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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cutting a Bit of Fat from the Federal Budget: Do Away With the National Register of Historic Places

Maintaining the National Register of Historic Places – self-described as the nation’s official list of significant historic sites, districts, buildings, structures, and objects – is one of the minor non-park-related duties of the National Park Service. It doesn’t cost a great deal of money in terms of direct costs – just the salaries of some Park Service employees and associated administrative expenses – but that money could certainly be more fruitfully used for other things, and eliminating the Register would also result in significant indirect savings by simplifying and streamlining federal environmental impact review.

The Register serves three functions, none of them critical to government operations or the welfare of the American people:

1. Owners of income-producing properties included in the Register get federal income tax credits for rehabilitating such properties in such a way as to extend their lives and maintain their significant architectural qualities. If there were not a register of some kind it would be impossible to determine which properties should and should not receive such benefits. But “a register” does not have to be a central national register, maintained at considerable expense by the federal government. State and local lists would do just as well. Most states and many local governments already maintain their own lists of places they want to preserve; why not support them rather than maintaining a redundant national list?
2. The information in the Register can be and is used for educational and touristic purposes, but again, state and local lists, as well as Indian tribal and Native Hawaiian lists, could serve these purposes just as well as or better than the National Register. So could databases maintained by federal land managing agencies.
3. Federal agencies are required by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act to consider the effects of actions they plan – things they want to undertake or that others want to undertake with their assistance or permission – on places included in or eligible for the National Register. In my experience – and I’ve been working with Section 106 for over 40 years, inside and outside the federal government – tremendous amounts of time and money are wasted on argumentation over whether endangered places are eligible for inclusion in the Register. Not only is the time of highly paid specialists wasted in such arguments, but often important and expensive projects have to be delayed while they are conducted. The arguments almost never focus on serious questions about the cultural, historical, or architectural significance of such places; they almost always involve differing interpretations or understandings of the technical criteria for eligibility issued by the National Park Service. I believe we would have a much stronger, more efficient, more sensible procedure for managing federal impacts on historic places if we focused Section 106 review on whatever people concerned about a given proposed project thought was historically, culturally, or architecturally significant in the affected environment – always with the understanding that, as today, if agreement couldn’t be reached about how to deal with a project’s impacts, the responsible agency could get the recommendations of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (or some equivalent body) and make its final decision about whether to go forward with the impacts or not. With such a system, of course, we would not need a National Register, and we would save the federal, state, local, and private money that goes into arguing over eligibilty for it.

We actually do not “need” a National Register today – it’s simply something that the National Historic Preservation Act created back in 1966 and we’ve gotten used to and stuck with. The Register today serves only as a distraction from the real work of preserving the heritage of the nation, its regions, states, tribes, and groups. It imposes upon us the obnoxious perception that the Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service, has to verify what is historically, culturally, and architecturally significant. Why is the Secretary qualified to do this, particularly with regard to what, say, the people of Gallup, New Mexico or Nyack, New York may think is part of their heritage? And why should the Secretary spend even a small chunk of his budget making decisions about such things? Why not let the people decide -- and save a bit of money, simplify government, and improve management of the environment in the process?

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