What protection does the National Register of Historic Places afford (U.S.)?

I am involved in a group that is considering making an application to have a local landmark listed in the National Register of Historic Places. I was curious about what protection the registry gives, so I looked at the agency’s web site and found this page:

National Register of Historic Places Program: Fundamentals.

It says, “National Register listing places no obligations on private property owners. There are no restrictions on the use, treatment, transfer, or disposition of private property.”

It also says that the state historic preservation office may have its own rules. My impression is that any property listed in the federal registry is also listed in the state registry. So I looked at the corresponding California web site and found this page:

California Historical Landmarks

Under “Effects of Designation,” it says, “Limited protection: Environmental review may be required under California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) if property is threatened by a project. Contact your local planning agency for more information.”

So it sounds to me like the protection of historic places isn’t very strong. I brought this up in a meeting of the group that is planning the application, and the leader (a local historian) insisted that it is a federal crime to damage the historical value of a piece of property that is listed in the registry.

I have no experience in this area, so I let it go. I wasn’t really satisfied with the guy’s answer, though - it seemed like an argument from authority (i.e. “I know better because I’m an expert and you’re not.”)

So what types of protection do listings in the national and California state registries give?

The only purpose of the NRHP is to provide federal tax incentives for organizations that work to preserve the historic place in question. There is no reason to think that state landmarks lists would mirror the federal NRHP list at all. They are generally for different purposes, and have separate application processes and protections.