HP Law Online

© 2013 Emily Bergeron

Federal Historic Preservation Laws

Sometimes the easiest place to start with a preservation law question is at the source - the actual law. On this page you will find brief summaries of the United States’ federal level historic preservation laws as well as links to these laws. If you would just like to peruse the federal laws on conservation, take a look at Title 16 of the United States Code.

Antiquities Act of 1906

This first of federal preservation laws created protection for historic, prehistoric, and scientific elements on federal lands. It additionally gave the President authority to create National Monuments on federally owned land. Finally, it authorized the issuing of permits for archaeological investigations on federal control and recognized the significance of requiring educational and scientific institutions to gather and curate materials and information of scientific value.


National Park Service Organic Act of 1916

This law created the National Park Service tasked with the mission of managing the nation’s parks and conserving important scenery, natural and historic objects, and wildlife for the enjoyment of present and future generations.


Historic Sites Act of 1935

Established a national policy for the protection of historic sites, buildings and objects for public use. Led to the establishment of the Historic American Buildings Survey, Historic American Engineering Record, the National Historic Landmarks Program, and the Historic Sites Survey.


Reservoir Salvage Act of 1960

Provided for the recovery and preservation of archaeological and historical artifacts that might have been lost or destroyed in the process of the construction of dams and their reservoirs.


National Historic Preservation Act of 1966

This hallmark preservation law created a federal program for the preservation of historic sites, the National Register for Historic Places, and the State Historic Preservation Offices, and established the Section 106 review process requiring agencies to stop and look before undertaking actions that may impact the historic fabric. The regulations for implementing the NHPA can be found here.


Department of Transportation Act of 1966

Section 4(f) of this Act requires the Secretary of Transportation coordinate and consult with the Secretaries of the Interior, Housing and Urban Development, and Agriculture as well as the states to create transportation plans that provide for the maintenance and enhancement of the natural beauty. The Secretary cannot approve programs/projects that require the use of public park land, recreation areas, wildlife and waterfowl refiges, or historic sites unless there is no feasible and prudent alternative. You may also want to look at the U.S. Department of Transportation site’s coverage of 4(f) here.


National Environmental Policy Act of 1969

NEPA makes it federal policy to “preserve important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of out national heritage.” It mandates that federal agencies use a systematic and interdisciplinary approach (similar to NHPA’s Section 106), which incorporates natural and cultural resources in the planning and decision-making process.


Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972

Establishes among other things the National Marine Sanctuaries Program. Title III of the law is later renamed the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.


Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974

This Act was passed to further the policies created by the Historic Sites Act by providing for the preservation of historical and archaeological data (including relics and specimens) that might be destroyed due to a number of federal undertakings including, but not limited to dam construction, flooding, or alteration of terrain cause by a federal construction project.


Tax Reform Act of 1976

Created tax incentives that encouraged the preservation of commercial historic structures. This law has been amended numerous times, with the current law allowing for a 20% income tax credit for the rehabilitation of historic, income producing buildings that are “certified historic structures.” The National Park Service has some very helpful information on the federal tax program on its website. The National Trust also has a great deal of helpful information here.


American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978

This Act creates a policy to protect and preserve Native American’s inherent rights of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians. This includes, but is not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonial and traditional rites.


Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979

ARPA was enacted to protect archaeological resources and sites which are on public lands and Indian lands, and to foster increased cooperation and exchange of information between governmental authorities, the professional archaeological community, and private individuals.


Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987

This law establishes government ownership over the majority of abandoned shipwrecks located in United States waters and establishes a framework for managing shipwrecks. The Act also affirms States’ authority to claim and manage abandoned shipwrecks on State submerged lands.


Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990

This law addresses the rights of Native American lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations regarding the treatment, repatriation, and disposition of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. It requires that Federal agencies and museums receiving Federal funds inventory holdings of Native American human remains and funerary objects and provide written summaries of other cultural items and to consult with Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to broker agreements on the repatriation or other disposition of these remains and objects.


Administrative Laws



State Historic Preservation Laws

Each of the 50 states has its own statutes and regulations impacting historic preservation laws - some more comprehensive than others. Some states have limited their laws to creating historic preservation commissions and architectural review boards, while others have delved into regulating archaeological sites, cemeteries, mines, caves, and underwater cultural heritage. To examine the wide variety of state programs take a look at the State Historic Preservation Legislation Database created by the National Conference of State Legislatures. This database will provide you with the citations and section titles as well as summaries of the laws affecting preservation in each state.


You may also consider investigating the individual SHPO websites, which often have links to the state’s preservation laws. You can find links to all of the SHPO offices at the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers website.