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Friday, September 04, 2009

What Is the National Historic Preservation Act About? Part V: Archaeologization and SHPOmination

Issuance of Executive Order 11593 in 1971, coupled with enactment of NEPA in 1969, generated the need to find out what sorts of historic properties federal agencies were responsible for, on lands under their control and in places potentially affected by their projects. Enactment of the Moss-Bennett Act in 1974 knocked the props out from under agency arguments that they lacked authority to fund work to find and deal with archaeological sites – though the act did contain a strange “one-percent-of-project-cost” rule that people argued about for some years.

So suddenly there was a market for people and groups to find and evaluate historic properties, and to a somewhat lesser extent to do things with whatever turned up. Who was going to do this work, and how was it to be done?

NHPA had set up a two-headed monster as the establisher of standards for preservation work. One head was the National Park Service (NPS), which had been detailed the sundry responsibilities of the Secretary of the Interior under not only NHPA but the Historic Sites Act, the Reservoir Salvage Act (as amended by Moss-Bennett), and the Antiquities Act. The other head was the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), whose duties were a tad ambiguous but included advising the president and congress on historic preservation matters and overseeing Section 106 review. The ACHP was initially staffed by NPS, but conflicts of interest rapidly became apparent, and the ACHP was made an independent agency in the mid-70s. There was naturally a degree of competition between NPS and ACHP as to just who would set standards and provide guidance to the federal establishment. The matter was complicated by the fact that NPS itself was (and is, though it likes to deny it) split between “in-house” and “out-house” functions – those relating to the National Park system and those relating to everything else in the world. Maintenance of the National Register, for instance, is an “out-house” function. Naturally, though, NPS favors its “in-house” duties; the parks are, after all, its main responsibility. This tended – and tends – to give the “out-house” functions short shrift, to deprive them of financial and (more importantly) intellectual resources. And there’s the expectation that the outhouse side of NPS will toe the lines established by and for the inhouse functions, which doesn’t always make much sense. It particularly makes little sense for an agency whose main missions are preservation and interpretation of the natural and cultural environment to set standards for agencies whose missions are different; you simply can’t expect NPS to understand the needs of an agency like the Army or HUD, or for those agencies to relate happily to standards established by NPS. But I digress, and editorialize.

NPS set out to issue various standards and guidelines – hence the various “Secretary’s Standards” for this and that, the “National Register Bulletins,” and so on. The ACHP did likewise to some extent, though NPS would growl from its manger whenever the ACHP got too close to what it perceived to be its turf. But meanwhile, another source of expertise had emerged, to which both NPS and the ACHP could pass the buck.

NHPA had set up a program of grants to states to support historic preservation activities. To access these grants, states had to establish “State Liaison Officers” to administer them. By the 1970s virtually all states had established such entities, which had come to be called “State Historic Preservation Officers” (SHPOs). NPS set standards for the SHPOs (since it controlled their federal purse-strings). Among the first standards it established was that SHPOs had to have “review boards” to vet their National Register nominations (Nomination was, of course, perceived by NPS to be one of the SHPO’s most important functions). These boards were to include professionals in the disciplines determined by NPS to be central to historic preservation – history, architecture/architectural history/historical architecture, and archaeology. And as SHPO grants increased (They hit a high point under Jimmy Carter), and SHPOs staffed up, NPS insisted that the “core disciplines” be represented on their staffs. So very soon there came to be fifty-plus entities scattered across the country with ostensible expertise in the disciplines thought to confer expertise relevant to historic preservation. It was only natural for both NPS and the ACHP then, when asked by an agency whether it needed to identify historic properties, or how to do so, or what kinds of expertise it needed, to say “Go ask the SHPO,” and that’s what they did.

This quickly created the impression among federal agencies – an impression that’s still widely held, though no less wrong today than it was in the ‘70s – that what Section 106 requires is getting SHPO sign-off on your project. It also quickly swamped the SHPOs with requests for “clearance,” often supported by little or no information on which the SHPO could base a judgment. And of course, it exposed the SHPOs to intense political pressure by everyone who wanted projects “cleared” and had access to the state’s political machinery. To protect themselves, SHPOs established their own standards: “In order to get our blessing for your project, you need to present us with information of X, Y, and Z type, acquired using A, B, and C kinds of methods.” Hence the various “SHPO requirements” that agencies, regulated industries, and consultants to this day think they have to meet – though neither law nor regulation says they have to.

Meanwhile, a private consulting industry was being put together in Topsy-fashion by architecture and engineering (A&E) firms, environmental professionals of various kinds, and – archaeologists. Why archaeologists? Well, consider: most of the big federal and federally assisted projects were of two kinds. There was urban renewal, but by the 1970s this monstrously destructive program was winding down and being replaced by a complicated set of more specialized grant programs to the cities. And then there was the construction of infrastructure in the suburbs (e.g. sewer systems) and the countryside (highways, reservoirs, pipelines, etc.). The urban programs generated the need for architectural-historical and historic architectural expertise, but there were lots of A&E firms that had that – or thought they did. The more suburban/rural projects, most of them involving digging in the ground, were another matter. The environmental impact assessment (EIA) firms that were budding off and popping up to do NEPA-based work were mostly put together by biologists, foresters, hydrologists, and land-use planners of various kinds. Confronted by, say, an SHPO’s demand for a “historic properties inventory” of a project, what kinds of expertise were these firms likely to seek? Expertise involving what’s in the ground – ergo archaeology. And since the academic job market for archaeologists had collapsed at about the same time, there were plenty of archaeologists waving their – our – hands saying “Here we are!”

Personal example: in 1974, having worn out my welcome in California, I was rescued by the late Marian White of SUNY Buffalo and given a job with the New York Archaeological Council, promoting archaeological survey, salvage, and preservation throughout the state. We soon learned that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was giving good-sized grants to local governments all over the state to build and upgrade sewage treatment facilities. The cities were going to the SHPO (Ironically, the late Fred Rath, of San Francisco Mint fame) and saying “duh, please clear our projects.” The SHPO, if there were no National Register listed properties or buildings with plaques on them in the way, was saying “OK.” So we sued both EPA and the SHPO, the first for violating Section 106 and executive order 11593 by failing to “take into account” effects on undiscovered archaeological sites that might be eligible for the National Register, and the latter for aiding and abetting EPA in its malfeasance. NYAC v. Train (Russell Train, who had pushed Executive Order 11593, was then the head of EPA) never came to trial -- all the cities settled by sponsoring archaeological surveys -- but it made a point: under the executive order, undiscovered eligible properties had to be discovered and evaluated, and since the most obvious unknown properties (to coin an oxymoron) were archaeological, you pretty much had to hire archaeologists to do surveys. All across the country the same point was being made by archaeologists and archaeological organizations, sometimes with the support or at least acquiescence of SHPOs, other times over their heads or behind their backs.

And of course, many of the agencies had been sweet-talked by the Three Executeers into putting archaeologists on their planning and NEPA staffs, and these newly minted agency archaeologists made more or less the same point: doing NEPA and Section 106 requires doing archaeological surveys.

So by about 1977 – when I fled the country for Micronesia – a sort of system was in place that had agencies, regulated industries, and their consultants doing archaeological surveys to SHPO standards and getting SHPOs to sign off on their work. This, with bows to historic buildings, structures, and districts where these were obviously at issue, had become what most people did most of the time under the rubric of “Section 106 review.”

But – getting back to the concerns of my Amazon critic – this system had nothing to do with what either the law or the regulations required. It was, and to a considerable extent still is, simply standard practice.

In my next (and, I devoutly hope, final) segment I’ll consider whether this practice is really consistent with the law and regulations – and hope that others will offer their thoughts.

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