January 28, 2008
AN UGLY HERITAGE
The poor man’s national park; the citizen’s burden
JOHN J. MILLER
A few years ago, Lee Ott was driving around his vegetable farm in Yuma, Ariz., when he spotted a crew of surveyors putting stakes in his land. “I stopped and asked them what was going on,” he recalls. It turned out they were marking the boundaries of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. Ott’s farm fell entirely within its 22 square miles, and nobody had bothered to tell him. “I became worried because I wanted to build a new house and a shop on the farm,” he says. “I didn’t need anybody to give me a bunch of rules about how they should look or whether I could even build them.”
So he decided to fight back. He met with the Yuma County Farm Bureau, which then contacted all of the landowners within the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. “About 600 people came to our meeting,” says Harold Maxwell, a farm-equipment distributor. “When I asked for a show of hands from those who knew they were in the NHA, only one hand went up.”
National Heritage Areas are like a poor man’s National Park — they aren’t actually owned by the federal government, but they’re zoned by it. Instead of employing Park Rangers in stiff-brimmed hats, they’re often administered by liberal groups that want to weaken the property rights of the people who hold a piece of land within or even near NHA boundaries. This is generally done in the name of historic preservation and environmental conservation. The Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, for instance, includes an old territorial prison and some wetlands along the Colorado River. Yet NHAs are perhaps best regarded as a clever combination of pork-barrel spending and land-use regulations — and they’re an increasingly popular tool for slow-growth activists who bristle at the thought of economic development that they don’t personally control.
Since the first NHA was created in 1984 to preserve a 61-mile canal that runs between Lake Michigan and the Illinois River, more than three dozen have come into existence. Today, they’re a growth industry: Ten were added in 2006 alone, and last fall, the House of Representatives passed a $135 million bill that would set up six more. Some, such as the one in Yuma, are just dots on the map. Others are sprawling. The Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area takes up the entire state.
“These are basically federal zoning laws,” says Peyton Knight of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a free-market think tank that has tried to draw attention to the problem. The rules governing NHAs vary from place to place, but they tend to have a few features in common. One important element is the involvement of a “management entity” that works in conjunction with the Park Service to come up with a plan — in the case of one NHA, this means creating an “inventory” of properties of “national historic significance” that it wants “preserved,” “managed,” or “acquired.”
Sometimes the ambitions of an NHA amount merely to a bit of parkland pump-priming. The website of the Rivers of Steel NHA near Pittsburgh boasts that it “is spearheading a drive” to have the National Park Service absorb an old steel mill and mentions a bill in Congress. So it’s a federally funded organization that lobbies Washington for ever more subsidies.
But does the National Park Service really need more parks? It already operates almost 400 sites. Although some remain incredibly popular, visits within the system have declined in the last decade — a trend that started before the terrorist attacks of 9/11 resulted in fewer foreign visitors. What’s more, the Department of the Interior is having trouble maintaining the properties it already runs. Its maintenance backlog is a multibillion-dollar wish list of unfunded repairs and improvements. The National Parks Conservation Association, a non-profit group, says that the parks need an extra $800 million per year just to fund their existing operations adequately. This certainly isn’t the result of a Scrooge-like Bush administration: The Park Service is spending more money per visitor, per acre, and per employee than ever before.
A section of the proposed Journey Through Hallowed Ground
Supporters of NHAs insist that they aren’t in the business of buying or regulating property, which is true in the sense that NHAs do neither of these things directly. But they work to achieve these results indirectly, by encouraging local governments to implement restrictive land-use plans. “That’s how they achieve their goals — by pushing counties and towns to do what they can’t do for themselves,” says Cheryl Chumley, a Virginia writer who has tracked NHAs.
They do this by dangling the prospect of federal largesse in front of potential recipients. West Virginia’s Wheeling NHA, which is basically a downtown preservation project, makes this explicit, according to a Heritage Foundation report by Chumley and Ron Ott. Its management plan calls for new zoning ordinances and the acquisition of private property. And how will it achieve these goals? As Chumley and Ott write, “Major funding to support the activities . . . and the recommendations of this plan will be coming from the National Park Service.” In the year prior to its most recent available tax filing, the Wheeling NHA received more than $2.5 million in government contributions — and not a dime from private sources.
One of the most controversial NHAs is the proposed Journey Through Hallowed Ground, which would encompass a corridor roughly 175 miles in length between Charlottesville, Va., and Gettysburg, Pa. The exact boundaries aren’t determined because this NHA at least technically remains on the drawing board. But that didn’t stop Congress in 2005 from giving a $1 million earmark to the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, a non-profit group that’s pushing for the NHA. The organization’s board is full of slow-growthers, including Peter Brink, the senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “If this NHA becomes a reality, it would essentially deputize the National Trust and its allies to oversee land-use policy in the whole region,” says Knight.
Once upon a time, historic-preservation groups operated public-education programs and tried to save old homes and hotels, often by purchasing them. Nowadays, however, they’re much more interested in regulating land that they don’t own. In Oregon and Washington state, where property-rights advocates have put forth ballot initiatives to compensate landowners when government regulations lower the value of their property, the National Trust has campaigned to defeat them. It even worked to derail a transportation project in Virginia because a proposed road expansion would have increased traffic near the Chancellorsville battlefield — not in it, just near it. Three years ago, Emily Wadhams of the National Trust testified to Congress that “private-property rights have never been allowed to take precedence over our shared national values and the preservation of our country’s heritage.”
Last October, the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership issued a report on how it would pursue its objectives in an NHA: “Farmland, in particular, is a threatened resource. . . . There are many opportunities to further protect these resources through conservation easements, Rural Historic District designations, Agricultural and Forestal districts, and private and public easement and land acquisition.” Except for easements, in which landowners sell certain rights to their land, each of these suggestions would amount to having government agencies tell property holders what they can do — or, more likely, what they can’t do. In September, more than 110 groups, including the American Conservative Union, the Family Research Council, and FreedomWorks, signed a letter urging Congress to reject new NHAs.
Backers of Journey Through Hallowed Ground, including Republican congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia, cite a poll to claim that the public is behind them. What they don’t reveal is something that the Fauquier Times-Democrat, a local newspaper, uncovered: The poll was sponsored by a group that endorses the NHA, and 96 percent of the people in the survey didn’t even know what the NHA is.
That’s what happened in Yuma, Ariz.: Congress created the Yuma Crossing NHA, and hardly any of the locals knew about it until Lee Ott saw the surveyors on his property. The good news is that Yuma’s farmers fought back — they asked members of Arizona’s congressional delegation to intervene, and eventually the NHA was downsized dramatically. Today, it covers only four square miles. Threats loom elsewhere, however, and an exhibit on the Yuma County Farm Bureau’s experience will be featured at this year’s American Farm Federation Bureau convention.
Although Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, is run by a private group rather than the federal government, supporters of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground like to mention that the boundaries of their NHA would include it. They would do well to read Jefferson’s words, and in particular a line that their foes enjoy quoting: “The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property and in their management.”