Detractors Accuse Regional Tourism Proposal Of Darker Land Grab Motives

By Deb Hadachek Telescope News

A heritage tourism project that volunteers in dozens of counties in Kansas and Nebraska have worked to put together for more than three years has recently come under fire from people afraid it’s a way for the federal government to grab land.

Luke Mahin, Republic County Economic Development director and a board member of the Kansas Nebraska Heritage Area Partnership told Republic County Commissioners Monday the effort began as a way counties can work together to market museums and historic sites across the region.

The ultimate goal of volunteers is to have the region designated as a National Heritage Area. NHAs are not national park units. Rather, NPS provides technical assistance and distributes matching federal funds from Congress to NHA entities. NPS does not assume ownership of land inside heritage areas or impose land use controls. It does not affect private property rights, says the agency.

National Heritage Areas (NHAs) are designated by Congress. The program is a grassroots, community-driven approach to heritage conservation and economic development. Through public-private partnerships, NHA entities support historic preservation, natural resource conservation, recreation, heritage tourism, and educational projects, says the agency.

The NHA program dates back to 1984, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. Reagan referred to National Heritage Areas “a new kind of national park” that married heritage conservation, recreation, and economic development. Today, the program includes 55 National Heritage Areas across the country.

Mahin said the Freedom Frontiers Heritage area in southeast Kansas and Missouri was championed by Scandia native Judge Deanell Reece Tacha. President Donald Trump signed bills that created six NHAs in 2019.

“The first NHA was created by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 because it was a new way to promote our nation’s history WITHOUT interfering with property rights,” write Kelly Larson, a Scandia native and KNHP board member who now serves as Lincoln County Economic Development Director.

“The KNHAP is working to become a non-profit and the ‘local coordinating entity’ that would connect and promote the museums, historic sites, state parks, etc. in our area to attract visitors and outside dollars into our local economies.

As a non-profit, we would have ZERO ability to impact property rights, zoning or land use regulations. Only local government can do that,” Larson says.

Still early phases

Mahin said the purpose of the program is to help a region tell stories of national historic significance. In this region, that includes the settlement of the West, the Homestead Act, and the development of agriculture in the Midwest.

“Our discussion has been on how to create itineraries to keep people in the region longer, instead of popping in (to one site) for a half day and not staying overnight,” he said.

But any NHA designation is a long way from being reality, Mahin said. The partnership must first raise $100,000 for a feasibility study, which would include meetings to gauge the public’s interest in the proposal. That study, once funded, would take 18 to 24 months to complete.

Only then could promoters begin to seek Congressional approval of the NHA The NHA would offer marketing resources to encourage visitors to explore sites in a region, Mahin said. Participation would be voluntary.

Federal plot?

But some people fear the NHAs are connected to a January executive order by President Joe Biden, which in part, seeks to preserve 30 percent of American land and waters by the year 2030. Commissioner Doug Garman said he has fielded numerous calls from county citizens who worry that the Kansas Nebraska Heritage Partnership is one method to achieve the “30×30” goal. Those concerns in part have been fueled by information sent by a Colorado man in opposition to the NHA in Kansas and Nebraska.

“We appreciate the concerns and people asking questions,” Mahin said. “We want to dig into this and find out the truth as well.

“We started this three years ago, and it has nothing to do with any current political policy,” he said. “We have not found any proof of land grabbing or property rights issues. If anyone has any proof, we need to know that.”

Mahin said the idea grew out of an effort in Red Cloud NE to better promote its connection to author Willa Cather. Part of that project includes a hotel, and promoters there began to look for other sites within a 1-2 hour drive that could entice tourists to stay in the region longer, he said. The group he cochairs includes representatives from other North Central Kansas counties that promote Chamber, museums, economic development and tourism entities.

Mahin said because of the recent attention, the group plans to reach out to Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations to give farmers and landowners a voice in the proposal.

“We see this as an asset to bring people to this region and let our museum and national sites benefit,” he said. “It gives us a better marketing tool as a rural area, to capture a region between I-80 and I-70 and get travelers to come spend their dollars here.”