Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Spearheading Preservation Action: My Personal Challenge 

12-09-2015 17:35

Some great stroke of luck in September of 1975 brought me to the office of Tersh Boasberg, a public interest Washington lawyer and a founder of Preservation Action, where he offered me the opportunity to become the initial staff of the new grassroots lobbying organization. I let him know that I knew absolutely nothing about two things—historic preservation and the Congress—but it didn’t seem to phase him.

How to start? I quickly realized that preservationists are passionate. I had heard of those who chained themselves to bulldozers to prevent a teardown, so I had to find a passion for preservation. In Washington, D.C., I was concerned about the Willard Hotel— empty for 18 years with rain pouring in through its shattered roof and broken windows. I could be passionate about the Willard as it was where lobbying began in the days of President Lincoln and, coincidentally, my parents had spent their wedding night there. But saving the Willard was a national problem hampered by massive red tape.

Then my phone rang and it was two students from Smith College, my alma mater. The board of trustees had voted to demolish the Alumnae Gymnasium to make room for a modern library addition. The 1891 gym had been donated to the college by alumnae and was the site of the first women’s basketball game. While no longer useful for physical education, the building had features that could be incorporated into the library addition. The battle to save the building was difficult, lasting for months and requiring many trips to Northampton. We were a small group of dedicated alums who were tested in many ways but finally achieved a victory. Features from the gym have enhanced the library in many ways, including providing an exciting space where trustees meet and special events take place. I was now passionate about preservation.

Next, the Congress. From the beginning in 1975, I was guided to Capitol Hill by many preservation organizations. The San Antonio Conservation Society sent me to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen; the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois sent me to Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee; the Landmarks Association of St. Louis to Rep. Dick Gephardt; and the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans to Sen. Bennett Johnston; and others to Sen. Paul Tsongas, Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Rep. John Seiberling. All of these outstanding members understood and supported preservation, and their staff clued me in on the process, always emphasizing that grassroots support was a key to success.

A Grassroots Partner for the Historic Preservation Movement
Preservation Action was founded to be a grassroots lobbying partner of the existing preservation organizations. In 1975 the law seriously limited the ability of charitable 501(c)(3) organizations— such as the National Trust—to lobby. While Preservation Action is a charitable organization—a 501(c)(4)— its members cannot take charitable deductions for their involvement.

Preservation Action members stand ready to contact their members of the House or Senate on national issues. Through letters, phone calls, and visits to Capitol Hill, preservationists share with congressional members the impact of legislation—positive and negative—on their town, city, and state. The organization is currently developing programs to broaden the activities of members to engage Congress in their work in the states through tours, in-district meetings, press activity, celebrations highlighting the value of federal policy, candidate forums and surveys, and interviews with legislators.

Some years ago, NCSHPO and Preservation Action joined forces to have a Preservation Lobby Day, in early March, for briefings and lobbying on Capitol Hill. As many as 300 people have come to the nation’s capital, representing local communities, states and tribes, and the memberships of Preservation Action, the National Trust, the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers(NCSHPO), the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (NATHPO), and the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions. It has been successful and has produced good legislative initiatives.

Preservation Action‘s current president is Heather MacIntosh, a certified lobbyist who is well known on Capitol Hill. The organization has 120 active board members, representing 41 states. To keep its membership current on national issues, Preservation Action produces a weekly legislative newsletter that provides “reader-friendly” information about the Congress and federal agencies and includes interviews, with photographs, of important members of both the House and Senate. To learn more go to the website:

Preservation Successes Since 1975
Over the past 30 years, we have seen a growing recognition that historic preservation works! In the ’60s and ’70s, there was little that could be done as the bludgeoning interstate highway program destroyed our cities, replacing historic neighborhoods with non sprawling lanes of concrete. However, with the initiation of the federal historic rehabilitation tax credit in 1980, we had a tool that created an incentive for the reuse of historic buildings and brought people back downtown to live and work. The rehab credit has been a great success since 1980: It has leveraged more than $33 billion in communities of all sizes, as underused historic buildings have become handsome offices, rental housing, and retail space.

Federal agencies also began to see the value of historic preservation. The Federal Highway Administration has poured millions of dollars into the transportation enhancement program since the early 1990s, a program that includes historic preservation as an eligible enhancement. The success of this can be seen in the rehabilitation of vacant railroad stations into a wide variety of community uses. The General Service Administration has actively rehabilitated and reused its historic buildings and has made the case that the older buildings are more energy efficient than many of their newer structures. Since 2002, we have seen the federal agriculture programs include the eligibility of farms with historic and archeological resources for easement programs that keep the family farm in agricultural use rather than becoming a box church or a treeless grouping of ranchettes. And we have expanded preservation responsibilities in federal, state, and local governments and the private sector through amendments to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 in 1980, 1992, and 2006.

The changing attitude about historic buildings has been enhanced by the partnership of many groups working together at national, state, and local levels. At the federal level, the National Trust, the National Park Service, NCSHPO, NATHPO, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and Preservation Action are in contact on issues as they arise.

Vigilance is also a requirement in working with the Congress and the federal government. It was quite a surprise in 2005 when the House Natural Resources Committee announced legislation to limit Section 106 responsibility for federal agency projects to only those properties already listed in or eligible for the National Register. At the same time, the same committee began action to seriously limit the use of the Environmental Policy Act. In addition to the national partnership, the American Cultural Resources Association, the Society for Historical Archaeology, and the Society for American Archaeology joined in the successful effort that left both laws “unaltered.”

Proving That Grassroots Lobbying Can Succeed
The historic rehabilitation tax credits were enacted in 1980 and were successful from the beginning in transforming shabby historic buildings into exciting office space and rental housing. Credit use moved smoothly until 1986 when President Reagan and the Congress pressed for major tax reform which called for the elimination of all tax credits, including the historic rehab credit.

This would have been a devastating blow to preservation and, as Preservation Action’s president, I decided to test the success of grassroots lobbying. I scheduled breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for tax act users with the assistance of our members in major cities from coast to coast. I traveled to 20 cities in 6 weeks asking those using the credits to write, call, and take a member of Congress on a tour of a rehabilitated building. The project was known as “The Tax Task Force” and included a weekly update: “Tax Task Force News.” The response was incredible. The historic rehab credit survived and was one of a very few business credits retained.

Life After Preservation Action
I retired from Preservation Action in 1998 to turn the gavel over to a younger president. However, I have not left the field! I am a government affairs consultant for the American Cultural Resources Association (ACRA) and the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) and, among other ventures, have moved historic preservation into the farm bill. The issues are the same for professionals in the fields of cultural resource management and archeology and the memberships have proven to be a strong partner in the grassroots efforts on CapitolHill.

How an Idea Can Become a Law
Lobbying the Congress is good fun and very rewarding. Let’s examine a real lobbying activity that happened in 2002. A meeting on a cold snowy day in January at the Society for Historical Archaeology was attended by representatives of a number of organizations and agencies concerned that farms with historic and archeological sites were being sold and demolished to make way for shopping centers, housing, and big box churches. There were no incentives to preserve historic farmland so farm acreage, barns, and historic homesteads were disappearing at an alarming rate.

We examined current programs in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and noted that the Farm Protection Program (FPP) had an easement program that was available for farms with “prime, unique or other productive soil” and “furthers a State and local policy consistent with the purposes of this program.” The light bulb went off…we could add just five additional words to the eligibility clause: “contains historical or archaeological resources.” It would become a voluntary program for farms listed in or eligible for the National Register. The easement would be “in perpetuity” and the owner would agree to never divide or convert the land to non use. To compensate for the easement, the farmer’s land would be reevaluated and the farmer would be compensated for the loss of value with payments from the USDA (50 percent) and the easement holder (50 percent). The farmer could choose to make a donation of up to 25 percent of the value, reducing what the easement holder will pay.

The Society for Historical Archaeology wanted to go to the Congress with this proposal. As their consultant, I scheduled a full two days of meetings with staff of members on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, including a session with the staff of the House Conservation Subcommittee of the Ag Committee.

All went well, including our meeting with the subcommittee staff. After thank-you notes had been sent, I phoned each of the staff we had met with. Almost everyone liked the idea but had higher priorities, which is a “no” in Washington. Then a call to the staff of Rep. Leonard Boswell (DIA) brought the news that the congressman would offer this as an amendment in the House Agriculture Committee mark-up. The amendment was accepted, it was included in the House bill, accepted by the Senate, and became law. The program is working well and in the years 2005 and 2006, 155,000 acres with historical and archeological resources are now protected in perpetuity.

Some of the outstanding easements include:

  • The Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, NewGloucester, Maine.
  • Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, Springfield, Mo.
  • DeHaan Ranch, Menard, Mont.
  • Dan Fife Farm, Merrimack County, N.H.
  • Averasboro Civil War Battlefield, Harnett County,N.C.
  • Phipps Mill Creek Site, Cherokee, Iowa
  • Weikert Farm, Gettysburg, Pa.
  • Harewood Estate, Charles Town, W.V.

Publication Date: Winter 2008


Author(s):Nellie Longsworth