From his farm west of Davenport, Iowa, Glen Keppy has watched as a plastics factory and now an Amazon warehouse have gobbled up acres that used to produce corn, beans and wheat.
The encroachment of development, Keppy said, is one of the reasons why it’s so important to preserve the history of farming through efforts like a multicounty National Heritage Area, a locally governed adjunct to the National Park Service.
“People come in by the busload,” he said, to watch demonstrations of old-time farming with teams of horses and steam-powered tractors.
“That’s what you call preserving what Iowa was made of,” said Keppy, a former president of both the Iowa Pork Producers Association and the National Pork Producers Council.
He just ended a three-year stint on the board of the Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area, which promotes historic farms, museums, bed-and-breakfasts and tourism in a 37-county area of northeastern Iowa.
When asked if such heritage areas threaten private property rights — as has been claimed by critics of a proposed heritage area in Nebraska and Kansas focused on prairies and homesteading — Keppy said not at all.
“We are not at all into forcing preservation; we’re just suggesting it. We’re just an organization that tries to put things together,” he said. “There’s not an evil bone in the body of the organization, or the individuals.”
Some officials at tourist attractions in south-central Nebraska and north-central Kansas express similar puzzlement.
They say they were blindsided, and disappointed, after Gov. Pete Ricketts and a coalition inspired by a retired Colorado researcher-writer whipped up a firestorm of protest over the proposed Kansas-Nebraska Heritage Area.
Heritage area opponents used labels like “scam,” “federal overreach” and “conspiracy” to describe what tourism officials maintain is a simple effort to increase marketing of heritage tourism to Willa Cather’s hometown of Red Cloud, the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island and the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia, Kansas, among other places.
“We are trying to do the right thing for the right reason,” said Kim Wilson, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln architecture professor who serves as executive director of the all-volunteer Kansas-Nebraska Heritage Area Partnership, a committee of people involved in local tourism formed to pursue the idea.
Ricketts, in a statement recently, remained unconvinced.
“Federal designations, such as wilderness areas, national parks and heritage areas, give the federal government more control and oversight of private land. I have significant concerns about (that).”
Now, after 38 county boards in the proposed 49-county Kansas-Nebraska Heritage Area have passed resolutions opposing the idea, what started as a “no-brainer” suggestion to boost economic development is in tatters after facing the same anti-government/pro-landowner rights sentiments that led Ricketts and some farm groups to condemn President Joe Biden’s “30-by-30” goal to conserve more land.
Five of the Heritage Area Partnership’s 13 board members have quit, fearing that their attractions might face retribution if they remain active supporters, and the partnership has suspended meetings until the fall, when it will regroup to decide if it wants to push forward.
The Willa Cather Foundation, which had asked some UNL students to study how to increase heritage tourism, has distanced itself from the now-controversial idea.
Wilson is unsure what the future holds. She said opposition seemed to explode from nothing.
“Someone capitalized on fear of the unknown, without really understanding what it was all about,” she said.
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Norman Kincaide, 70, was a writer-researcher for the information database LexisNexis until his job was outsourced. He ended up in Rocky Ford, amid the arid plains of southeast Colorado, where he worked for the local newspaper.
He said he first began to believe that national heritage areas were a conspiracy to control private lands after serving on a county preservation board. The Otero County Historical Preservation Advisory Board was conducting several studies of historic buildings.
Kincaide said he didn’t learn until later that the studies weren’t for local use, but were conducted in conjunction with the National Park Service to create the Canyons & Plains National Heritage Area. Local ranchers knew nothing about it.
“Do you think I was angry? Yeah,” Kincaide said. “So I went after them with everything I had. I joined with good people who live on dirt roads … and in seven months, we shut them down.”
Kincaide eventually wrote a book about his experience called “Scammed? Canyons & Plains National Heritage Area Initiative for Southeast Colorado, Degrading Private Property Rights while Subverting Local Sovereignty.” That established him as a sought-after speaker by groups opposing heritage areas, including here and in Montana.
He said he learned of the Kansas-Nebraska idea from Kathy Wilmot of Beaver City, a former member of the Nebraska State Board of Education, who has written that heritage areas could force farmers to stop growing corn and convert fields to native grasses.
Kincaide went all in, launching what he calls “Operation Blindside.”
He sent packets of anti-heritage area talking points to county board members in the 49-county area proposed for the Kansas-Nebraska Heritage Area, urging them to pass resolutions of opposition. It said that an “unelected management entity” whose plans are approved by the feds and works in the shadows would be an “undemocratic” threat to their property rights.
He followed that up with speaking tours in March and April in 10 rural towns across the proposed heritage area (and has another tour scheduled for Aug. 13 to 15). On his Facebook page, Kincaide said 2,500 people have attended the meetings, and he charts the passage of every new county resolution against the proposal.
“Do you want any more incompetent government?” he asked in explaining how the opposition has grown. “They can’t control the border? They can’t fund the police? It’s spread like a noxious weed.”
He calls heritage areas an unneeded expansion of the federal government, via “adjuncts” of the National Park Service, and says tourism sites are just after federal funding, which was originally supposed to be only for seed money to get heritage areas off the ground.
But when asked for specific examples of where heritage areas have affected private property rights, Kincaide is less precise. Yes, heritage area management plans are voluntary, he said, and they have no zoning power, but they can influence passage of local laws to preserve scenic views or protect prairie dogs. Kincaide couldn’t cite an example of a heritage area purchasing land, but Congress has authorized the creation of two national parks, in Louisiana and Massachusetts/Rhode Island, within designated heritage areas.
Ricketts has said such a designation would require a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) plan to be developed, which he called “one of the most significant bureaucratic barriers” to infrastructure projects and development.
But the Park Service’s national coordinator for heritage areas, Elizabeth Vehmeyer, said that whether a NEPA plan is required depends on the types of projects proposed. If a visitors center affected a wetland, yes, it would be required, she said, but a plan wouldn’t be required for marketing and promotional projects.
Kincaide is unconvinced.
“It wasn’t really about historic preservation; it was wringing their hands about placement of cellphone towers,” he said. “To me, it was about controlling private property.”
He dismisses critics who call him a “political entrepreneur” — one who profits off of a political issue. He said he received some donations when he came to Nebraska but came on his own dime and sold only a few books.
Overall, Kincaide said you don’t need help from the National Park Service or the creation of “umbrella organizations” to promote cultural sites, preserve history and learn about local events.
“It’s all on your phone,” he said.
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“We protect private property rights in our area,” it states in bright red letters on the homepage of the website of the Lawrence, Kansas-based Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area.
Following that are a list of disclaimers, including “We never interfere with private property … We never purchase private property … We never impose local zoning changes …”
Even though all of those restrictions are etched into federal law, some people, wrapped up in the divisive politics of today, don’t believe it, according to Jim Ogle, executive director of the Freedom’s Frontier group.
The heritage area, he said, is about highlighting the stories and sites surrounding the “Bleeding Kansas” era around the Civil War, the desegregation of schools via the Brown v. Board of Education ruling out of Topeka, and helping local attractions and events improve and draw more visitors.
“If you don’t want my help, all you have to do is tell me to go away, and I go away,” Ogle said.
But in the past few months, as more and more Kansas and Nebraska counties passed resolutions against the proposed heritage area there, he posted the disclaimers on his area’s website.
National heritage areas have been around since 1984, when the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Area was created. In signing the law, President Ronald Reagan hailed the area as a “new kind of national park.”
Such areas are not owned by the federal government or managed by the National Park Service, though they do receive federal money, ranging from $150,000 to $710,000 a year, that must be matched locally. The Park Service, through an eight-member staff and a $23 million annual budget, offers technical support and guidance to the paid staff and volunteer board members who actually run the heritage areas.
The ride hasn’t always been smooth, with objections based on private property rights rising in recent years.
Critics have said that national heritage areas are “pork barrel” prizes for some congressional representatives and that federal money should be devoted to maintaining federal parks, not supporting local coalitions.
But advocates say the federal money is better spent on heritage areas, which highlight important national history. An alliance of heritage areas maintains that every $1 of federal money leverages $5 in local support.
President Donald Trump had tried to defund national heritage areas but instead ended up signing legislation in 2019 to create six new ones. That same legislation spells out prohibitions against intruding on property rights.
There are now 54 national heritage areas funded across the country, from one promoting the coal-mining heritage of West Virginia to one highlighting the Civil War that covers the entire state of Tennessee. One, in southwest Pennsylvania, is inactive after its federal funding lapsed.
Anthony Schutz, a law professor at UNL who specializes in agricultural law, said heritage areas seem mostly about marketing and branding an area as having special historical significance. He compared it to Nebraska’s “livestock friendly county” designations, which illustrate, through the passage of a resolution and placement of a roadside sign, that a county is open to livestock operations.
Schutz said he doesn’t see heritage areas as a legitimate threat to private property rights, but as a “wedge” issue that has been used politically.
“Divisive issues like this are fun stuff for politicians to play with because it gives you an audience,” he said.
“If Silos and Smokestacks is fine for (northeast) Iowa and one is appropriate for Kansas, why wouldn’t we be interested in it?” Schutz asked.
But Webster County board member TJ Vance said he didn’t see how a national heritage area would benefit his county, except tourism in Red Cloud and at the Willa Cather sites.
“The main issue for landowners is ‘Why does my land have to be involved in this?’” said Vance, who attended one of the meetings featuring Kincaide. He said it appeared to him that several people were mixed up, thinking that the heritage area idea was part of Biden’s 30-by-30 plan.
But Vance said he got more requests to oppose the heritage area than on any other issue. His county board declined to vote on a resolution to oppose it because by the time they got around to it, the proposal seemed dead, he said, even though a resolution would surely pass.
“Harmless or not,” Vance said, “people don’t want to take the risk of getting the federal government involved.”
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The Kansas-Nebraska National Heritage Area began with a simple question: “How do we increase tourism?”
A group of third-year architectural students were asked by the Willa Cather Foundation four years ago to explore that question. Wilson, who led the UNL students, said a representative of a local historic site suggested exploring a national heritage area designation.
So a group of officials from tourism sites and economic development groups began meeting. The Kansas-Nebraska National Heritage Area Partnership finally put it to a vote. It was unanimously decided to explore the idea.
“We didn’t even know if we qualified,” Wilson said.
Becoming a heritage area requires a feasibility study, then authorization by Congress and approval of a local management plan by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Wilson said the partnership was still considering whether to apply when the whirlwind of opposition hit this spring.
The partnership first reached out to the Ricketts administration in December. About 30 tourism and history organizations from Kansas and Nebraska signed onto a letter asking to brief officials on the idea.
The letter prompted a question from Steve Wellman, director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, about what exactly is a heritage area. “Their white paper clearly states this will not impact land use,” responded Taylor Gage, the governor’s chief spokesman, in an email, adding, “Do we anticipate any concerns from ag groups or other stakeholders?”
A briefing with the Heritage Area Partnership was held in January. The next time the group heard from the Governor’s Office was April 6, when Ricketts released a letter saying he opposed the creation of the Kansas-Nebraska National Heritage Area. He said that it “poses the risk of federal overreach in our communities” and that federal designations come with “unknowable and unquantifiable risks” that could hinder development and growth.
Ricketts said “Nebraskans” had contacted him to oppose the heritage area idea, though a public records request failed to show any written contacts from opponents, including Kincaide. A Governor’s Office official said that conversations with Ricketts, not written emails or letters, prompted his opposition.
Ricketts, in his letter, also said that promotion of heritage tourism in Nebraska could be done locally and that federal involvement wasn’t needed. But the letter gave no indication if the governor had plans to boost marketing of such tourism.
Whether the Kansas-Nebraska National Heritage Area has any life left won’t be decided until this fall. Backers of the idea feel demoralized, as well as caught up in a larger political firestorm over proposals by a new president to conserve land.
“This is economic development that could benefit the whole region, areas that have lost population,” Wilson said. “We’re really proud of the state of Nebraska. This is one way to demonstrate that to the rest of the country.”