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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Gimme Gimme Gimme: the ACHP's January 16 Recommendations

I’m grateful to Al Tonetti of the ASC Group in Columbus, Ohio for alerting me to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s (ACHP) new report (issued January 16, 2009, entitled “Recommendations to Improve the Structure of the Federal Historic Preservation Program” and accessible at http://www.achp.gov/news090201.html. Although the ACHP issued a press release on the report, it has not made much of it – possibly because it has the good sense to be embarrassed by it.

The report is not worth spending much time to review, but let’s just run through its recommendations. Most are the kind of thing you expect from any federal agency given (by itself in this case) the opportunity to call for an improvement in its own status and that of its political allies. Coming out at the time it did, though – four days before the inauguration of a president whose election repudiated the then-incumbant who appointed the ACHP’s members, in the midst of the worst international economic disaster in memory, the report is remarkable for its naïve self-promotion.

Recommendation 1: Build up the power of the ACHP. The ACHP recommends that it be headed by a chairperson appointed by the President (as is now the case) with the advice and consent of the Senate (as is not now the case). It also recommends that the chairperson be made a full-time federal employee and that he or she serve on the Domestic Policy Council (DPC). In other words, the ACHP should be recognized as having an influence on national domestic policy equivalent to that exercised by such regular DPC members as the Secretary of Labor, the Secretary of Transportation, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisors.

It is not clear why – after frittering away the last eight years patting itself on the back for giving “preserve America” grants to worthy, noncontroversial projects – the ACHP thinks it has anything useful to say about federal domestic policy. To the extent it provides a rationale for its recommendation, the ACHP stresses the importance of the Section 106 review process – precisely the aspect of its authority and responsibility that it has most thoroughly neglected in recent years.

Recommendation 2: Create an Office of Preservation Policy and Procedure (OPPP) in the Office of the Secretary of the Interior. The OPPP would “provide leadership and direction” to Interior agencies in carrying out their responsibilities under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). There are some implications in the report that the OPPP would take over the interagency functions of the National Park Service (NPS) – maintaining the National Register of Historic Places, overseeing project certification for tax benefits, and so on. There would be some benefit in such a reorganization; the “external” programs have never been a happy fit within NPS. But the report doesn’t really go beyond implying such a change. Given NPS's predictable response to any assault on its turf, it is most likely that the OPPP would become simply another level of bureaucracy within the Interior Department.

Recommendation 3: Create an Associate Director for Cultural Resources within the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). The rationale for this proposal is to improve the “profile” of historic preservation within the Executive Office of the President. This is doubtless a worthy goal from the standpoint of historic preservation, but it is hardly sufficient. Kite-flyers, all-terrain vehicle drivers, and gardeners would probably like to have their profiles enhanced, too, but this is hardly justification for the assignment of high-level CEQ officials to represent their interests. The ACHP does point out that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is designed to promote the protection of historic and cultural as well as natural resources, but it makes little or no case for the proposition either that CEQ currently gives such resources short shrift or that adding another official to that body would improve matters.

Recommendation 4: Beef up the Federal Preservation Officers. The ACHP points back to Executive Order 13287, the Bush administration's one legitimate effort to promote federal agency responsibility toward historic preservation, and says its provisions should be implemented. The vehicle it proposes for getting this done is for the ACHP's chairperson and the Office of Management and Budget to make it happen. Since the executive order, the chairperson, and OMB have been around for some years, one wonders why this recommendation has to be made; why has it not already been realized?

Recommendation 5: More money. It wouldn’t be a federal agency recommendation if it didn’t seek more money for agency programs, or for those of its allies. The ACHP report predictably recommends increased funding for the State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs) and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs). Without getting into whether such increases might be justified (I wouldn’t assume them so without a hard review of how the THPOs and especially the SHPOs are spending the money they already have, under NPS’s generally misguided rules), it is hard to imagine that such increases are very likely under current economic circumstances.

Recommendation 6: More money and technical support to THPOs. The THPOs get a second bite of the ACHP’s proposed funding apple, though it’s not clear how the fiscal part of this recommendation differs from the THPO part of the preceding one. The THPOs certainly do need more money, but they also need relief from pointless NPS regulation and mindless federal agency pretenses at “tribal consultation.” What they probably do not need is “technical support,” if this means – as it usually does – support in meeting NPS administrative and technical requirements.

Recommendation 7: Strengthen Section 106. This one – while not unjustified as far as it goes – is truly mind-boggling, particularly in the way it is phrased: “The Section 106 Function is Lagging, and Must be Strengthened.” Indeed, and why is it lagging? Does the lag have anything to do with the fact that the ACHP’s political and executive leadership has done everything in their power over the last two decades to minimize attention to Section 106? Does it reflect in any way the total lack of creative thought that the ACHP has given to Section 106 review in recent years? Does it have anything to do with the antagonism the ACHP leadership has shown those members of its staff who actually try to participate in review or encourage improved practice on the part of federal agencies and others? Not in the ACHP’s eyes, of course, so what should be done to “strengthen” Section 106? Provide “additional resources to support the ACHP’s crucial role.” Give us more money.

The ACHP goes on to propose that it ought to issue more guidance – which perhaps is true (though one cannot be sanguine about what it might issue), but if it is, why doesn’t the ACHP simply issue some? In a way it does, via this report, proposing better coordination between Section 106 and NEPA and offering some useful if hardly revolutionary suggestions: get 106 review underway before issuing environmental assessments or draft environmental impact statements, finish it before such documents are finalized, and don’t confuse the vacuous “public participation” typically provided for under NEPA with the consultation required under Section 106. It’s too bad the ACHP hasn’t done something over the last ten years to arrest the deterioration of the very consultation it now (by vague implication) extols.

This is a sad, predictable, silly report, which will doubtless get precisely the attention it deserves. I wonder how much of our tax money was spent producing it.

1 comment:

RCast said...

Tom, great comments as usual. I'm glad that you have this blog that some of can now go to and learn a few things.

I totally agree with your assessment of the report. I had read it when it first came out and my overall impression was that many of the recommendations could be done without throwing more money at these problems but with the ACHP actually asserting its regulatory functions into the process. I've been with the Caddo for 11 years now and I remember working with several very knowledgeable reviewers at ACHP that were in the Denver offices. When John Nau became the Chairman of the ACHP, they were told, and explained to me, that "There heads were on the chopping block and that the ACHP was tired of hearing about problems related to consultation in Texas." Shortly thereafter the Denver offices were closed. Now they want to beef up the ACHP? In my opinion, if the ACHP asserted itself in the process to make sure that especially Section 106 was being carried out by Federal agencies, a lot of problems might be solved. The Caddo Nation has not consulted on one single EPA project in Texas probably in the past 10 years, does EPA not issue any permits in Texas anymore?

Of course I think that THPOs could always use more money, but what I think would save a lot of money is better coordination with federal agencies, better consultation up front (from a projects planning stages) and for the agencies to work in a true partnership with tribes where if duties (and time consuming work) are delegated the tribes actually get paid for the time and effort put in to the projects.