By Ronald D. Anzalone
As part of commemorating the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) this year, members of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) determined that the agency would consider possible future improvements to the national historic preservation program and the related tools currently in use. The idea was to develop a set of recommendations to be shared with the incoming president, the next Congress, and the preservation community.
The ACHP is an independent federal government agency that promotes the preservation, enhancement, and sustainable use of the nation’s diverse historic resources and advises the president and Congress on national historic preservation policy. The agency administers the federal preservation planning and protective process known as Section 106.
Beginning in January 2016, the ACHP reached out to the public and asked about the challenges and opportunities facing preservation, especially as they affect the national historic preservation program. (The program includes the National Register of Historic Places, state and tribal historic preservation officers, the Historic Preservation Fund, certified local governments, federal agency preservation responsibilities, Section 106, and related components.) A steering committee has overseen work on the policy recommendations and released a set of refined goals, strategies, and ideas for public review in October 2016. Based on the resulting input, a revised set of recommendations is currently under development.
The ACHP welcomes your views on the recommendations at a panel discussion on Thursday, November 17, at PastForward 2016 in Houston, Texas. A revised draft will be available for viewing on the PastForward website prior to the conference.
At the ACHP’s regular business meeting in Washington, D.C., on December 1, members will be asked to approve the recommendations and transmit them to the incoming administration, the new Congress, and other parties, while also taking on some of the ideas for follow-up action. We expect the final recommendations to be consistent not only with the basic tenets of the program laid out in the NHPA—as it has been amended and refined over the years—but also with some of the key strategies around which consensus has been forming for some time—namely, how to strengthen the program now and expand and enhance it in the future.
Issues to Consider
First, the preservation community in general, and public agencies and organizations in particular, must truly engage all Americans in preserving our nation’s heritage. We need to lead by example and showcase the relevance and necessity of preservation to the modern United States, while also recognizing and respecting the cultural heritage of all Americans. We need to inspire people with places and stories that reflect all of American history, culture, and experiences; enhance public engagement with and access to preservation programs; and determine how best to communicate the benefits and needs of historic preservation to leaders and decision-makers.
While the preservation movement has long been attuned to architectural landmarks, and “antiquities” like the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings that have been the subject of preservation efforts for more than a century, we have taken longer to recognize and care for other aspects of our cultural heritage and the traditions and values associated with them. Consider two similar yet different sacred “sites,” both National Historic Landmark properties: architect H.H. Richardson’s 1880s Trinity Church in Copley Square, Boston, and the Native American Medicine Wheel and Medicine Mountain in the Bighorn National Forest of Wyoming, which reflects thousands of years of native peoples using the high-altitude environment. Both Trinity Church and the Medicine Wheel are places of worship and spiritual practice that have rich and complex stories to tell. Both should be experienced as historic and special places that enrich their environments and are essential to understanding the overall story of our nation. The Medicine Wheel, though, once thought to be only a mysterious archeological site from a distant past, is actually a place for continuing and regular religious practice and traditional use requiring careful stewardship from its federal land manager, the U.S. Forest Service.
Second, we need to enhance and sustain the national historic preservation program. Maintaining and strengthening public support includes obtaining stable and sustainable funding and other resources. At the same time, we need to support and encourage more private investment in preservation and advance public-private partnerships to make things happen. Investing in formal and informal education as well as expanded research can help encourage preservation as a key component of community sustainability, rural development, and climate change resilience and adaptation.
Finally, we need to take steps to improve the effectiveness of the national historic preservation program by re-examining and improving upon basic preservation planning and decision-making. We need to capitalize on program improvement opportunities and technology that help us do a better job of managing historic resources and get the most bang for our buck. At the same time, we must correctly balance professionalism with community needs and values in deciding what’s important and how it should be preserved.
Clearly these are aspirational goals that raise critical questions: Who should address these goals, how, and how soon? The ACHP’s recommendations will attempt to answer those questions for public entities, their partners, and the friends of preservation. As previous contributions to the Forum Blog have emphasized, issues of relevance, inclusion, diversity, and public engagement have been coming up regularly in preservation discussions. There is a need to find better ways of making the case for preservation to millennials and Gen Xers, in diverse communities, in the White House and Congress, in statehouses and city halls, and among the general public. Building public support in many quarters is fundamental to having sustainable funding, capacity at all levels of government, and a successful program that serves the needs of all Americans and preserves our collective heritage well beyond the next 50 years.
Ron Anzalone is the director of the Office of Preservation Initiatives at the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.