PAST Journal

Volume 33, 2010

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The National Park Service: Federal Partner in Nation Heritage Area Interorganizational Domains

Susan Martin Williams, Concord University


Increasingly, sustainable tourism finds strength and longevity in the tourism partnerships that occur on a local, state, or regional level. Community leaders, managers, policy makers, and stakeholders view tourism partnerships as a means of leveraging both monetary and human resources to address the uncertainty and turbulence brought about by economic constraints, globalization, and population attrition. Additionally, tourism partnerships play a vital role in the conservation and preservation of significant cultural, natural, and historical landscapes (Barrett, 2003; Daly, 2003; Eugster, 2003; Gunn, 1994; Jamal and Getz, 1995; Selin and Chavez, 1995; Vincent and Whiteman, 2004).

The concept of tourism partnerships as a vehicle for conservation has evolved, both internationally and within the United States, beyond the traditional concept of protected areas as exclusively nature-based to not only encompass the human presence, but also acknowledge the interdependence between man and the environment (Judd, 2003; Minteer and Manning, 2003; Mitchell, 2003; Phillips, 2003; Stowkowski, 2003; Vivanco, 2003). While stakeholders value an area’s cultural, historical, or natural aesthetics, tourism provides the economic value and often the impetus for cross-sectoral cooperation and involvement (Gunn, 1994; Selin and Chavez, 1994). Such management models are found in the United Kingdom’s national parks, France’s regional parks, and other protected areas throughout the world. In the United States, National Heritage Areas (NHAs) symbolize these new trends in policy and theory.

Since 1984, Congress has recognized 49 NHAs while numerous other areas seek designation. Meanwhile, increasing public scrutiny parallels the program’s rapid growth and calls for a thorough knowledge of NHA as interorganizational partnerships. Park planners, managers, policy-makers and stakeholders must be equipped with a comprehensive understanding of the interorganizational dynamics of NHAs in order to make efficient and effective management, partnership and policy decisions. Additionally, although each NHA is inherently unique, they share the commonality of some level of partnership with the National Park Service. This study explores the role of the National Park Service as a federal partner over time as NHAs evolved as interorganizational domains.


Literature from management sciences and partnership theory was used to create an a priori model of the evolutionary stages of NHAs as interorganizational domains (i.e. Gray, 1985; Waddock, 1989; Long and Arnold, 1995; Selin and Chavez, 1995; Caffyn, 2000; Wondolleck and Yaffee, 2000). An emergent model was then elaborated and specified using data from case study analysis (Yin, 2003) of the developmental histories of five NHAs: the Illinois and Michigan National Heritage Corridor, designated in 1984; the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, designated in 1988; the National Coal Heritage Area, designated in 1996; the Shenandoah Battlefields National Historic District, designated in 1996; and the Lackawanna Heritage Valley National Heritage Area, designated in 2000. The sites were selected using purposeful sampling to represent a variety of management structures, years in existence, geographic location, and willingness to participate in the study.

Research took place between November, 2006 and January, 2007. A data triangulation method was employed to collect multiple sources of data to control for biases caused by the researcher being the sole observer (Patton, 2002). Data sources for each case study included semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders; enabling legislation; Management Plans; administrative documents (by-laws, meeting minutes, letters, annual reports, brochures, publications); NPS research, reports and documents; and press clippings. Individuals with a rich knowledge of a particular NHA’s interorganizational evolution and partnerships over time were selected using purposeful sampling (Patton, 2002). Beginning with the current Executive Director of each NHA, the researcher then identified and located other current or former personnel, political advisors, board members, or stakeholders. Interview participants were selected based upon their willingness to participate in the study and their ability to offer an historic perspective of the site’s evolution. Additionally, care was taken to identify negative cases, where interviewees were sought based on their ability to provide alternative perspectives or opinions for a more credible and holistic view of the NHA’s evolution (Patton, 2002).

Content analysis identified patterns, or themes, within the participants’ responses about the NPS role as a federal partner within the NHA domain and were categorized topically under the broad headings of “NPS Regional Office as Catalyst” and “NPS as Local Partner.” It is important to note that, although the NPS is involved with the NHA program on many levels (such as serving as the conduit through which NHA funds flow), their partner relations occur on two levels: with the regional office and with local NPS units.

Illustrating the NPS Role as Federal Partner

The role of the National Park Service as federal partner changes over time. The NPS regional office is heavily involved during the NHA’s initial phases and then diminishes as the NHA matures. Local NPS units are less likely to be involved during initial phases but become more involved as the NHA matures. Figure 1 illustrates the evolutionary stages NHA’s pass through as interorganizational domains and how the role of the NPS as a NHA federal partner change over time. As seen in figure 1, the role of the NPS changes over time. The NPS regional office is heavily involved in the early stages of each NHA’s interorganizational development; however, its role as catalyst is temporary and the partnership shifts to include local NPS entities as project partners as the NHA matures and becomes a stand-alone, institution.

Model of NHA Interorganizational Domain Development and Role of the NPS as Federal Partner

Figure 1. Emergent model of NHA interorganizational domain evolution and of the role of the NPS as NHA federal partner over time.

It is important to note that the role of the regional office does not completely diminish and may experience periods of resurgence. For example, in the case of the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor, the NPS regional office’s role changed minimally over time since the Commission was staffed with NPS employees; however, the new management authority, the Canal Corridor Association, is currently involved in writing its updated management plan and is working closely with the NPS mid-western office for guidance and technical assistance.

NPS Regional Office as Catalyst

Early in an NHA’s existence, the NPS role as an NHA partner focuses on providing information, advice, recognition, technical assistance and planning. The partnership occurs between the NHA and its respective regional NPS office and serves to lay the groundwork for the NHA’s future. During an NHA’s initial planning process, the NPS regional office helps develop the vision, relationships, and workable plan for a successful future (DiBello, 2003; Vincent and Whiteman, 2004). Research participants describe the NPS as being heavily involved in the beginning of the NHA’s formation. One research participant described the regional office as “critical” during the NHA’s initial stages.

As a NHA matures and evolves, the relationship with the regional office diminishes. Congress expects NHAs to become self-sufficient over time and the NPS role as “catalyst” is considered temporary (Tuxill and Mitchell, 2001, 11; Vincent and Whiteman, 2004, 7). Research participants describe contact with the regional office as transitioning from occurring frequently to on an as-needed basis. One interviewee stated, “they’re not as accessible and they’re not as engaged as they once were;” however, this is not viewed negatively since research participants view their NHAs as having “weaned” themselves from the high level of assistance required during the organizing phase. Another explained, “we’ve really sort of become a stand- alone entity.” Hence, while the partnership does not dissolve, NHA’s dependency upon the NPS regional office for planning and technical support decreases.

The NPS as Local Partner

Content analysis of the participants’ responses revealed that, as the NHA matures, the partnership with the NPS regional office declines, but the partnership shifts to local NPS units (if any) and becomes more project-oriented. The relationship between the NPS and NHA becomes more centered on the local level.

This role shift or refinement usually occurs after the NHA’s Organizing Phase. One interview participant stated, “[…] in the planning process [the NPS staff person] was very, very effective;” however, as the NHA began implementing projects, the relationship waned.

As stated in the literature, constantly refining partners in response to new environmental factors is a key to successful partnerships (Gray, 1985; Waddock, 1989; Selin and Chavez, 1995). Moreover, as the NHA reaches the Institutionalizing Phase, its credibility within the community is established; hence, it is positioned to form new partnerships and assume different roles (Gray). One interviewee explained, “They own a little bit of land [locally…] and the Park Service is intimately involved with that part […].”

Local NPS units are more likely to realize interdependence with the formally organized NHA and both organizations perceive mutual benefits from the relationship (Gray, 1985; Waddock, 1989). One research participant explained that the NHA had become a local source of expertise: “[The NHA] has been involved with the National Park Service in setting up the [new local NPS unit]. We have a place at the table on that advisory committee.” Thus, the NPS role as partner shifts from one of guidance from the regional office to become one of project partner on a community level as the NHA evolves.


The research suggests that the role of the NPS as a federal partner changes over time as the NHA matures, but also elucidates the details of the transformation. The NPS regional office is heavily involved in the early stages of the NHA’s interorganizational development. The NPS regional office serves as a partner as the NHA develops its vision, relationships, and management plan (DiBello, 2003). Research participants described the NPS as being heavily involved during the NHA’s organizing stage. Subsequently, as the domain moves forward through its evolution, the partnership with the regional office declines. Congress envisioned the regional office’s role to be one of a catalyst to assist NHAs to plan and organize (Hill, 2004; Vincent and Whiteman, 2004) and that vision is reflected by the research participants who stated that the relationship, although intense in the beginning, waned as NHAs matured and no longer needed the level of guidance and assistance required during their organizing phase.

As NHAs mature and move through the redirecting stage, renewal or reorganization may cast the NHA into a new organizing phase; hence, the relationship with the regional office may rekindle and intensify. For example, when the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor was reauthorized with a new management authority, the NPS regional office resumed its role of providing technical assistance and planning as the new management entity began a fresh cycle of developmental evolution. Hence, although the role of the NPS regional office diminishes over time, the relationship is iterative and does not completely dissolve. It remains available to provide assistance should the need arise.

In addition, the findings suggest that as the NHA gains credibility on the local level and becomes a stand-alone institution, partnership opportunities with local NPS units increase. The NHA may serve on a local NPS unit’s advisory board, offer technical assistance or expertise, or provide funding for projects and programs.

Hence, the role of the NPS shifts from one of heavy involvement from the NPS regional office during the early stages of NHA interorganizational development to one of local partner as local NPS units become more involved as the NHA matures and institutionalizes.

Limitations of the Research

This research project focused on five NHAs’ evolution as interorganizational domains and the role of the NPS as federal partner. Because only five NHAs were analyzed, the results of this research cannot be generalized with precision to represent all NHAs. Additionally, the rapid growth of the NHA movement and the newness of the NHA initiative make these findings more difficult to generalize to all NHAs since the initiative itself continues to evolve and change.

Although care was taken to select a variety of participants and viewpoints, respondents may have provided “inflated” depictions of their NHAs evolution, either out of bias or vested interest. The results are further limited by the researcher’s ability to accurately interpret and analyze them and could be subject to other interpretations.

Management and Policy Implications

The findings from this research project suggested that NHAs as interorganizational domains exist within an inherently fragile environment and are subject to a variety of turning points and environmental forces (Gray, 1985; Waddock, 1989; Selin and Chavez, 1995). The research also begins to identify characteristics within each stage of interorganizational development and to analyze the role of the NPS as a federal partner over time.

The NHA model of interorganizational domain development and role of the NPS as federal partner imply that the characteristics of the evolutionary stages are identifiable and, therefore, manageable. Equipped with an understanding of the processes and forces effecting their NHA’s development, decision-makers are empowered to be adaptive and pro-active in the evolution of the domain. Rather than responding reactively to the circumstances and forces within each phase, decision-makers can anticipate and plan for them. Moreover, knowledge of the components of each stage allows managers and decision-makers to streamline their efforts and strategically plan for long term projects and the partner commitments needed to implement them.

This knowledge also serves as a source of dialogue between existing partners and with potential partners. Clearly communicating each anticipated phase with partners and stakeholders helps create and maintain trust, as well as realistic expectations. This knowledge also stabilizes partner relations and contributes to the domain’s longevity.

For heritage areas seeking NHA designation, this research serves as a tool for understanding the impact NHA designation may have upon existing partner frameworks and how they may change over time.

On a national level, a model of NHA interorganizational domain development contributes to our understanding of the NHA movement. The NHA initiative as a whole continues to evolve and change. This research will help address the public scrutiny that has resulted from the program’s growth, as well as provides a starting point to address congressional inquiries about NHA accountability, evaluation, and NHA policy (Hill, 2004). Because these findings offer an explanation about how NHA partnerships operate at the domain level and how they evolve over time, they may contribute to the development of consistent standards, processes for accountability, and evaluation measures as the NHA program matures.

Likewise, an understanding of the NPS role over time enables decision-makers, policy-makers, stakeholders, and partners to have clear expectations about the NPS as the federal partner. Understanding the changing NPS role as federal partner over time allows both the NHA and the NPS to make effective and efficient management decisions that are timely and constructive.

Research Implications

This study explored the role of the NPS as a federal partner during NHAs evolution as interorganizational domains. It extended theory from the management sciences and organizational behavior by analyzing the process of NHA evolution and identifying conditions necessary to propel the domain through stages of development while analyzing the role of the NPS as federal partner during each stage.

Much remains to be learned about NHAs and many future research opportunities exist. This research was exploratory and preliminary, suggesting a theory of NHA interorganizational development that can be expanded by further analysis and detail. This may be achieved through case study analysis of NHAs and longitudinal research designs to provide additional insight about NHAs as complex partnership systems. The emergent model of NHA interorganizational domain development requires further testing and future examinations could expand the sample size to include other NHAs.

Other research inquiries may look at developing indicators of successful NHA partnerships or the barriers to their success. Creating a typology of partners within NHA domains may be another line of inquiry. As the number of NHAs continues to grow, the importance of understanding their interorganizational dynamics becomes more important.

The model suggested here is an attempt to create a theoretical framework to help practitioners as well as the academic community to understand NHAs and the NHA movement; however, management sciences and partnership theory could be further expanded by exploring other domains, such as international, state or local heritage areas, and the circumstances that governed their formation and subsequent evolution.

In conclusion, although the project focused on the NPS as a federal partner, a NHA cannot be discussed without acknowledging the importance of local people in the visioning, management, and maintenance of NHAs. Hopefully this research will help harness their passion and provide a tool for framing their natural, cultural, and historic heritage in such a manner that enriches our identity as a nation and instills a sense of local empowerment and pride, not only for the past, but for the present and future as well. A quote from an anonymous research participant illustrates this sentiment:

People share and work together. And, that’s what’s so special about our community and that’s one of the things we treasure about our heritage. That we had all these different ethnic groups and different socio-economic groups coming to this area in, in ways, or simultaneously, instead of fighting with each other, they each developed their own little ethnic enclave but they respected and worked together, and, you know, learned about each other. So we don’t like to call it a melting pot, we call it a quilt. Because people kept their own identity but we’re still all tied together. And that’s true to this day. And our biggest challenge has been to get people to understand, through the depressed times, that they should be proud of being from here….a place of greatness.


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