Our National Register of Historic Places continues to expand in breadth and reach. As of September 2012, the 88,200 listed historic districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects include nearly 1.7 million historic resources—almost three times the number from when I wrote my article in 1987. National Register bulletins now provide guidance on nominating rural and designed landscapes, traditional cultural properties, boats, suburbs, airplanes, and properties that have achieved significance in the last 50 years, among others.
The National Register’s website, webinars, and social media outreach make information about the National Register more accessible as do other training and assistance efforts. Much of the National Register documentation is digitized and online. Soon the National Register is expecting to begin accepting nominations electronically.
The National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program provides online lesson plans and advice for educators and preservationists on how to engage students, and its online Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary Series guides visitors to thousands of historic places.
The United States has the world’s most egalitarian and participatory national inventory. Our National Historic Preservation Act authorizes federal agencies, states, and American Indian tribes to nominate sites and local governments and every individual to participate in the nomination process. More than 1,800 Certified Local Governments and over 130 American Indian tribes participate in the national preservation program today. Some 68 percent of listings are for properties of local significance.
The National Register is not a comprehensive catalog of the nation’s historic resources. States list in excess of 8 million properties in their inventories and CLGs added 10,000 properties to local registers in 2011, sometimes using different criteria than the National Register and conferring a range of restrictions and benefits under state and local laws. States have not been delegated authority to list properties in the National Register as proposed in 1987. Because listing has federal consequences, including conferring eligibility for federal tax incentives and grants, these decisions still occur at the federal level.
Some 75 percent of registered properties are in private ownership with federal tax benefits the motivation for many nominations. The federal tax incentives have generated more than $62 billion in the rehabilitation of income-producing historic properties. Federal preservation grants for registered historic properties have not been appropriated since 2010.
The number of listings continues to vary widely from state to state as do nomination priorities, but many agencies submit multiple property nominations based on surveys, which provide historic context and facilitate registration. The National Park Service has begun urging its partners to nominate more properties associated with underrepresented ethnic and cultural groups. The NPS is sponsoring theme studies on American Latino Heritage and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to assist in evaluation and National Historic Landmark nominations.
The 2009 report, “Building Capacity to Preserve and Protect Our Cultural Heritage,” demonstrates how far we are from creating a comprehensive inventory of historic properties and making inventories more compatible and accessible. In 2009, 56 percent of State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPO), 6 percent of Federal Preservation Offices (FPO), and no Tribal Historic Preservation Offices (THPO) had accessible inventory data online and relatively few SHPOs, THPOs, and FPOs were capable of easily sharing historic property data in compatible formats. Lack of funding was cited as the foremost reason that inventories were so inadequate. Virtually all SHPOs and THPOs indicated their highest priority was to complete additional historic property surveys for Section 106 compliance and National Register of Historic Places purposes, but funding is limited. The nearly $47 million in federal Historic Preservation Fund grants to states in 2012, when adjusted for inflation, is estimated to have approximately the same buying power as the $21 million appropriated in 1982. The more than 130 participating tribes share a little less than $8.4 million in 2012.
The preservation partners have moved ahead with some of the 1987 recommendations of the National Historic Preservation Forum Historic Identification Study Group, but should look at them again and find ways to step up efforts to achieve the goal of identifying, registering, and protecting the nation’s irreplaceable historic properties and making information about them available to all.
Publication Date: Fall 2012