal agreements to the NHA local coordinating entities. The National Park Service also provides technical assistance to include coordination among and between agencies and partner organizations in management planning, resource preservation and protection, interpretation and education, and economic development.  Sometimes a federally managed facility, such as a national park or wildlife refuge, already exists or is created within a National Heritage Area boundary.  In those cases, the federally managed facility has no role in managing the NHA and is another local partner which may collaborate on NHA activities.    

Local Coordination:
The legislation that creates a new NHA will name a local coordinating entity (e.g. a non-profit, state/local government, university, or federal commission), typically identified in the feasibility study, responsible for creating a management plan and implementing it in collaboration with local networks, partners, and landowners. The local coordinating entity is the recipient of the federal funds administered by the National Park Service. Various government and private entities own or manage lands within each NHA.

Last updated: September 1, 2021