To ensure social justice, reauthorize the Historic Preservation Fund

In the late 1960s Congress passed sweeping legislation that fundamentally changed how we as a people engage with our neighbors, our history and our environment. In a few short years, we made overdue improvements to laws governing voting rights, civil rights, healthcare opportunities, education for young children, protection of wilderness, and fairer treatment for Native Americans. Thanks to a forward-looking Congress and effective federal leadership, every branch of the federal government played a role in bending the arc of history toward greater justice and equality.

One of the less noticed, and unfairly neglected, features of this historic era was the political growth of a historic preservation movement aimed at saving as much of America’s past as possible. It culminated with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA), which created an inventory of our nation’s historic assets that conveyed a sense of who we are – and established programs to preserve and document those assets. A sudden burst of effort swept the country to identify and accurately record our history, much of it at the state and local levels.

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Through this effort, it became clear that much of our past was already lost and that the NHPA needed additional funding if we as a people were going to hold on to what was left. The Historic Preservation Fund (HPF), added to the NHPA in 1976, created a discretionary appropriation of $150 million annually for grants to help state historic preservation offices (SHPOs) and tribal historic preservation offices (THPOs) upgrade their documentation and preservation efforts. These funds came, and still come, from Outer Continental Shelf lease revenues.

This program, inspired by the success of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) that preserves open spaces and natural areas, has never been fully funded. Like the LWCF, its authorization expired last September 30 thanks to congressional inaction.

The similarities end there. Unlike the LWCF, the Historic Preservation Fund remains unauthorized for the foreseeable future. Thanks to a concerted political effort by supporters around the country, the LWCF was reauthorized for three years – hardly long enough, but a good start – in last year’s congressional omnibus budget deal. There’s no reason Congress should have excluded the HPF from that deal, and there’s no reason it should let the Fund continue to languish. Now is a good time to set things right.

The Fund is an important part of that wave of social justice that swept the country. It makes it uniquely possible for preservation experts and local historic officials to expand our conception of our history beyond a handful of great men and great events. Thanks to the HPF, we know more about the industrial landscapes, urban neighborhoods, and other features of Main Street, USA, that make us who we are. It allows us to understand the history of the American public, not just the history of the American elite.

In the 1960s, America did some deep and often painful soul-searching about what it means to be an American. Ethnic studies programs started cropping up in colleges and universities. Empowerment movements in the African American, Asian American, Latino, women’s, gay and persons with disabilities communities found their voices. Diverse people and organizations across the nation rightly saw their history as critical to the fabric of the U.S. and wanted their stories told. 

The NHPA grants to state and tribal historic preservation officers have made it possible to tell these stories. Just as importantly, it has brought visibility to previously ignored communities – visibility that makes it difficult to site highways through the center of neighborhoods or noxious industries in underserved communities. Tribes have been able to document traditional cultural properties, to minimize incursions at religious sites and share their all too often invisible or unheard histories.

The HPF’s benefits go further. It has supported preservation efforts at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and has provided preservation grants for the Save America’s Treasures program and the Preserve America program.

Unfortunately, Congress allowed the HPF to expire with no clear timetable for reinstatement. Letting this fund disappear forever would be a major blow to social justice. Given its success, we should do more than reinstate it. We should fully fund it, for the first time, at the $150 million for which it is regularly authorized. Anything less would wind the clock back on the decades of historic and social awareness it’s brought us.

Grijalva represents Arizona’s 3rd Congressional District and has served in the House since 2003. He is ranking member on the Natural Resources Committee and also sits on the Education and the Workforce Committee.

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