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What is a National Heritage Area?

A National Heritage Area is a place recognized by the United States Congress for its unique contribution to the American experience. In a National Heritage Area, natural, cultural, historical, and recreational resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally distinctive landscape arising from patterns of human activity shaped by geography. These patterns make National Heritage Areas representative of the national experience through the physical features that remain and traditions that have evolved in these areas.

Beginning in 1984, National Heritage Areas were created by Congress as a new vehicle by which a region, through collaboration and partnerships, could conserve and promote its natural, cultural, and historic resources, linking resource conservation, tourism, and economic development. It is important to note the voluntary nature of this initiative, as it does not require, create, or permit any regulatory layers or restrictions on private property. As designated by Congress, each National Heritage Area is governed by its own separate authorizing legislation and operates under provisions unique to its resources and desired goals. There are 49 designated Heritage Areas in the United States, with most situated in the East.

Creation of a National Heritage Area is primarily an outgrowth of local grass-roots efforts. Local supporters bring a proposed heritage area to the attention of legislators and advocate for its passage while working with the National Park Service to determine whether it meets the designation criteria. Once the National Heritage Area achieves its designation, a locally controlled management entity guides the development of a management plan, and then coordinates the many partners in the implementation of the plan’s projects and programs.