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Editorial: A National Heritage Area in rural Nebraska is an opportunity, not a threat

Editorial: A National Heritage Area in rural Nebraska is an opportunity, not a threat

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Gov. Pete Ricketts

Edward Dunn, the Perkins County GOP chairman and Grant city administrator, told a gathering of fellow Republicans this week in McCook to beware of the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility at Kansas State University.

The $1.25 billion lab is being built by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to be the nation’s leading center for animal disease research. Dunn, who believes that the coronavirus leaked into the world from a lab in Wuhan, China, warned that the Kansas facility “will be vulnerable to a tornado, and diseases such as hoof-and-mouth, Ebola and mad cow could be spread by a storm,” the McCook Gazette reported.

Interesting theory lacking a factual basis.

Others at the meeting urged opposition to a proposed National Heritage Area designation for a large swath of north-central Kansas and south-central Nebraska. Kathy Wilmot of Beaver City, a former State Board of Education member, said the Heritage Area “opens the door to more regulations by other government agencies that will take away the rights of local landowners,” according to the Gazette.

Another interesting theory lacking factual basis.

But opposition to heritage areas, created under President Ronald Reagan and championed ever since by lawmakers of both parties, is growing among Republicans.

Gov. Pete Ricketts this month, joined by his economic development and agriculture directors, announced opposition to the push by the all-volunteer Kansas-Nebraska Heritage Area Partnership to seek a study of its idea. Ricketts, who incorrectly pinned the idea on the Willa Cather Foundation, whose land would be included in the much-larger area, said the designation would require a national environment policy plan that could act as “a significant barrier (to) infrastructure and other important projects.”

“This designation poses the risk of federal overreach in our communities,” the governor said.

It is correct that heritage area plans must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. But the track record of the nation’s 55 National Heritage Areas suggests that the governor is conjuring monsters under the bed while pandering to paranoia that the feds are coming to take away the good life, starting with Red Cloud.

It is illegal, under a 2009 act of Congress, for the government to use eminent domain to acquire land, impose local zoning changes or change water rights for heritage areas.

In dedicating the Illinois and Michigan Heritage Corridor, the nation’s first National Heritage Area, Reagan (hardly a wild-eyed environmentalist land-grabber) described the designation as creating a “new kind of national park” marrying preservation, conservation, recreation, education and economic development. The Government Accounting Office, 20 years into the program, found no effect on private land ownership.

The entire state of Tennessee is a National Heritage Area focused on Civil War sites. And yet the state has not been stymied by the designation. Rich States/Poor States, a product of the conservative ALEC-Laffer State Economic Competitiveness Index, in 2020 ranked Tennessee as having the nation’s eighth-best economic outlook. Nebraska was 36th.

The heritage areas are spread around the country, including in Nebraska neighbors Missouri, Kansas, Colorado and Iowa.

Iowa’s lawmakers celebrate their National Heritage Area — Silos and Smokestacks — established in 1996. Iowa’s two Republican senators are working to reauthorize it so the area “can continue to share the story of agriculture and highlight the rural communities that are and will continue to be the backbone of our country.” They say it’s a “great resource” that provides educational opportunities for both residents and tourists.

In Nebraska, the governor sees a similar designation as an “unquantifiable and unknowable risk” to the state and its economic prospects. Of course, we can never know the future, so it might be wise to reject every idea because something bad might come of it. Then again, doing nothing also comes with unquantifiable and unknowable risk.

But one certainty is that politicians who oppose the Kansas Nebraska Heritage Area will retain the support of people who think tornadoes will unleash mad cow disease.

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