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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Department of the Interior 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.

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