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The National Historic Preservation Program: Overview

Within the past generation, historic preservation has evolved from a limited and somewhat insular pursuit into a broad based popular movement with wide support. The reasons for this support are varied. Some desire a tangible sense of permanence and community, while others wish to know about and embrace America's heritage in a direct and personally meaningful way.

Recognition that historic preservation often is associated with economic successes is an important reason, as is the fact that many see the preservation of historic districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects as enhancing their quality of life, adding variety and texture to the cultural landscape in which they live and work. Largely because of such highly personal responses, public support for historic preservation has flowed from the bottom up, making it in the truest sense a grassroots movement, not just another Government program.

With passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966 (NHPA), Congress made the Federal Government a full partner and a leader in historic preservation. While Congress recognized that national goals for historic preservation could best be achieved by supporting the drive, enthusiasm, and wishes of local citizens and communities, it understood that the Federal Government must set an example through enlightened policies and practices. In the words of the Act, the Federal Government's role would be to "provide leadership" for preservation, "contribute to" and "give maximum encouragement" to preservation, and "foster conditions under which our modern society and our prehistoric and historic resources can exist in productive harmony."

Indeed, an underlying motivation in passage of the Act was to transform the Federal Government from an agent of indifference, frequently responsible for needless loss of historic resources, to a facilitator, an agent of thoughtful change, and a responsible steward for future generations.

Complementary Roles of Public Agencies

To achieve this transformation, NHPA and related legislation sought a partnership among the Federal Government and the States that would capitalize on the strengths of each.

  • The Federal Government, led by the National Park Service (NPS) as the agency with the longest and most direct experience in studying, managing, and using historic resources, would provide funding assistance, basic technical knowledge and tools, and a broad national perspective on America's heritage.

  • The States, through State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs) appointed by the Governor of each State, would provide matching funds, a designated State office, and a statewide preservation program tailored to State and local needs and designed to support and promote State and local historic preservation interests and priorities.

The drafters of NHPA, however, also appreciated that transforming the role of the Federal Government would require more. A new ethic was needed throughout all levels and agencies of the Federal Government; two tenets of the Act were critical to this transformation.

  • An Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the first and only Federal entity created solely to address historic preservation issues, was established as a cabinet-level body of Presidentially appointed citizens, experts in the field, and Federal, State, and local government representatives, to ensure that private citizens, local communities, and other concerned parties would have a forum for influencing Federal policy, programs, and decisions as they impacted historic properties and their attendant values.

  • Section 106 of NHPA granted legal status to historic preservation in Federal planning, decisionmaking, and project execution. Section 106 requires all Federal agencies to take into account the effects of their actions on historic properties, and provide ACHP with a reasonable opportunity to comment on those actions and the manner in which Federal agencies are taking historic properties into account in their decisions.

As with any successful partnership, collaboration and division of labor have remained essential ingredients. Over the years through its various changes to NHPA, Congress has reaffirmed this partnership. The role of each partner has evolved to reflect the growing sophistication of the program, but emphasis has remained on different, yet mutually supportive, responsibilities.

Passage of NHPA in 1966 was a watershed event. It marked a fundamental shift in how Americans—and the Federal Government—regarded the role of historic preservation in modern life. Before 1966, historic preservation was mainly understood in one-dimensional terms: the proverbial historic shrine or Indian burial mound secured by lock and key—usually in a national park—set aside from modern life as an icon for study and appreciation. NHPA largely changed that approach, signaling a much broader sweep that has led to the breadth and scope of the vastly more complex historic preservation mosaic we know today. Like the American culture it mirrors, historic preservation today is perhaps best defined in terms of its diversity.

As diverse as American culture is, so too is the diversity of historic properties that express this rich cultural legacy. Consider the intricacy and the complexity of the modern mosaic. Our definition of historic properties has evolved to encompass a much broader interpretation of American history, one that acknowledges significance at the local level. Further, historic properties are now understood and appreciated as part of—not isolated from—the landscape to which they belong. It is only logical that this more complex view of what historic properties are, and how Americans relate to them has engendered equally complex challenges concerning their preservation and treatment.

Passage of NHPA found most Federal Government agencies at a loss to respond to the challenges of historic preservation, much less prepared to cope with the growing public interest it generated. Clearly Federal institutions needed help in meeting the broad historic preservation goals set for the Federal Government by Congress in the NHPA.

Over the past 30 years, a number of additional executive and legislative actions have been directed toward improving the ways in which all Federal agencies manage historic properties and consider historic and cultural values in their planning and assistance. Executive Order 11593 (1971) and, later, Section 110 of NHPA (1980, amended 1992), provided the broadest of these mandates, giving Federal agencies clear direction to identify and consider historic properties in Federal and federally assisted actions. The National Historic Preservation Amendments of 1992 further clarified Section 110 and directed Federal agencies to establish preservation programs commensurate with their missions and the effects of their authorized programs on historic properties.

Thus today, agencies other than NPS that have major stewardship responsibilities for public lands and resources, or have the most frequent, significant effects on historic properties through Federal assistance and regulatory programs, have substantial historic preservation responsibilities. These agencies attempt to deal with these mandates in an era of diminishing financial resources and with highly variable internal policies, staffing, funding, and program focus.

Historic preservation is both a public activity and a private passion and is supported through the country by individual citizens, organizations, businesses, communities, elected officials, and public institutions in various and varied ways. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private organization chartered by Congress in 1949, supports and nurtures historic preservation at the grassroots level. For more than three decades, however, the National Historic Preservation Program has continued to rely upon the partnership between ACHP, NPS, and the SHPOs, and has expanded to embrace Certified Local Governments and Indian tribes. The underlying premises and principles of the National Historic Preservation Act, and the partnership it engendered, remain sound.

Updated April 26, 2002

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