Gage County officials wade into National Heritage Area discussion

BEATRICE – Gage County Board members hosted a two-hour discussion about National Heritage Areas Wednesday….a political hot topic some see as a threat to liberty, while others see as a way to boost economic development.

The Gage County Planning Commission recently went on record recommending that the county NOT become a part of a proposed Kansas/Nebraska Heritage Area.  Commission member Terry Acton is concerned about federal intrusion on ag operation owners… in particular, with National Environmental Policy Act considerations.

"NEPA will come into your conservation district. NEPA will be at FSA and probably will be at NRSC. When you go in to sign up for CRP, you're going to have NEPA looking at your land, whereas now, you don't have NEPA looking at your land."

County Board member Don Schuller, whose background is conservation, says the environmental policy has been around since 1970…and affects more than farming. Acton feels National Heritage Areas add federal oversight to local areas.

"The experience with at least 49 such heritage areas now in existence nationwide, clearly shows groups will convert this money into political activism, to encourage local community and county governments to enact and enforce strict zoning laws."

Schuller said NHA law passed by Congress differs from Acton’s interpretation.
"And, this is not just somebody's is public law. Access to public property....nothing in this subtitle shall be construed to require any private property owner to permit public access, including federal, state or local access to such private property. Nothing in this subtitle shall be construed to modify any provision of federal, state and local law, with regard to access to private property....private lands."

County officials heard remotely from the Executive Director of “Freedom’s Frontier, a National Heritage Area that includes 29 Kansas Counties and twelve Missouri Counties. Jim Ogle said the area was designated in 2006. He said the organization is not focused on changing zoning laws.

"We're focused on bringing together the historic sites and museums that tell one of three stories that were part of our national designation...that's the settlement of the frontier....border and civil war on the western frontier...and the enduring struggle for freedom. We don't require anyone to participate. They are all opt-in to us. We have more than 200 local organizations, historic sites and museums that we help promote through an app that ties the stories together...through newsletters that give suggestions to people about where to visit."

The proposed area for Kansas and Nebraska would encompass 49 counties and would be preceded by a required feasibility study, in order to tap federal support. That money is then matched with privately raised funds, to help tell an historical and cultural story of the region.  Superintendent of the Homestead National Historical Park, Mark Engler provided an overview of National Heritage Areas for the county board, as he did before the planning commission.

President of the Nebraska Farmer’s Union, John Hansen, said the organization promotes tools that can help farmers and rural communities prosper.
"You're seeing the footprint of rural communities continue to shrink. You're seeing more and more depopulation, you're seeing more and more rural areas struggle, to keep base things in place. So, any time we can do things at the state level, the federal level that puts more tools in the toolbox for local folks to use to try to create jobs and opportunities and keep more of our kids in our rural communities...we're all about that."  Hansen said his organization prefers local control, rather than state and federal decision-making.

As for NHA’s Hansen says he does not see them as an attack on personal property.  The Gage County Board took no formal action on membership in a National Heritage Area…but may have it on its next agenda.