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Friday, September 04, 2009

What Is the National Historic Preservation Act About? Part VI: TCPs, Tribes, and Plain Old People

I spent 1977-79 in Micronesia as “Consultant on Archaeology and Historic Preservation to the High Commissioner” – the High Commissioner being the boss of what was then the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. I learned a great deal in Micronesia about historic preservation, which is summarized in “How Micronesia Changed the U.S. Historic Preservation Program, and the Importance of Keeping It From Changing Back” (Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences 5:1, 2006, ). What it came down to, though, was something I should have learned from my very first Section 106 case – at Tahquitz Canyon in Palm Springs, California, when the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s (ACHP’s) Bob Garvey was a lot more interested in what the Agua Caliente Tribe had to say than he was in my archaeological data. Preservation, Micronesia reminded me, is about people. We don’t seek to preserve old places and things for their own sake, but because they’re important to people – be those people Micronesian villagers, members of Indian tribes, residents of inner city neighborhoods, archaeologists, historians, or plain old taxpayers.

When I came back to the U.S. in 1979 and was hired by Garvey to oversee Section 106 review for the ACHP, I found that things in and around Section 106 had been evolving in a very different and – well, inhuman direction. Away from an interest in the concerns of people about historic places, and toward a sort of Cylon model (The original Battlestar Galactica had been my favorite TV show in Micronesia, the choices not being many). All mechanistic, automatic, and dominated by the interests, or disinterests, of professionals. Hire a properly qualified professional (archaeologist, architectural historian) and do a survey according to SHPO “standards.” Turn in report. Get approval. If you can meet the technical standards for “no adverse effect,” you’re done; if not, you negotiate a memorandum of agreement with the SHPO and THEN you’re done. If you’re a citizen who wants to save a threatened place, you’re out of luck unless you know how to sling around the jargon, play the regulatory game, or can afford to hire someone who did, or unless you have the social connections to get someone like the National Trust to help you out. OK, I’m exaggerating, but that’s the direction things were headed.

The 1980s were an interesting time to work for the ACHP, for several reasons. First, there were major amendments to NHPA in 1980, notably adding Section 110 to spell out a range of agency responsibilities beyond Section 106 (These didn’t accomplish much and were adjusted considerably through further amendments in 1992 and thereafter). Second, the Indian tribes and Native Hawaiians were beginning to get seriously, institutionally involved in using Section 106 to protect places they thought important; before the 1980s there were occasional tribal or Native Hawaiian cases, but only in the ‘80s did the tribes and organizations begin to look at the process as a whole, politically, and seek adjustments to make it work better for their kinds of places. Third, Ronald Reagan came to town.

I was from California, so Reagan was not an unknown quantity to me, and I knew that he was not necessarily going to run roughshod over cultural resources. In fact, as governor he had flat-out killed a major reservoir project (the High Dos Rios Dam) that a lot of environmentalists and a few of us archaeologists, organized by Cabrillo College’s Rob Edwards, opposed, and he did it after the tribes of the area went to Sacramento and told him how it would rip the guts out of their cultural landscape. In those days too, the Republican Party had not yet completed its self-inflicted lobotomy; there were Republicans who could be reasoned with, and who cared about the environment, history, and the welfare of regular people. It was tricky – because the administration, and especially Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt – really didn’t like regulatory schemes like Section 106 and NEPA – but it proved possible to hold onto, and even improve a bit, on the Section 106 regulations. And to do a bit more; it was during the Reagan administration that Pat Parker of NPS and I wrote National Register Bulletin 38 about "Traditional Cultural Properties" (TCPs), stressing the fact that traditional cultural significance to a community of plain old people could make a place eligible for the National Register, regardless of what professionals thought of it. That was actually an attractive notion to some Reagan Republicans, because it flew in the face of the snotty eastern professional establishment. Bulletin 38 was initially conceived as an ACHP document, and was approved by an ACHP dominated and chaired by Reagan appointees. The National Register, which had been keeping its head very low for fear of getting it chopped off, then growled from its manger that the document really, after all, was about eligibility so it ought to be a Register Bulletin. That was OK, except that we had to put in some silly nitpickery about things like boundaries to make the Register people happy. The bulletin made the essential point: that historic/cultural significance is not something that only professionals can recognize and appreciate based on their fancy educations; it’s something that everybody defines in their own ways, that’s meaningful to everyone. Which, I believe, is what the founders of NHPA were trying to say when they emphasized – in With Heritage So Rich, for instance – that historic places define the characters of our communities, and are fundamental to their, and hence our, identities.

But Bulletin 38, while it has been troubling to a good many bureaucrats, particularly at the National Register and among the SHPOs, was only a small stumbling block on the path to Cylonization. On the whole, the historic preservation system has continued to evolve toward less and less connection with ordinary people and communities, and greater and greater fixation on technical issues with which only jargon-happy professionals are conversant. Even the Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, who came on the scene after the 1992 amendments to NHPA, have been pretty well absorbed into the system, forced by NPS to hire archaeologists to represent them, and dragooned into mind-numbing games of paper-exchange with project proponents in lieu of real, consultative Section 106 review.

Let me bring my part of this discussion to a close (I hope that others will contribute their perspectives), by returning to the charges made by my Amazon critic. He or she accuses me of two plots, perpetrated in two of my books:

1. In Places that Count, he or she says, I made “a drastic push on the concept of TCPs that ends up trying to redefine the very intent of NHPA and what kinds of places are supposed to be protected.” Of course, I don’t think this is true at all. In Places that Count, and in Bulletin 38, I sought (with my co-author in the latter case) to remind the government establishment that this is, after all, supposed to be a government of, by, and for the people, and its historic preservation institutions ought to seek the “protection” (that is, in the case of Section 106, ensure the consideration) of places that are important to the people, not just to archaeologists (or historians, architects, or the Keeper of the National Register). I think this is precisely what the founders of NHPA intended. It is narrow-minded practitioners of specific disciplines both inside and outside government – like, I surmise, my critic – who have over the years redefined what should be “protected” (meaning in my critic’s case, I suspect, dug up to my critic’s financial benefit), and made it mean just the places that professionals can appreciate.

2. In Saving Places that Matter, my critic says I’ve written “a lay person's manual on ‘how to use Section 106 to derail any development you happen to disagree with.’" I’ll plead guilty to this one, because I think that’s what Section 106 was and should be designed to do. Not that the lay person will always be successful, but in a democracy a citizen should have a fair crack at derailing government projects with which he or she disagrees, subject to the rule of law.

But my plots have not thus far worked very well. As my most recent book, Our Unprotected Heritage (Left Coast, 2009) bemoans, we still have – increasingly have – a system masquerading as Section 106 and NEPA review that “protects” only the kinds of things my Amazon critic seems to think important, and enriches people like my critic in the process.

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