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Saturday, February 16, 2008

Splinters For a Platform

I for one would like to kick around ideas about what we should look for in a presidential platform splinter (it would hardly be a plank) on cultural resources. So I posted the following yesterday on ACRA-L.

I’ll start by stipulating that I’m a lifelong Democrat, and a supporter of Barack Obama. At the same time I’ll say that in terms of demonstrated thoughtful support for initiatives that support the kind of thing we do (or ought to do), it’s hard to beat John McCain. I’m thinking of his long-time sponsorship of the National Institute for Environmental Dispute Resolution, which applies the principles on which section 106 review is based (despite their near-abandonment by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation) to the management of environmental impacts in general.

That said, let’s consider: whichever party one supports, and whatever candidate, what would we like whoever’s elected to do in terms of CRM? Here are my opening suggestions, which naturally reflect my beliefs that (a) impact assessment and mitigation are the heart and soul of CRM; (b) that CRM is tightly related to environmental impact assessment (EIA); (c) that it ought to be about giving a fair shake to things that are important to ordinary people, not just specialists; and (d) that the CRM and EIA systems are in serious trouble, despite the happy talk we get from NPS, the Advisory Council, and the SHPOs. I didn’t mean to make them the Seven Rs; they just came out that way. They’re in no particular rank order.

Reformulate environmental, social, and cultural resource impact assessment.

Nobody wants to talk about it, but review of project impacts under NEPA, Section 106 of NHPA, and related authorities has devolved substantially into the generation and exchange of paperwork, into mindless adherence to the (often counterproductive and overly complicated) dictates of regulatory authorities (e.g. SHPOs) and – most damagingly – into client-contractor relationships that paper over project impacts and frustrate the interests of the public. It will be a difficult job – because the regulatory agencies and contractors have vested interests in the status quo, and the advocacy groups can’t bring themselves to advocate anything but its continuance with more funding – but the new president needs to put some good minds to work reformulating the process of impact analysis -- seeking to make it honest, straightforward, transparent, efficient, and consultative. We should end the inherently corrupting practice of having project proponents hire and supervise the consultants who assess the impacts of their projects, and simplify review processes to a point at which citizens can participate in meaningful ways.

Reform the management of federal land and resources in the interests of future generations
We need a thorough review of federal agency policies and how they are implemented, to undo (to the extent it’s possible) the current administration’s policy of carte blanche for private energy extraction, resource development, and other private exploitation of federal and tribal land and resources. This is not to say that the federal estate should be locked up, simply that balance needs to be restored in the public interest, and agencies need to understand their duties to be those of stewards, not facilitators of every cockamamie development scheme that comes along. It is also not to suggest support for things like the recent recommendations of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to the Bureau of Land Management. Some of the Trust’s recommendations are sensible, but many are mindless (“Nominate more places to the National Register”) and the Trust’s general tendency to want more money thrown at every preservation problem, while understandable, needs to be viewed critically.

Rejoin the international community
We’ve largely abrogated leadership in international environmental and cultural resource management, but we ought at least to be responsible followers. For starters (besides joining the team in trying to reduce global warming), the U.S. should become party to the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and (in principle if not in its particulars, some of which are silly) the UNESCO Convention on the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Rethink police action as a cultural resource management tool
The assumption that police action can control traffic in antiquities, whether in the US or internationally, needs critical reconsideration. The thriving business done by antiquities dealers both licit and illicit despite ARPA and a variety of international conventions and agreements indicates that some other approach is in order. Personally, I think legalization with regulation is the way to go, but at the very least, a thorough, openminded review is needed of alternative ways to address the problem.

Respond to ongoing environmental change
We can’t stop the seas from rising, and their doing so is going to force large-scale displacement of people and facilities from coastlines and islands into the continental and high island interiors. These displacements are going to have serious impacts on natural and cultural resources. We need to undertake concrete programs NOW to assess these impacts and adopt means of mitigating them. At the same time we need to attend (to the extent possible) to the impacts of sea level rise itself – the erosion of coastal cultural sites, the inundation of culturally important built and natural resources, and the effects of more frequent hurricanes and other severe weather events.

Resolve conflicts between historic preservation standards and alternative energy development
Can windfarms in the viewsheds of historic places be made acceptable to people who live in or use such places? Can solar panels be designed that are aesthetically pleasing replacements for traditional slate, shake, or tile roofs? Are there ways to extract geothermal energy and harness hydropower in culturally sensitive landscape with little or no damage? What sociocultural impacts are likely from the extensive production of biofuels, and what can be done about them? I certainly don’t know, but these are issues to which someone ought to be seriously attending.

Revisit repatriation
I’ve written elsewhere about the fundamental flaw in NAGPRA and similar laws – the notion that people can own one another, so that a person’s remains can and should be the subjects of dispute over ownership. It seems, to judge from some of the discussions I’ve seen on the World Archaeological Congress listserv and elsewhere, that others are beginning to come to similar conclusions – in short, that our policies ought to be based on respect for the dead, rather than on ownership. A full, open, no-holds-barred rethinking of the principles underlying NAGPRA and the policies that arise from it might have very fruitful results.

Those are my top-of-the-head ideas – none of which, I hasten to say, I have any way to advance through political processes. Any other ideas, or reactions?
Tom King