Does the National Register Protect Cultural Resources?

Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center in northeast Georgia at Neels Gap along the Appalachian Trail.

The most well-known–and most misunderstood–cultural resources preservation program in the United States is the National Register of Historic Places. If I were to ask a random person on the street what the National Register is all about, her likely answer would be “protecting historic places” or something to that effect. This is a reasonable inference because, after all, why else would we “register” our historic places if not to protect them? This belief is widespread; for example, the Wikipedia entry for the Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center states that in “the mid-1970s the building was slated for demolition, but a group of conservation-minded locals lobbied successfully for its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.” But does listing a property on the National Register, independent of other action, actually protect cultural resources from alteration or destruction? Let’s dig into the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) to find out.

National Historic Preservation Act

Enacted in 1966, the National Historic Preservation Act represented a major milestone in the United States preservation movement and to this day it is still the flagship federal statute concerning historic preservation.  Among other things, the NHPA authorized the Secretary of the Interior to:

expand and maintain a National Register of Historic Places composed of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, and culture.

If you read through the entire statute, you will find numerous programs that are based on a property’s listing on the National Register. But did you catch the part about how listed properties can’t be altered or demolished without government consent? No? Me neither–because it’s not in there. That’s right, listing your property on the National Register does absolutely nothing to prevent its alteration or even destruction.

So why even bother with all the research and red tape to have your place listed on the National Register?

Benefits of the National Register

While it is true that listing a property on the National Register does not affect an owner’s ability to alter the property, a National Register listing is often used as a starting point or a springboard for other activities that do promote actual physical preservation. Here are a few preservation actions that may follow the listing of a property on the National Register:

  • Voluntary preservation by owner. In order to be listed on the National Register, someone has to research and write about the nominated property. This research includes a narrative description of the property, a history of the property and its historical owners, and a statement of the cultural significance of the property. Frequently, this will be the only time in the property’s existence that someone researches and writes in detail about the nominated property and its cultural significance. This research often uncovers previously unknown facts about the property and its associations, which is an exciting experience for the property owner. As a result of this research and subsequent listing on the National Register of Historic Places, it is quite possible that the owner will be inspired to voluntarily preserve the property.
  • Save money. Once a property is listed on the National Register, the property owner may become eligible for local, state, and/or federal money in the form of grants, income tax credits, and property tax breaks. Every state differs in what (if any) financial incentives it offers to encourage historic preservation. I am most familiar with Georgia’s tax programs (the Georgia State Income Tax Credit for Rehabilitated Historic Property and the Statewide Preferential Property Tax Assessment Program for Rehabilitated Historic Property) and I plan to discuss these further in a separate post. Property owners are not the only ones who can save money through National Register listings and preservation activities. All citizens benefit from the preservation of our cultural heritage because heritage preservation supports a healthy job market (see History Colorado’s 2012 Economic Benefits Report)
  • Local regulation. Your state may have enacted statutes that define the extent of local historic preservation ordinances. In Georgia, for example, we have the Georgia Historic Preservation Act, which lays out in detail the means, methods, and responsibilities of local regulation of historic properties. In the United States, local regulation is where the rubber meets the road for historic preservation law–most substantive preservation action (or inaction) is left to local governments. The first step in a local government’s preservation efforts is typically the listing of properties or districts on the National Register. Once National Register districts have been listed, a local government can then use the same research and public good will (hopefully) generated from the National Register nomination process to sell their constituents on the utility of local historic preservation ordinances. This notion ties in to the previous point on voluntary preservation–if a broad positive perception of preservation results from the National Register nomination process then local governments are more likely to move forward with substantive preservation programs.

Although a National Register listing alone only gives a property owner bragging rights, there are countless benefits indirectly associated with the this honorific listing. For me, however, one of the most valuable (priceless, really) benefits of the National Register of Historic Places is the treasure trove of history contained therein. So, when the current government “shutdown” has abated, take some time to explore the National Register database. At the very least, the next time you hear somebody talking about a historic property being “protected” by the National Register you will be able to set them straight (and emphasize the importance of local preservation efforts).

Clint Tankersley is a Georgia attorney specializing in cultural heritage law. Read my bio here.