National Park Service:

A More Systematic Process for Establishing National Heritage Areas and Actions to Improve Their Accountability Are Needed

GAO-04-593T: Published: Mar 30, 2004. Publicly Released: Mar 30, 2004.

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The Congress has established, or "designated," 24 national heritage areas to recognize the value of their local traditions, history, and resources to the nation's heritage. These areas, including public and private lands, receive funds and assistance through cooperative agreements with the National Park Service, which has no formal program for them. They also receive funds from other agencies and nonfederal sources, and are managed by local entities. Growing interest in new areas has raised concerns about rising federal costs and the risk of limits on private land use. GAO was asked to review the (1) process for designating heritage areas, (2) amount of federal funding to these areas, (3) process for overseeing areas' activities and use of federal funds, and (4) effects, if any, they have on private property rights.

No systematic process currently exists for identifying qualified sites and designating them as national heritage areas. While the Congress generally has designated heritage areas with the Park Service's advice, it designated 10 of the 24 areas without a thorough agency review; in 6 of these 10 cases, the agency recommended deferring action. Even when the agency fully studied sites, it found few that were unsuitable. The agency's criteria are very general. For example, one criterion states that a proposed area should reflect "traditions, customs, beliefs, and folk life that are a valuable part of the national story." These criteria are open to interpretation and, using them, the agency has eliminated few sites as prospective heritage areas. According to data from 22 of the 24 heritage areas, in fiscal years 1997 through 2002, the areas received about $310 million in total funding. Of this total, about $154 million came from state and local governments and private sources and another $156 million came from the federal government. Over $50 million was dedicated heritage area funds provided through the Park Service, with another $44 million coming from other Park Service programs and about $61 million from 11 other federal sources. Generally, each area's designating legislation imposes matching requirements and sunset provisions to limit the federal funds. However, since 1984, five areas that reached their sunset dates had their funding extended. The Park Service oversees heritage areas' activities by monitoring their implementation of the terms set forth in the cooperative agreements. These terms, however, do not include several key management controls. That is, the agency has not (1) always reviewed areas' financial audit reports, (2) developed consistent standards for reviewing areas' management plans, and (3) developed results-oriented goals and measures for the agency's heritage area activities, or required the areas to adopt a similar approach. Park Service officials said that the agency has not taken these actions because, without a program, it lacks adequate direction and funding. 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. However, property rights advocates fear the effects of provisions in some management plans. These provisions encourage local governments to implement land use policies that are consistent with the heritage areas' plans, which may allow the heritage areas to indirectly influence zoning and land use planning in ways that could restrict owners' use of their property. Nevertheless, heritage area officials, Park Service headquarters and regional staff, and representatives of national property rights groups that we contacted were unable to provide us with any examples of a heritage area directly affecting--positively or negatively--private property values or use.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2004, the Park Service's National Coordinator for heritage areas told GAO that the agency had recently finalized guidelines for regional managers to use in reviewing and evaluating heritage areas' management plans. These guidelines have been made available to regional staff, heritage area management entities, and will soon be placed on the Park Service's national heritage area web site.

    Recommendation: In the absence of congressional action to establish a formal heritage area program within the National Park Service or to otherwise provide direction and funding for the agency's heritage area activities, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Park Service to take actions within its existing authority to improve the effectiveness of its heritage area activities and increase areas' accountability. These actions should include developing well-defined, consistent standards and processes for regional staff to use in reviewing and approving heritage areas' management plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since 2004, NPS staff have begun to take steps to ensure that the agency has a full accounting of heritage areas' use of funds from all federal sources. These include: -Reviewing all applicable Office of Management and Budget circulars related to the usage of federal funds, including A-110, A-122 and A-21. -Overseeing National Heritage Area cooperative agreements (both the Washington office and regional offices) with an emphasis on increased accountability, specifically linking the use of Heritage Partnership Program funding to activities included in the Departmentally-approved Management plan. -Annually completing a statement of work, which reflects goals and priorities outlined in the Departmentally-approved Management plan.

    Recommendation: In the absence of congressional action to establish a formal heritage area program within the National Park Service or to otherwise provide direction and funding for the agency's heritage area activities, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Park Service to take actions within its existing authority to improve the effectiveness of its heritage area activities and increase areas' accountability. These actions should include requiring regional heritage area managers to regularly and consistently review heritage areas' annual financial audit reports to ensure that the agency has a full accounting of their use of funds from all federal sources.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Heritage Area cooperative agreements include a statement of work that describes key tasks to be accomplished during a particular fiscal year. The activities described in the work plan are linked to both the general goals set forth in the Heritage Area's authorizing legislation as well as to the more specific projects included in the Heritage Area's management plan. Under the terms of the agreement, in order to receive reimbursement, a Heritage Area should demonstrate how it has achieved the targeted actions included in the work plan. NPS is developing an enhanced allocation methodology for Heritage Areas. This approach will provide incentives to Heritage Areas that practice sound management of all federal funds. In addition, using a set of criteria drawn from Heritage Area authorizing legislation, the methodology will distribute funds based on measurable performance in key programmatic areas such as preservation, conservation and community development. Finally, NPS is undertaking a systematic evaluation of nine National Heritage Areas designated in 1996. The work builds on a multi-year process spearheaded by the Conservation Study Institute (CSI). Since 2005, CSI has conducted sustainability studies of three National Heritage Areas and developed a model of key indicators of National Heritage Area success. This current evaluation, to be completed by the end of FY 2009, will include an analysis of: --Accomplishments relative to authorizing legislation and management plan; --Federal, State, Tribal, and local government and private investments in the National Heritage Area to determine leverage and impacts of investments; --the management structure and partnership relationships of the local National Heritage Area coordinating entity; --the critical components to long term sustainability of both the National Heritage Area and the management entity; i.e. how can the unique cultural, natural, recreational and scenic resources in this area continue to be protected and preserved; and --the array of funding opportunities available to National Heritage Areas.

    Recommendation: In the absence of congressional action to establish a formal heritage area program within the National Park Service or to otherwise provide direction and funding for the agency's heritage area activities, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Park Service to take actions within its existing authority to improve the effectiveness of its heritage area activities and increase areas' accountability. These actions should include developing results-oriented performance goals and measures for the agency's heritage area activities, and requiring, in the cooperative agreements, heritage areas to adopt such a results-oriented management approach as well.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

 

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