Frontier Area — Heritage Area Operation

July 2006


This appendix provides additional information on some of the topics that were raised in the proposal for a national heritage area in Nye County.  It goes a little further into the legal and policy issues, and its footnotes give sources for still more detailed information.  In addition, the Bright Angel project will be happy to try answering any questions that come up.

What is a heritage area?

A heritage area is a designated, reasonably compact tract of land containing a number of historic sites with a common theme — sites that illustrate some important aspect of the national history of the United States.  Heritage areas commonly have a mix of historic sites and recreational opportunities.  One heritage area, for example, consists of a 40-mile stretch of river in New England that has a number of textile mills from the early Industrial Revolution, and opportunities for canoeing on the river.  Another contains a cluster of Civil War battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.  There are presently 24 heritage areas, almost entirely in the East.  These areas are listed and the program is described in a very comprehensive website,[1]

A heritage area is consistent with existing private property rights.  Because the concept originated in the East, where there are only limited amounts of public land, the historic properties can be — and often are — privately owned.

What the heritage area provides is a sort of management overlay that can knit together these thematically-related properties and present them as a group.  Common integrating activities include things like the following:  (1) preparing a map and brochure listing the sights of the area, in standard National Park Service format; (2) preparing a guidebook that describes these places in more detail; (3) designing and placing a series of signs to identify the most important sights and tie them in to the general theme of the heritage area; (4) supporting museums and other interpretive displays; and (5) designating trails and scenic byways.  Since one important function of a heritage area is to spur economic development, the area might also encourage the private firms in the vicinity to compile and distribute their own directory of visitor-oriented businesses, keyed to some of the same themes identified in the heritage area.

A heritage area is not subject to National Park Service control, although it is placed organizationally within the Park Service for administrative purposes.  The areas are placed there in order to have some rational location for their budget, and in order to take advantage of the technical consulting expertise that the NPS can provide. The actual management is carried out by the “management entity” named in the legislation that creates the area.  The Heritage Area website is quite explicit about this:  “National Park Service involvement is always advisory in nature; it neither makes nor carries out management decisions.”[2]  Usually the named management entity is a coalition of local governments and local nonprofit groups.  Even that coalition is not authorized to alter existing property rights.   If further safeguards are thought to be needed on some or all of these points, it would be possible to spell them out explicitly in any legislation creating a heritage area in Nye County.[3]

Heritage areas are represented by their own association, the Alliance of National Heritage Areas.[4]  This association provides independent advice and assistance on the practical tasks of organizing and managing these projects.  It has also successfully defended the areas against efforts by the Interior Department to cut their budgets.[5]  If Nye County wishes to consider the heritage area idea seriously, the Alliance could provide information on different localities’ experience with their own heritage areas, and could assess the costs and benefits of the relationship.

A heritage area in Nye County

A heritage area in Nye County could cover an area about thirty miles from east to west, and about sixty miles from north to south, with Tonopah at the southwest corner.  A suitable name might be “The Western Frontier Heritage Area:  Mining Towns and Open-Range Ranching.”

One element in this heritage area would be the historic mining towns.  Tonopah and Belmont would be the core places here.  These two towns contain many specific historic sites, including the Tonopah Mining Park, the Central Nevada Museum, the Mizpah Hotel, the old Main Street, the old courthouse in Belmont, and the entire town and surrounding ruins there.  Inactive or abandoned mining settlements in the area would also be important attractions.  It may be possible to extend the boundaries of the heritage area slightly beyond Nye County without creating undue management problems, and in that case Goldfield would be an obvious and closely-related addition.  If a still further extension is feasible (and if it is desired by the towns involved), then Austin and Eureka might be included as well.

The other element in the heritage area would be the valleys used for traditional open range ranching.  The core places for this part of the heritage area might be some of the undeveloped basin-and-range valleys in northern Nye County.  Those valleys contain ranches that have been operated for many years.  They also contain a number of scattered historic sites, such as old stage stops and Indian petroglyphs.  In addition, they contain places of natural interest or recreational potential, such as springs and areas of high country with aspen groves.  These natural features are not strictly “historical” but they add to the appeal of a heritage area and such places are treated as valuable assets when they are present.  If it is possible to extend the heritage area into adjacent counties without undue complexity, then it would be desirable to include the northern ends of the valleys, up to the neighborhood of Route 50.

It would probably be desirable to include the Big Smoky Valley in the heritage area as well.   While that is not a place for traditional ranching in the same way as other valleys, it contains other historic sites, and a paved road that will help to knit the heritage area together (particularly useful if the mining towns of Austin and Eureka are included).  It also contains the working gold mine at Round Mountain, which will bring up to date the mining story that was begun at the older towns.

How would the area be organized?

A heritage area is run by the “management entity” specified in the legislation creating the area.  Usually this entity has two main parts — a relatively small coalition that actually manages the area, and a larger advisory committee.

The governing body of a heritage area is usually a coalition of local governments and nonprofit organizations with a stake in the area.  This coalition is best kept small — with five to nine member organizations — so that it can move effectively to make decisions.  To ensure that the heritage area is controlled by local interests, it would be best to have a firm majority of the management coalition be local groups.  In Nye County this might mean groups such as the Central Nevada Museum, a Tonopah business or civic group, and the county itself.  Local control of the management entity is the best guarantee that the heritage area will not work against local interests.  Once this base is secured, however, it would be wise to also include a couple of statewide or national groups in the coalition, to provide other perspectives and to give the coalition added credibility in other parts of the country and in Congress.  The additional members might be groups such as the Nevada state historical society, or a Western-oriented preservation group.

Assisting the governing board could be a larger advisory council, with as many as twenty-five members.  This advisory council would represent the views of a wide variety of interest groups and would meet regularly with the governing board.  Potential members are groups representing  town governments, chambers of commerce, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, ranching interests, off-road vehicle users, friends of steam trains and working horses, and the like.

What would the heritage area do?

Acting through its governing board, the heritage area would do four main things:  (1) formulate a management plan; (2) make grants for historic and recreational projects; (3) work with county and city governments; and (4) work with the federal land-managment agencies.

The first task of a heritage area is to devise a management plan.  This plan would lay out a ten-year program for the development of the area.  It would identify the available historic and recreational sites there; think about ways to interpret and explain the sites’ historical significance (through guidebooks, signs, expanded museum exhibits, etc.); develop ways to make visits to the area more appealing (by designating hiking trails, scenic byways, or walking tours in the towns); and identify ways to make other parts of the country aware of these opportunties (such as through advertisements or an informational kiosk in Tonopah).  A heritage area typically has a federal budget of about $500,000 per year for ten years.[6]   In the first two or three years of operation a significant part of the budget would go for planning and setup of the heritage area’s basic organization.[7]

The second main task of the heritage area is to make grants for useful projects.  Most of the remainder of its budget would go for those purposes.  Since the management authority has no power to regulate property, it would operate through carrots rather than sticks.  Representative grant-supported projects might be a fence to protect an Indian petroglyph, or funds to stabilize an old brick mining building on condition that it be open to the public at certain times.  Since the total budget is not large, the grants would be carefully given out in small sums.  The agency could also leverage its limited resources, using the legitimacy conferred by its status as a recognized heritage area to help solicit additional grants from suitable foundations.  The area’s grantmaking activities would probably account for under half the budget in the initial years, but for the majority of the budget in later years.

A third task will be to work with town and county governments in the management of the area.   The governing board of the heritage area does not itself have any control over private property or land use.  It may, however, have views and some input on those issues — such as, to take one example — some recommendations about what architecture should be used on a new public building so that it will fit in with the old downtown of Tonopah.  In that case it could communicate its views to the county government, and the county, if it agreed, could act on the recommendation.  Since the Nye County government is responsible to the electorate, and its philosophy is already familiar to the county residents, there should not be any surprises there.

The last task of the heritage area will be to do similar advocacy work with the federal land-management agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.  This may turn out to be one of its more important functions.  The heritage area will have no direct control over the federal agencies.  It should, however, have some real influence with them.  This influence will come primarily from the fact that the heritage area will have developed a  management plan that serves national purposes and has local support; and such a plan could be easily and appropriately adopted as a component in the federal agencies’ own plans for the area.  Federal land agencies are already legally obligated to take account of local historic and cultural patterns in their management plans,[8] and following the heritage area plan will give them an easy way to fulfill this obligation more carefully than they may have done in the past.  This natural outcome could be reinforced by language in the area’s statute, which could specifically require the federal agencies to take account of the heritage area’s plans when formulating their own.  That in turn should give the county more influence over the federal agencies than it now has. It is hard to beat something with nothing, and thus hard to oppose a proposed federal policy without having a good alternative.  The heritage area could provide just that kind of alternative in the case of, for example, efforts to phase out traditional ranching.  If the heritage area is devoted to the preservation of ranching, then it will provide a principled alternative to those efforts and a rationale for continuing the current use of public lands.

An area of re-created nineteenth-century towns

As one means of fostering both historic awareness and economic growth, the governing board might want to consider creating a string of historic towns along the side of one of the valleys.  This part of the heritage area would show what it felt like to actually live in the frontier period.  The existing historic towns, such Tonopah and Belmont, contain the real buildings from Nye’s past, but they have also become modern places over the years, and so they don’t fully preserve the feel of the past.  The recreated towns would be newly contructed, but limited to historic technology in a way that will accurately preserve the feel of an earlier period.  They will thus complement the traditional brick-and-mortar historic preservation and will present the other, intangible half of the historic record.  They could function as sort of a Western version of Colonial Williamsburg, although in a quieter, more low-key, more authentic form.  These new towns could prove to be a uniquely appealing travel destination, and one that will help fulfill the heritage area’s mission of spurring economic development.

The details will still have to be worked out, but it is possible to imagine what the string of historic towns could look like.  They could be organized in a presently undeveloped valley, which would provide a suitable setting because it is still devoted to traditional land uses.  The heritage area would establish three to seven small new towns along the valley, at intervals of five to ten miles.  Building lots would be conveyed to private buyers on condition that the new residents follow certain historical models.  Period architectural styles would be followed, and cars and electricity would not be used.  The net effect would be to create a set of nineteenth-century towns in an extended nineteenth-century landscape, large enough for the visitor to step into and experience without the distractions of the modern world.  There visitors will learn what towns look and feel like when they rely on horse transportation and are lit by kerosene at night.  They will also discover the many forms of recreation possible on undeveloped mountain lands close by the towns.   The string of towns might be graduated to serve a variety of visitors.  It could be readily accessible at one end, to serve the general public, and then the towns could become progressively smaller, farther apart, and with their architectural references farther back in the past.  Someone visiting all of them would travel back through the entire history of Nye County.  Further details of the historic-towns proposal are available on the website of the Bright Angel Frontier project,

A key issue will be to determine whether such towns can be practically created, can pay for themselves, and can bring economic benefits to the county as a whole.  There are at least some preliminary indications that they could.  It appears that under reasonable assumptions the historic towns will attract annual expenditures of just under $40 million.  Even allowing for costs of doing business, expenditures at this level could sustain a variety of viable enterprises, thus making the area attractive to both residents and visitors.  The capital management of the area can also be on a sound financial footing.  If investors are willing to pay an average of $50,000 for a building lot, then all the infrastructure can be financed without outside support.  The visitation rates needed to produce these levels of expenditure and investment are hard to guarantee, but also seem to be reasonably attainable.  The area will reach these goals as long as it has an overnight visitation at least 10 percent of the total visitation at Death Valley.  And, of course, it should be possible to design facilities that can be started economically and expanded at a later time, so that the new towns could be viable at a smaller scale even from the start.

The historic towns could be established without significantly disrupting current uses in the valley.  The towns would be compact, and so would occupy less then one-half of one percent of the rangeland.  Existing ranches would be grandfathered in and could continue to use modern vehicles and modern power.  The towns would be on the other side of the valley from the existing  main road, which would continue to provide access to the valley.   Some secondary roads might have to be repositioned in places to keep vehicles a few miles away from the historic towns, but these roads would continue to provide through access to whatever areas they presently serve.

The historic towns are a promising but not an inevitable part of a heritage area.   If the idea continues to appear on further study to be economically feasible and also desired by the county, then the towns would function as an integral part of the heritage area.  They might play a role in turning the area into one of the nation’s really great travel destinations, a magnet that brings people to Nye County.  If the idea does not stand up to scrutiny, however, then it can be dropped from the plan without ill effect.  The heritage area can stand alone without it.

How to bring about a heritage area

If people decide that they want a heritage area, then we reach the operational question.  Just how does the county go about getting one?  There are no specific formal requirements here, but interested counties usually give Congress a package containing two elements:  a draft statute, and a suitability study.

Each heritage area is created by its own act of Congress.  A bill to create the Nye County area could be introduced by Nevada’s congressional delegation.  To facilitate this process the county could draft a suitable bill ahead of time.  That would reduce the burdens on the congressional offices, and would help ensure that the bill contains all the provisions that the county wants.  Since there are already twenty-four heritage areas (and others that have been proposed) there are a number of prior bills that could serve as models.[9]

The other element in the package is a suitability study, which can be made a part of the legislative record and will explain to Congress why this particular place will make a successful heritage area.  A suitability study does not have the same complexity and detail as an economic feasibility study, or of the administrative plan that the heritage area will develop later.  It is a paper about a hundred pages long, answering four basic questions.[10]  Those are all questions to which Nye County would have good answers:  (1) Does the area have natural and cultural resources reflecting an important part of American history?  The county certainly has such resources.  Moreover, the main points of interest are already well known, and descriptions could be assembled fairly quickly by local museums and the county government.  (2) Could a heritage area become financially self-sufficient after ten or fifteen years?  The financial problem could be made manageable by building the capital infrastructure of the area in the first ten years of federal support, so that later budgets will be limited to operating expenses and will be relatively modest.[11]  Those ongoing operating costs could then be met by transferring some of the expected profits from the string of re-created towns to the larger heritage area; in other words, the heritage area as a whole could be made self-supporting because it could contain a business enterprise as one integral part of it.[12]  (3) Does the heritage area have support from the local residents?  This remains to be determined, but, if it does, that fact could be shown from the results of public meetings.  (4) Does the area have support from local governments and institutions?  That too remains to be determined, but if the support is present it will be easily shown through the creation of the proposed management coalition, and through formal resolutions by the groups involved.

Conclusion and next steps

There are a number of benefits to establishing a heritage area in Nye County, and few, if any, disadvantages.  The area will help to protect the county’s unique heritage of mining and ranching, will showcase it for visitors, will increase tourism to the county, and will come with its own budget for these purposes.  Built-in local control will ensure that the project remains consistent with the values of the region.  A heritage area has no authority over land-use decisions — a general principle that can be reinforced though specific provisions in a Nye County statute.  The heritage area also provides a convenient way to explore the potential of developing historic sites and educational attractions, such as the series of nineteenth-century towns.  If that idea works, it could make Nye County one of the great travel destinations in the West, but even if it does not, the heritage area still remains as a desirable project in its own right.

If there is interest in pursuing this idea, then there are two next steps that are likely to be especially useful.  The first would be to organize a meeting to exchange thoughts, see if people are in fact in agreement, and begin to plan some appropriate further actions.  The second step would be to make contact with the state Historic Preservation Officer.  This is a designated member of the state government who coordinates those issues.  The Preservation Officer has the practical ability to “legitimize” a project, and to act as a point of contact with two federal programs — administered by the Park Service and by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation — that can provide the county with advice and  perhaps financial assistance in formulating its proposal for a heritage area.



1.   The heritage area program is administered by Ms. Brenda Barrett.

2.   This point was elaborated in a booklet that the Park Service has written to describe heritage areas and other non-traditional approaches to land management:

“National heritage area designation recognizes the initiative of local citizens in identifying the distinctive physical features and cultural traditions of the areas where they live and work.  The National Park Service is a partner, facilitator, and advisor, but does not acquire or manage heritage areas or regulate private property.  The enabling legislation for a national heritage area names a ‘management entity’ to coordinate the partners’ voluntary actions.  This entity might be a government agency, a private nonprofit organization, or an independent federal commission.  The management entity, with National Park Service assistance and with authority to receive and disperse federal funds, develops a management plan that includes strategies for achieving and sustaining a unified vision.  In general, the national heritage area concept provides for National Park Service technical and financial assistance to ‘jump-start’ a conservation effort, with the expectation that the effort will sustain itself locally without long-term National Park Service presence.”

Branching Out:  Approaches in National Park Stewardship p.16 (2003).

3.   Something similar was done in the bill for a San Rafael Western Legacy District, H.R. 3605 (106th Congress; Feb. 9, 2000), which involved lands in Emery County, Utah.  One provision there specified:  “Nothing in this Act shall be construed as affecting private property rights within the Western Legacy District.”  Bill sec. 102(c).  A more comprehensive provision in a Nye County bill could provide that:  “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to enlarge the powers of the Department of the Interior, or to diminish the powers of the county, or to either enlarge or diminish any rights in private property.”  The San Rafael bill can be found on the Library of Congress website,, in the part of the website called “Thomas,” which deals with legislative history.  That bill did not pass Congress, as a result of unrelated political issues involving a proposed national monument in the vicinity, but it may be a useful model to Nye County because it was also an initiative of a rural Western government.

4.   See  Phone 412-464-4020; fax 412-464-4417.

5.   The Department has proposed cutting the program budget from $14.3 million to $2.5 million.  See FY 2005 DOI Budget Justification, at NR&P-57.  However, few people believe that Congress will actually cut that budget.

6.   The annual budgets of the existing heritage areas are mainly in the range between $200,000 and $1 million per year, with the average being $500,000.  See DOI FY 2005 Budget Justification.  Congress has expressed the hope that the budgets will phase out after 10 or 15 years, although it is not clear that this will actually happen.

7.   One significant interaction with the Interior Department typically occurs at the three-year mark, when, under many heritage area statutes, the Secretary makes a one-time review of the management plan and must approve it before federal financial assistance can continue.  This review is not burdensome.  It typically focuses on structural and process issues, such as whether the advisory board has been organized to bring in all of the relevant stakeholders.  It does not involve second-guessing the board’s substantive decisions on priorities or policy issues.

8.   One of the agencies involved in supervising this requirement is the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation,  Commentators have suggested that the criteria administered by this agency should be applied with more attention to the history and cultural traditions of the local community.  See, e.g., T. King, Thinking About Cultural Resource Management (AltaMira 2002).

9.   These can be found by going to the “Thomas” legislative page on the website for the Library of Congress,  Bills introduced in the last few congresses can then be searched for the phrase “heritage area,” plus the name of a particular area if desired.

10.   The four questions are set out on the Heritage Area website,, under the heading “Critical Steps and Criteria for becoming a National Heritage Area.”

11.   Grants could be similarly directed toward useful, one-time capital improvements, rather than tempting recipients to take on new continuing obligations that would require continuing sources of financing.

12.   The re-created towns are not proposed for the purpose of generating private profits, but if they are run in a businesslike way they can generate funds to support other public purposes.  The cash flow of the new towns — perhaps $30 million — will be considerably greater than the budget of the heritage area, so that a relatively small percentage contribution from the towns will be able to sustain the area.

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