President's Budget Proposes Cuts to Historic Preservation

Four pre-Civil War houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant, N.Y., were restored with money from Save America's Treasures.

Credit: Society for the Preservation of Weeksville History

Yesterday, President Obama sent his 2012 budget proposal to Capitol Hill, delivering a painful blow to preservationists: Two federal grant programs, Save America's Treasures and Preserve America, were eliminated, slashing the Historic Preservation Fund by 23 percent. Other sources for historic preservation were also cut severely. Funding for National Heritage Areas was reduced by half. And the National Park Service's construction budget, the account that funds maintenance on historic structures, took a 35 percent hit.

National Trust President Stephanie Meeks was "profoundly disappointed by the cuts in historic preservation funding," she said in a statement yesterday. "By choosing to eliminate this critical [Save America's Treasures] program, the Administration is abandoning the federal government's primary role as stewards of our history. Viewed as a piece of the overall budget, this program is obviously miniscule. … Without adequate funding, we will lose many of the important places that help us understand who we are as a nation."

Save America's Treasures, established in 1998 as a public-private partnership, has awarded about $300 million in public and private grants to 1,287 restoration projects, from the Wright Brothers' plane to the bus on which Rosa Parks was arrested. Save America's Treasures has created more than 16,000 jobs, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, program's private partner.

Anticipating criticism, the proposal provided justification for cutting Save America's Treasures and Preserve America: "These historic preservation grants to non-Federal entities provide mostly local benefits … at least half of Save America's Treasures projects are annually earmarked by Congress, without using merit-based criteria." 

There are two major problems with the Department's justification for eliminating Save America's Treasures, says Bobbie Greene McCarthy, director of Save America's Treasures at the National Trust.

"The assertion that the program ‘serves only local and state level historic preservation projects' is factually incorrect—the entire premise of the program is built on national significance. In fact, only nationally significant projects are eligible to apply," McCarthy says. "The second factual error is that merit-based criteria are not in place for earmarks, when in fact all earmarks are required to be on the National Register at a minimum, and like the competitive grants they must also meet the same rigorous criteria of the Secretary's Standards for Historic Preservation."

America's Unseen Treasures

So far, the Bureau of Land Management has identified cultural resources on just eight percent of its land. In 2006, the National Trust for Historic Preservation released a Report on Cultural Resources on the BLM Public Lands. The president's budget proposal addresses several points in that report, including more funding for cultural resources survey, restoration, preservation and interpretation, and an increase in the funding of the National Landscape Conservation System, which the National Trust named one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2005.

The proposed budget does retain some critical programs, such as the National Register for Historic Places, the Section 106 program, and rehabilitation tax credits—"the programs that are the foundation, that allow the work of statewide and locals and individual preservationists to happen," says Nancy Schamu, executive director of the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers.

In addition, the budget proposes a more than 50 percent increase in funding for the Bureau of Land Management's cultural resources management. It also includes a 26 percent increase for National Monuments and National Conservation Areas—areas that include landmarks like Colorado's Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and Lewis and Clark's Pompeys Pillar in Montana. And the 212-page document provides increased funding for tribes and states for their historic preservation programs ($4 million more for state historic preservation officers and $3 million more for tribal historic preservation officers). The American Battlefield Protection Program maintained its funding at $10 million, as did the $3 million for Japanese Confinement Sites Grants.

Nonetheless, McCarthy says, the country may lose a worthy program: "Save America's Treasures provides the only federal support for bricks and mortar preservation," she says. "Without it, our most important sites and collections will once more be at increased risk."

The president's budget proposal sets the spending debate for 2012 in motion as the House and Senate begin work on the annual appropriations bills to fund the federal government. Congress is now wrestling with the unfinished business of settling this year's budget and will move on to next year's bills through the next few months.

Where are Save America's Treasures projects? 

Read more about cuts to historic preservation >>

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Submitted by WB at: February 22, 2011
You think this is a large budget cut. The Texas Legislature is proposing a 71% decrease in funding for the Texas Historical Commission. Please take the time to sign the petition at

Submitted by James at: February 22, 2011
Cutting Historic Funding, during economic stress, so shortsighted, and Politically motivated. Whatever happened to "Invest in America "? Better to invest in military actions, I guess. Whatever your persausions, America and our Heritage comes first and foremost. Shame on Washington, let them direct their excess Campaign Funds to American History, instead of their bank accounts. Shame on them, woe to us.

Submitted by EAPoe at: February 22, 2011
We'e been restoring an 1849 brick famhouse in IA for the past 10 yrs. & will continue until we're ready for the "Home". It is difficult; we struggle to afford restoration projects befitting the property. I am saddened that our country's govt. seems to care little for the heritage of such buildings still standing! Just like the people who built/occupied them - once they're gone it's final & irreversible.

Submitted by Anonymous at: February 16, 2011
Saving our "built environment" first, followed by the natural environment... In the unabated race to the bottom... Steven Lindsey Ches-3 Keene, NH state rep.

Submitted by Brian at: February 15, 2011
This is the government that Americans are willing to put up with. It's been known for years that the nation is trillions in debt, with a huge trade deficit. Blame goes all around. This is a consequence of decades of unaccountable spending combined with the intentional devaluation of the dollar by the Federal Reserve. I think that both Republicans and Democrats deserve to live in this new America. The party's over. Perhaps our only hope is a cultural shift where people begin to realize the value of preserving our history. Perhaps the only way to save our history is for private individuals to renovate and preserve buildings themselves. The government is bankrupt and cannot be expected to pay for much of anything at all.