May 14, 2015

How to Save a Place: Understand Local, State, and Federal Preservation Groups

So far in our “How to Save a Place” toolkit series, we’ve covered why historic places matter, how to manage your expectations, and how to research and assess threats to a beloved place.

The natural next step is, of course, how to find help -- which can be daunting in an environment where terms like “historic property” and “National Register” get thrown around interchangeably, with little explanation of who is responsible for what part of the process.

The good news is, the best bet is always to start close to home. The saying “all politics is local” is often true of preservation as well, particularly early in the process. Local laws and regulations are the first line of defense in saving many historic places and can usually get the job done, but sometimes it becomes necessary to escalate the fight to the state or even federal level.

Knowing the basics of who does what at each level can make navigating preservation a great deal easier.

The National Park Service is responsible for the National Register of Historic Places and sponsors various preservation-related programs.

Local Level

Local preservation commissions are the principal local public sector preservation allies. Commissions -- which may also go by the name of architectural review board or historic preservation commission -- identify and regulate locally significant properties. They are established through the adoption of a local preservation ordinance and have a wide range of responsibilities and powers depending on state and local laws.

Tip: The local preservation commission is the governmental agency that approves or denies changes to designated historic properties that are privately owned.

Local preservation organizations are private nonprofit groups that serve as a preservation network and represent preservation activities within a community. They advocate for local preservation issues and provide technical/educational assistance. Many also get directly involved in saving properties through loan funds, buying and rehabbing properties, and otherwise helping owners take care of their property. They’re usually a great resource for hands-on preservation assistance and training.

State Level

The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) is the public sector preservation partner on the state level. Their responsibilities include: identifying historic properties; considering National Register nominations; reviewing federal projects for their impact on historic properties; administering tax incentive and grant programs; and providing assistance to federal agencies, state and local governments, and the private sector.

If your preservation work takes place on tribal land, then the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) would replace the SHPO as the agency to work with. They handle the same responsibilities, with a particular emphasis on maintaining the continuity of the community’s traditional beliefs and practices.

Tip: You might hear your more seasoned counterparts using the words “Shippo” and “Tippo” with the expectation that everyone knows that they mean. These are the ways SHPO and THPO have come to be pronounced, rather than using the initials.

Statewide preservation organizations are similar to local preservation organizations but on a state level. These private nonprofit groups serve as a preservation network and represent preservation activities within a state by advocating for preservation-friendly legislation in the state government, providing technical assistance, and offering training and education programs.

Federal Level

Much to the surprise of many who think of the National Park Service (NPS) only in the context of places like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, the Park Service is also the primary federal-level historic preservation agency. Among their many preservation-related activities, the NPS is responsible for the National Register of Historic Places, preservation grant programs, the certification program for federal historic tax incentives, and management of the certified local government program -- a partnership with the state historic preservation offices to promote preservation at the grassroots level.

Along with the NPS, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) is a key federal agency to know. Their role is to advise the President and Congress on preservation policy, as well as to review and comment on federal or federally licensed projects that affect properties that have been designated as historic.

The “review and comment” function comes primarily through what’s known as the “Section 106” process, which refers to the part of the National Historic Preservation Act that requires federal agencies to notify the public of their goals and consult with the public to resolve impacts on historic properties before proceeding with possibly damaging projects. This can be a hugely useful tool with preservation projects that involve any sort of federal involvement.

Last but not (we hope) least, there’s us, the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Like statewide and local preservation organizations, we are a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., but with a national focus.

We have more than a dozen field offices engaged in preservation work on National Treasures nationwide, and our staff works on a variety of projects, including advocating for historic tax credit programs, educating preservation professionals via the Preservation Leadership Forum, and sharing the good work of preservationists nationwide via stories on and Preservation magazine.

Of course, this is just scratching the surface of preservation organizations. There is more information about local, state, and federal agencies and organizations in our preservation “Who’s Who”. There are also myriad nonprofits dedicated to saving specific types of places; you can find more details about those by perusing the list of type-specific toolkits we’ve produced.

Sarah Heffern headshot

Sarah Heffern, the National Trust's former director of social media, embraces all things online and pixel-centric, but she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

Related Stories

The Mother Road turns 100 years old in 2026—share your Route 66 story to celebrate the Centennial. Together, we’ll tell the full American story of Route 66!

Share Your Story