Friday, August 24, 2012

Rethinking Federal Historic Preservation

Reading the editorial pages over breakfast every morning has gotten me thinking about how the manifest if not exactly earth-shaking problems of historic preservation in and around the U.S. government might be addressed in the face of the much-trumpeted (and, I think, real) need to reduce the size and cost of the federal establishment.

One reason the trumpeting (most of it, sadly, from Republican elephants) resonates with me is that over the last 45 years I’ve seen how the government-focused preservation programs and policies created – with the best of intentions – in the 1960s and 70s have evolved.  Or failed to evolve. 

The solutions advanced by Congress in the 1960s and 70s to problems in historic preservation involved the creation of bureaucracies – the external programs of the National Park Service (NPS), the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), the State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs), all via the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended (NHPA).  This was perfectly understandable, but it failed to account for a fundamental principle:  bureaucracies tend to become fossilized, inward-looking, resistant to innovation, and self-protective.  Their own survival, and the survival-to-retirement of their employees, come to dominate their thinking and actions, at the expense of whatever they were created to do.  

This principle is not my independent invention; it reflects (poorly, no doubt) elements of the deep thinking on bureaucracy of scholars like Ludwig von Mises ( and zingers like those of John Moore ( ).  The principle is no less true for being common knowledge, and its operation is evident to anyone taking more than the most casual glance at today’s U.S. federal historic preservation “program.”  No one who knows that “program” expects leadership, or even much thought, from NPS, the ACHP, or the SHPOs; the sole preoccupation of these entities today is with maintaining the status quo that allows them and their personnel to survive.  

But there are reasons for the creation of bureaucracies; they provide services and regulate things that need regulating.  The federal historic preservation bureaucracy fulfills the following functions:

1.       Service functions:
a.       Maintaining and expanding the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP);
b.      Providing a historic preservation point of contact (the SHPO) in each state capitol;
c.       Recording historic properties via the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and its kin;
d.      Passing on minor grant funds and technical assistance/direction to Indian tribes and local governments; and
e.      Promulgating regulations, guidelines, standards, and the like.

2.       Regulatory functions:
a.       Assisting in/overseeing NHPA Section 106 review by ostensibly self-regulating federal agencies; and
b.      Reviewing private historic building/structure rehabilitation projects in terms of eligibility for tax credits.

There are a few other functions, but those are the main ones – all of which, of course, have various more or less complicated sub-elements.

So let’s consider: are there ways to perform these functions without the bureaucracies, or while sharply reducing them in size?  I think there are.

The National Register:  IF there is value in maintaining a national register of historic places – I’m not at all sure there is, but let’s suppose there is – there’s no reason to have a government agency do it.  The function could easily and efficiently be contracted out, to something like the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  This might just shift the bureaucracy from one place to another, but in contracting out, the federal government could put strict limits on what it would pay for, leaving it to the contractor to seek funding elsewhere if it wanted to expand or elaborate the list.  Alternatively, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the Register could be done away with altogether, letting tribal, state, and local lists take its place.

Points of contact:  The SHPOs – some of them, at least – perform useful functions, some of which are more impeded than facilitated by their overseer, the National Park Service.  A modest program of continued support is probably justified for the SHPOs and their equivalents in tribal and local governments, but the rules under which that program operates could, I think, be significantly reformed, and the whole operation could probably be merged with other programs of federal assistance.

Recording properties:  HABS and its brethren are academic quasi-research projects that were useful at their inception in the 1930s but have long ago become irrelevant.  Nothing but federal jobs would be lost if they were eliminated.

Grants and technical assistance:  As noted above, some sort of grant assistance is probably needed by tribes and local governments as well as by states, but there are probably ways to merge such grants with other like programs and achieve significant efficiencies.  As for technical assistance, it has been a long time since NPS has provided anything very useful; no one would miss such assistance if it disappeared.

Regulations, standards, guidelines:  We already have more than anyone attends to.

Assisting in Section 106 review:  The Section 106 review process has become largely dysfunctional.  It is overburdened with procedure and virtually unencumbered by substance.   Its reasonably clear initial function – to identify and resolve conflicts between historic preservation and other public interests – has been lost in the thicket of agency procedures, programmatic agreements, and intricate side-deals with SHPOs whose growth the ACHP has encouraged.  A minor amendment to Section 106 could preserve and even provide a basis for recovering the utility of Section 106 review while clarifying the roles of SHPOs and eliminating the ACHP altogether.

Tax credit review:  This undoubtedly useful function could be performed by SHPOs and/or local preservation authorities with minimal technical oversight.  Granted, someone would have to provide that oversight, but this is another function that could be contracted out.

So there: a modest reduction in the size of government coupled with, conceivably, a considerable increase in efficiency, effectiveness, and responsibility.  Obviously the devil is in the details of any such change, and I don’t kid myself about whether any such thing is likely to happen.  And I realize that I’m proposing the explicit abrogation of federal leadership in historic preservation.  But we haven’t seen any federal leadership in historic preservation in at least a couple of decades, so seriously, folks, what’s the difference?

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