To preserve a nation's heritage

Over the past decade Americans have become increasingly aware that industrialization and neglect threaten to destroy many of their irreplaceable natural and cultural resources. Aroused by the loss of grand old architectural landmarks and other reminders of their past and moved by concern for protecting the environment, they have launched a wide variety of private and governmental programs to ensure that many aspects of America's national heritage would not be lost to future generations. But the efforts of federal agencies, states, cities , and conservation groups to protect parklands, wildlife habitats, historic districts, and so forth have largely been piecemeal and uncoordinated.

Lacking in the drive to preserve the country's rich heritage is federal leadership and a sense of direction. Moreover, there is no nationwide plan for identifying and documenting every place of natural or cultural significance and not enough coordination of current private and governmental programs to eliminate overlapping and waste.

Legislation currently pending in Congress would fill this gap. Supported by the Carter administration and a coalition of environmental, conservation, and historic preservation organizations, the proposed National Heritage Policy Act would, among other things, require the Secretary of Interior to establish and oversee a new National Register of Natural Areas and to expand the current National Register of Historic Places. Under provisions of the bill, the federal government would encourage states to form their own heritage programs and would seek to enlist the help of private groups in identifying and locating sites worth saving.

The bill would also require the Interior Department to initiate measures to maintain and rehabilitate federally owned properties of national significance, and all federal agencies empowered to spend government funds would have to take into account the impact any new spending might have on sites listed in the national registers. Any federal project that threatened to destroy or damage a natural or historic landmark could be undertaken only if it could be shown that no other "prudent and feasible alternative" were available.

In short, the National Heritage Policy Act would make the preservation of all of America's vast heritage -- her historic neighorhoods, buildings, structures, and natural resources -- a matter of national policy. The legislation would help states and localities achieve their preservation and conservation goals in an efficient and cost-effective manner without adding large new expenditures to the federal budget. It is that rare piece of environmental legislation that has the backing of both business and conservationists. The bill ought to be enacted.

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