As we stumble into 2016, the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), it's timely to ask where we went wrong in implementing the law.
Of course, plenty of people, institutions, and government bodies with interests to protect will assure us that we didn’t go wrong, that everything's rosy with NHPA, that it's done nothing but good for the nation and its people, for the world, for history and culture. There are those who think otherwise, however, and I'm one of them -- despite the fact that I've made a passable living as an NHPA specialist these last fifty years, and maybe even helped preserve a thing or two.
Let me be clear: I certainly think that the NHPA has done positive things, but others in this anniversary year will explain these (and more) in great and flowery detail. I appreciate being thus relieved of the need to “balance” this posting, and will focus on the NHPA’s downsides – which others, I’m confident, will ignore.
My impression of the NHPA is easily summarized: I think that we’ve used the law to create a turgid bureaucracy and a symbiotic consultant community, most of whose members –
- Happily pursue narrow research agendas grounded in their particular fields of study (notably archaeology and architectural history);
- Manipulate abstruse classificatory and regulatory minutiae (e.g. the National Register Criteria);
- Exercise the thin powers of petty despots; and
- Pass money back and forth to one another.
While playing our roles in this “system,” we effectively turn blind eyes to or conspire in the destruction of the nation's and world's cultural heritage. All the while congratulating ourselves on our accomplishments, and on the purity of our principles.
You don't agree? Tough; this is my blog.
So how did we get here? Where did we go wrong? I can identify nine key “decisions” – none of them ever mindfully articulated and thought through – that I think have brought us to our current condition.
- Relying on bureaucracy. This was probably inevitable, because no one had – or has, for that matter – an alternative model, but hanging the NHPA’s hat on a system of federal/state (and later tribal and local) bureaucracies has hatched some ugly chickens that have now come home to roost.
It is in the nature of a bureaucracy to give primacy to its own self-preservation, and this has clearly happened with the nation’s preservation apparatus. What calls itself leadership in the National Park Service (NPS) and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), and among the State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs) is manifestly interested only in maintaining the status quo, with some grudging allowance for marginal adjustments. People working in the system are mostly committed to career advancement and comfortable retirement. The result is a mindless, procedure-bound system that cannot even conceive of substantial improvement, let alone pursue it.
- Putting NPS in charge. When Congress was debating enactment of the NHPA in 1965-6, two possible venues were considered for the bureaucracy thought necessary to its implementation: the Department of the Interior’s NPS and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Placing the preservation program in HUD would probably not have been a good idea; it would have at least given it too narrow an urban/architectural focus, and HUD has not proved to be a great steward of anybody’s heritage. But placing it within NPS was little better.
Lodging the program in NPS inevitably made it the poor stepchild of National Park System management. Moreover, it imposed upon the preservation system a “Parky” philosophy in which (a) preservation is justified as a means of interpreting the past to the masses, (b) the ideal model of preservation is public acquisition and maintenance for interpretive purposes, and (c) interpretation is something for experts to do and the public to appreciate. Alternative models are sometimes given lip service by the preservation system’s leadership, but in the end must conform to the traditional structure or be – with regret, of course – consigned to oblivion.
- Failing to create effective relationships with environmental conservation writ large. At the very time that the NHPA-based programs were coming together, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was being enacted and such new governmental entities as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) were being organized. The opportunity existed to build a broad-based system for managing the human environment overall.
Instead, historic preservationists in government hunkered down and protected their newly created turf. Historic preservation and environmental protection programs accordingly developed on parallel tracks, occasionally interacting but never developing much synergy and never even considering coalescence. As a result, the NHPA continues to be perceived – not without reason – as a law whose major effect is to advance the narrow interests of architectural historians and archaeologists.
- Making far too much of the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). Establishing the NRHP (or something like it) was probably unavoidable, but it didn’t have to be set up as the program’s centerpiece.
By making it such – a failure of imagination at best – the preservation bureaucracy inevitably cast itself as maintaining and promoting an elitist abstraction. Never mind what citizens regard as their heritage; the government’s business became the care and feeding of what NPS thought worth putting on its precious list.
- Building a program that was merely multidisciplinary rather than interdisciplinary. The preservation program organized within and around NPS was the creature of architectural historians, with archaeologists as junior partners. Fifty years later, this remains the case, though archaeologists have wormed their ways into some positions of power.
What has not been developed – in government, academia, or the preservation community in general – is an interdisciplinary system synergizing the expertise of disciplines across the academic spectrum – history, archaeology, architecture, engineering, anthropology, geography, social psychology, urban planning, agriculture, education, ethnic and Native American studies, and all the others. As a result, the NHPA program is variously understood and represented by its practitioners to be focused on the built environment, on archaeological and historical data, on a vaguely defined sort of historical ambience, and just on preserving anything that’s old and constructed by humans. The program lacks a clear focus of relevance to the citizens it is supposed to serve, and it fails to tap into the best thinking of any of the relevant disciplines.
- Relying too heavily on SHPOs. Nobody likes the federal government, even when its services are most needed, so since the NHPA’s enactment there has been pressure on NPS and the ACHP to decentralize and delegate. Delegation has been almost exclusively to the SHPOs, with nods every now and then to local governments and under narrow circumstances to tribes.
Some SHPOs have set up responsible, even laudable, programs, but others have evolved into mere despotisms. Moreover, the notion that the SHPO, in the ill-considered words of the NHPA Section 106 regulations, “reflects the interests of the State and its citizens in the preservation of their cultural heritage” has encouraged federal agencies and others whose decisions can threaten the cultural environment to regard NHPA compliance as requiring only the submission of project plans to SHPOs for approval. SHPOs are congenitally ill-funded, often staffed by ill-qualified and hence highly self-protective “professionals,” subject to high levels of political pressure, and given little protection by the NHPA regulatory system. As a result, project plans submitted for “clearance” often receive it with little attention even to loudly expressed public opposition – provided the submitting agency has organized its paperwork according to the SHPO’s specifications. SHPOs become co-conspirators in heritage destruction. By doing so – and by maintaining a narrow focus of interest (See 3, 4, and 5 above) – they also ensure that they are poorly understood and ill-appreciated by the public, guaranteeing that they remain ill-funded and poorly staffed.
- Failure to recognize and relate positively with interests in the broader cultural environment. The many scholars, organizations, activists and other interests who seek preservation of a human heritage that extends far beyond the boundaries of “historic places” find little support from the NHPA-based system, and much in it to puzzle and discourage them.
Do you want to protect the integrity of wild horse herds and their habitats, or salmon, or whales? Sorry, the NRHP doesn’t list animals. Do you want to bring back your tribe’s traditions of plant gathering, wood carving, or dance? That’s nice, but we’re interested in historic places. Are you concerned about what this proposed pipeline or highway or military base or industrial development will do to the natural environment or neighborhood qualities that your community has valued for generations? Well, if you can show us that some aspect of the landscape or neighborhood meets the NRHP criteria, maybe the law will do something for you, but we’re not going to help you do it, and if we’re working for the pipeline or highway or military or industrial change agent, we can find plenty of ways to interpret the law to exclude your environment from consideration.
The historic preservation system thus remains marginal to much of what people and communities think is important about their cultural heritage, and worthy of preservation. This marginal condition is relatively safe and comfortable for the preservation bureaucracy, but in the long run it means irrelevance.
- Failure to engage the academic community. Confronted with such “systems,” it is probably not surprising that academic historians, archaeologists, and architects have viewed the NHPA largely as the authority under which their less talented students can find employment. Little or nothing is done by the preservation bureaucracy to encourage them to view it otherwise.
So students may be encouraged to structure traditional historical research in support of National Register nominations, or to produce regional syntheses to inform the evaluation of archaeological sites, but that’s about it. Do we, for instance, ever see class projects in which students from several different disciplines – or even one! – critique the (usually godawful) “cultural resource” sections of an environmental assessment or impact statement? We do not. Do we ever see such a project focusing on how an SHPO’s operations could be made better? Not that I’ve observed. Do we ever see SHPOs or NPS or the ACHP trying to organize such deployments of analytical thinking? Nope. Academics go their ways, and government-based preservation people go theirs, with rare overlaps and no synergy. And the SHPO offices, government agencies, and consulting firms serve as dumping grounds for graduates who aren’t equipped to graze in the green pastures of academia, perpetuating the very characteristics of the system that discourage academic involvement and minimize relevance.
- Failure to embrace change. Opportunities have presented themselves repeatedly over the years for changing the system, broadening its focus and simplifying its operations, for engaging other interests and better including the interested public. Preservationists have routinely dodged these opportunities.
When NEPA was enacted, serious consideration could have been given to wrapping the NHPA programs into the EPA. Instead they stayed in NPS.
When the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act (AHPA) was enacted in 1974, real efforts could have been made to open up the NHPA system to the other kinds of “scientific, prehistorical, historical, or archaeological data” addressed by the statute, and to create the links to the academic community needed to manage them. NPS could not even bestir itself to finalize AHPA regulations.
When Jimmy Carter merged NPS and related Department of the Interior programs into the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service (HCRS), an opportunity was created to get the erstwhile NPS external programs out from under the Parks umbrella and give them independent life. Instead, preservation’s bureaucrats fretted and mumbled and waited until Ronald Reagan rescued them by taking things back to the pre-Carter status quo.
When the ACHP tacked across the Reaganite winds in the mid-1980s to simplify the NHPA Section 106 regulations and increase their relevance to the public, NPS promised to follow suit with revisions to the NRHP regulations, but then got cold feet and did nothing.
And so on. Back in 1966, preservationists delightedly found that they had created a comfortable governmental niche, and have relaxed in it ever since. Modern practitioners don’t seem even to imagine that things could be different, and more responsive to public interests.
The impending fiftieth anniversary affords us another opportunity to rethink the NHPA and retool it to face the challenges of its second half-century. It would be nice to think that preservation’s leadership would seize the opportunity, and consider:
- Finding at least partial alternatives to a permanent federal/state/tribal preservation bureaucracy;
- Getting the program out from under NPS;
- Building relationships with an improved and re-invigorated national program of environmental protection;
- Putting the NRHP in its place;
- Making heritage management interdisciplinary;
- In the process, thoroughly rethinking the role and structure of SHPOs;
- Reforming the system to make it relevant to the academic community, and enlisting its participation, and
- Making the system much more citizen-oriented.
But I’m not holding my breath. It’s far more likely that change will be avoided until it is forced on us, and what’s forced on us may not be at all to our liking.