Every single thing we do today in preservation is a direct result of the National Historic Preservation Act. It is the reason that we didn’t lose everything (but in some cases a lot was already lost) in the decades following World War II.
The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), signed into law in 1966, was the single most influential piece of legislation that has spurred and shaped historic preservation on a national level. With passage of the 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.”
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 NHPA also created the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), which acts as the federal policy advisor to the president. The ACHP is the first and only federal entity created solely to address historic preservation. It 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 the NHPA granted legal standing to historic preservation as a criterion in federal planning, decision-making, and project execution. It requires all federal agencies to take into account the effects of their actions on historic properties, and to provide the 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.
Section 106 applies when two thresholds are met: 1) there is a federal or federally licensed action, including grants, licenses, and permits, and 2) the action has the potential to affect properties listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Section 106 requires each federal agency to identify and assess the effects of its actions on historic resources. The responsible federal agency must consult with appropriate state and local officials, Indian tribes, applicants for federal assistance, and members of the public and consider their views and concerns about historic preservation issues when making final project decisions.
In the end, the goal of the National Historic Preservation Act is to encourage federal agencies to act as responsible stewards of our nation’s cultural and historic resources. All preservation laws and ordinances ultimately stem from this important piece of legislation, and it guides our efforts into the future and will do so for generations to come.