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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Federal Historic Preservation Program Task Force: a Reaction

For some months, the Usual non-federal Suspects in U.S. historic preservation – Preservation Action, the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, National Trust for Historic Preservation, American Cultural Resources Association, and others – have been deliberating earnestly as the “Federal Historic Preservation Program Task Force” (See Their task has been to examine the “external programs” in preservation managed by the National Park Service (NPS), assess their effectiveness, and come up with a “consensus plan for structural improvement,” which they will then seek to implement. The Task Force recently sent out a questionnaire to help inform its deliberations; like many others, I received a copy and amused myself for a quarter-hour or so completing it. If you haven’t gotten one yet, and want to, you can get it at

The Task Force’s effort is timely – or rather, past-timely. NPS has neglected, ignored, twisted, and distorted the “external programs” for decades, and current NPS management has shown no evidence that it has the faintest understanding even of what these programs are supposed to do. NPS – understandably enough – looks at the world outside the National Parks as something strange, vaguely threatening, and only marginally relevant, so it has made the external programs focus inward, on parks and park resources, effectively ignoring the broader responsibilities imposed by the National Historic Preservation Act and other legal authorities. This has been going on for so long that it has come to be seen – at least within NPS – as the right and proper norm. The Task Force can be congratulated for rejecting the status quo world view, for recognizing that NPS has mismanaged its responsibilities, and for attempting to effect improvements.

Sadly, though, to judge from its questionnaire, the Task Force is unlikely to accomplish much. I say this not because I think, as is widely assumed, that under current economic and political conditions nothing can be accomplished (though there’s a good deal to be said for that assumption), but because the Task Force itself seems to be little more creative or engaged with the outside world than is NPS.

After asking, in essence, whether respondents agree that NPS has done a rotten job, and understandably assuming agreement, the Task Force’s questionnaire asks us to rank several alternative pathways to program improvement. These include:

1. Pulling the external programs out of NPS and putting them into an independent agency, together with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP);
2. Pulling the external programs out and giving them to the ACHP;
3. Coagulating the external programs, with or without the ACHP, into a new agency within the Department of the Interior;
4. Doing the same thing within NPS;
5. Gussying up the leadership of the external programs and ACHP with things like Senate ratification of appointments; and
6. Doing nothing.

Having warned about NPS proclivities and promoted option 1 above back in the mid-1970s (See Anthropology in Historic Preservation;, I suppose I should be pleased to see the mainstream historic preservation community at last come around, and of the options given us by the Task Force, I certainly think option 1 is the best. Only with an entity that’s outside the ambit of a particular land manager – be it NPS or its parent Department of the Interior – would it be possible to develop a program that addresses historic preservation interests right across the federal establishment, in partnership (or not) with a full range of governmental and non-governmental interests. This was true in the 1970s, and it’s still true – perhaps more true – now.

But what the Task Force members – devoted, self-congratulatory preservationists all – can’t see is that “historic preservation” by itself doesn’t have the political firepower to establish or operate its own government agency – nor should it.

First: the vast majority of Americans do not know what historic preservation is – except that it’s something that keeps nice (or not so nice) old buildings standing and sometimes complicates land use and development. Most of our elected representatives are no better informed. You’re not going to get political support for something that elicits at best polite nods from the bulk of the population and members of Congress – unless you have a lot more money to pay the latter than historic preservation’s Usual Suspects have in their pockets.

More importantly, the deficiencies of the national historic preservation program are not wholly ascribable to NPS mismanagement, and they are not unique to historic preservation.

Some of the preservation program’s deficiencies are built into the National Historic Preservation Act itself, or at least into how the Act was interpreted and implemented in its earliest days (1968-72 or thereabouts). The Act and its early interpreters (admittedly, mostly NPS employees) focused attention on old buildings and archaeological sites, and turned program management over to professional historians, architectural historians, and archaeologists, creating a program that systematically excluded the broad array of landscapes, landforms, plants, animals, vistas, viewsheds, soundscapes and smellscapes that encode the cultural values of many ordinary citizens and communities – to say nothing of the less tangible aspects of culture like language, song, and tradition. Some of us have tried to drag the broader aspects of culture into the program through inventions like the “traditional cultural property” or the “cultural landscape,” but with very limited success; the deck was long ago stacked against us. As a result, we live with a program that seeks to preserve places valued by narrow disciplinary professionals, a program run by narrow disciplinary professionals for the benefit of narrow disciplinary professionals. And the Usual Suspects are – surprise! – themselves mainly narrow disciplinary professionals, or at least narrowly focused on old buildings and archaeology. Generating broad public support for an independent agency to service the interests of narrow disciplinary professionals is going to be a real challenge.

But preservation’s deficiencies are not unique; the same or very similar narrow-mindedness infects virtually every other aspect of government-based environmental management. Management of the natural living environment, when not driven wholly by economic interests, is done by and essentially for professional biologists, foresters, and the like; water resources are managed by hydrologists according to their own self-contained models, and professional environmental engineers are forever insisting that they and only they can speak to management of “the environment.” In the operation of programs designed and administered by practitioners of narrow professional disciplines, the interests, values, feelings of ordinary people have no place. Just as a community’s sense of place is likely to be ignored by the historic preservation system unless a pricy consultant is retained to translate it into terms that resonate with historians or architects, the feelings of ordinary citizens for plants, animals, lakes, rivers, language, dances, or traditions go unattended unless someone makes them sensible to biologists, ecologists, or hydrologists.

Here is where opportunity lies. If preservation’s Usual Suspects could make common cause with other groups interested in preserving cultural aspects of the environment, it just might be possible to build a broad enough support base to get something done.

Who are these groups? Here are a few with which I’ve interacted over the years, many of which have tried somehow to engage the national historic preservation program and gone away shaking their heads at its petty fixations:

Indian tribes and other indigenous groups that aren’t formally recognized by the federal government;

Property owners who value the traditional use of their land;

Equestrians and outdoorspeople who value wild horses and burros on the federal estate;

Urban and suburban neighborhoods and rural villages that like their own ambience but don’t happen to meet the National Register’s criteria;

Traditional fisherpeople, hunters, trappers, whalers (consider shrimpers on the Gulf coast);

Gatherers of traditional medicinal plants or plant foods;

People struggling to preserve threatened languages and art forms;

Local communities – including but not limited to low-income and minority ones – that just want some respect from the government.

The interests of some of these groups conflict with one another from time to time, or with the interests of historic preservation’s Usual Suspects, but they all share some common ground – which they also share, to some extent, with the ill-defined grumbling masses that make up movements like the Tea Party. And the ground they share – respect for the traditional and familiar – is thickly grown with the brambles of distrust toward narrow disciplinary professionals. As Frank Fischer put it in his wise but ill-timed book Citizens, Experts, and the Environment (Duke University Press 2000:30):

Although open protests have tended to occur only sporadically, polls show a steady decline in the public’s confidence in, and respect for, professions…. Rather than a group of experts dedicated to the public good, professionals are widely perceived as a group more interested in increasing their own authority, power, and wealth.

If preservation’s Usual Suspects could only turn around and look outside their circle, their zone of comfortable interaction with one another, of reliance on crutches like the National Register, they might, with luck, find the critical mass necessary to make useful changes in the way cultural resources are managed in this country. Such engagement with the larger world would require teetering away from our crutches, though – the National Register, the Secretary’s Standards, professional expertise as the necessary prerequisite to being heard. I don’t anticipate that the Usual non-governmental Suspects are any more willing to do that than NPS or the ACHP would be.

If they can’t look out beyond their self-referential, self-reverential circle, if they can’t step away from their crutches, preservation’s Usual Suspects both outside government and within have, I think, no chance of doing anything but holding on, tenuously, to a gradually (or maybe rapidly) deteriorating status quo. I don’t think they have the guts or brains to get outside their comfort zone, so I expect that the Task Force – well-justified as its findings may be – will be just another exercise in preservation’s long history of hand-wringing and viewing with alarm.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

NRC Nukes Environmental Review of Licensee Actions

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), as its name implies, regulates a range of activities carried out by private corporations making up the nuclear energy industry – including uranium mining and processing and the operation of nuclear power plants. For some decades, NRC has performed National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review on a wide range of licensee and applicant actions defined broadly as “construction.” In 2007, NRC decided that it didn’t really have the authority to regulate some such actions, and therefore couldn’t review their impacts under NEPA. So in order to stop doing such reviews, NRC redefined the word “construction” to exclude certain licensee and applicant activities. However, it didn’t at that time exclude the full range of activities that the nuclear energy wanted to escape review, so NRC staff went to work, with the industry, drafting further regulatory revisions extending the narrowed definition of “construction” to a wider range of actions. The new revisions were published in the Federal Register on July 27 (75 FR 43865-76); the deadline for comments is late tomorrow, November 29. I learned about the rulemaking awhile ago, but frankly dilly-dallied about reviewing it and drafting comments until this weekend. It struck me, upon reading the Federal Register notice, that while there might be a theoretical legal argument for NRC’s position in the matter, there were also good arguments against it that probably got ignored by the Bush-era NRC and Council on Environmental Quality back in 2007. In any event, it seems obvious that the regulatory change has (and had back in 2007) the potential for substantial impacts on the quality of the human environment in general and on historic properties and Indian tribal concerns in particular.

Following are my comments, just filed with NRC. If you’re interested in reviewing the rulemaking and commenting, you can access the documents and file comments via Be aware that the deadline for comments is Monday, November 29.

I write to comment on NRC’s proposal to revise 10 CFR Parts 30, 36, 39, 40, 51, 70, and 150, governing licenses, certifications, and approvals for material licensees, published in the Federal Register on July 27, 2010 (75 FR 43865-76).

1. Let me begin by saying that your system for (ostensibly) eliciting public comment on this rule change is so complex, counterintuitive, and generally obfuscatory that it renders public comment almost infeasible. Doubtless this was its intent, but if you want even to pretend an interest in what the public has to say, you might try providing a direct link to the rule on which you’re soliciting comments, rather than forcing the reader to search through multiple documents on general-purpose web pages.

2. Your proposed rule change, and the 2007 NRC findings upon which it is grounded, are based on a false premise – that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is “purely procedural.” This is manifestly not true. NEPA is the National Environmental Policy Act, and although it has become the fashion throughout government in recent years to treat only the law’s procedural requirements without reference to its policy, the fact remains that Section 101 articulates general U.S. government policy regarding protection of the environment. Notably, Section 101(a) says it is the policy of the U.S. government, of which at last report NRC was a part, to use all practicable means to, among other things, create and maintain harmony between people and nature. Section 101(b) goes on to say that the government will use all practicable means to “improve and coordinate” federal plans and programs to achieve six broad environmental goals. Section 102 of NEPA directs that “to the fullest extent possible, …the policies, regulations, and public laws of the United States shall be interpreted and administered in accordance with the policies…” set forth in Section 101 (emphasis added)

It follows from this rather explicit legislative language that where an agency has the authority and ability to influence how the environment is managed and how the impacts of land use are controlled, it must use all the means practicably at its disposal, to the fullest extent possible, to ensure that management is sensitive to environmental concerns and that impacts are effectively considered and controlled.

Prior to 2007, albeit in a rather lackluster manner, NRC made efforts to be consistent with this congressional direction by regulating the entirety of an applicant's environmentally damaging work, and subjecting this work to review under NEPA Section 101(C). In 2007, as part of a national administration intent on undoing environmental controls regardless of legislative mandates and impacts on the public interest, NRC decided it ought not do that anymore with respect to some classes of applicant actions. Now you propose to extend this decision to ignore NEPA policy to the full range of applicant actions. Please explain how you justify this proposal with reference to the policy articulated in NEPA Section 101. Is it no longer practicable to regulate the entirety of an applicant’s environmentally damaging activities? No longer possible? If so, why?

3. This proposed rule change clearly has the potential for significant effects on the quality of the human environment. How have you analyzed this potential in accordance with the regulations of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ; 40 CFR 1500-1508)? Where can one find your assessment and findings? If you have not conducted such an analysis, what is your rationale for ignoring the seeming requirement for such an analysis found in the CEQ regulations?

4. Have you consulted with CEQ regarding this rule change, as required by 40 CFR 1507.3? What has CEQ had to say about it? Perhaps the 2007 CEQ said nothing about the 2007 NRC finding, but such silence, understood in the political context of the time, should not be taken as an indication of what the current CEQ would say.

5. Policies similar to NEPA’s are set forth in the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) with reference to impacts on historic properties. Please explain how you have addressed these policies in proposing this rule change.

6. This rule change clearly has the potential to cause adverse effects to historic properties, by removing federal oversight from a wide range of potentially destructive applicant activities. Section 106 of NHPA requires that federal agencies consider the effects of their actions on historic properties, and afford the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) a reasonable opportunity to comment on such actions. Please explain how you have done this, with reference to the ACHP’s regulations (36 CFR 800).

7. This rule change has the potential to have profound impacts on the interests of federally recognized Indian tribes in their cultural and natural heritage, including but not limited to ancestral burial places, living sites, and spiritual places as well as culturally important plants, animals, minerals, water, air, and landforms. Federal agencies are required by a range of laws, regulations, executive orders and case law grounded in treaties and in the U.S. constitution to consult with tribes on a government-to-government basis about agency actions potentially affecting tribal interests. Have you done this? Can you refer me to the record of such consultation?

Thank you for the opportunity to comment, and (prospectively) for answering my questions.

/s/ Thomas F. King

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cutting the Budget: One Small Suggestion

So, for better or worse, or indifferent, we have a Republican-dominated House of Representatives, and a lot of calls for reduction in the size and cost of the federal government. Without expecting that it will be attended to any more than it was before, I'm moved to re-post a piece I published here on January 21, 2009. I still think it would be a good idea.


Cutting a Bit of Fat from the Federal Budget: Do Away With the National Register of Historic Places

Maintaining the National Register of Historic Places – self-described as the nation’s official list of significant historic sites, districts, buildings, structures, and objects – is one of the minor non-park-related duties of the National Park Service. It doesn’t cost a great deal of money in terms of direct costs – just the salaries of some Park Service employees and associated administrative expenses – but that money could certainly be more fruitfully used for other things, and eliminating the Register would also result in significant indirect savings by simplifying and streamlining federal environmental impact review.

The Register serves three functions, none of them critical to government operations or the welfare of the American people:

1. Owners of income-producing properties included in the Register get federal income tax credits for rehabilitating such properties in such a way as to extend their lives and maintain their significant architectural qualities. If there were not a register of some kind it would be impossible to determine which properties should and should not receive such benefits. But “a register” does not have to be a central national register, maintained at considerable expense by the federal government. State and local lists would do just as well. Most states and many local governments already maintain their own lists of places they want to preserve; why not support them rather than maintaining a redundant national list?
2. The information in the Register can be and is used for educational and touristic purposes, but again, state and local lists, as well as Indian tribal and Native Hawaiian lists, could serve these purposes just as well as or better than the National Register. So could databases maintained by federal land managing agencies.
3. Federal agencies are required by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act to consider the effects of actions they plan – things they want to undertake or that others want to undertake with their assistance or permission – on places included in or eligible for the National Register. In my experience – and I’ve been working with Section 106 for over 40 years, inside and outside the federal government – tremendous amounts of time and money are wasted on argumentation over whether endangered places are eligible for inclusion in the Register. Not only is the time of highly paid specialists wasted in such arguments, but often important and expensive projects have to be delayed while they are conducted. The arguments almost never focus on serious questions about the cultural, historical, or architectural significance of such places; they almost always involve differing interpretations or understandings of the technical criteria for eligibility issued by the National Park Service. I believe we would have a much stronger, more efficient, more sensible procedure for managing federal impacts on historic places if we focused Section 106 review on whatever people concerned about a given proposed project thought was historically, culturally, or architecturally significant in the affected environment – always with the understanding that, as today, if agreement couldn’t be reached about how to deal with a project’s impacts, the responsible agency could get the recommendations of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (or some equivalent body) and make its final decision about whether to go forward with the impacts or not. With such a system, of course, we would not need a National Register, and we would save the federal, state, local, and private money that goes into arguing over eligibilty for it.

We actually do not “need” a National Register today – it’s simply something that the National Historic Preservation Act created back in 1966 and we’ve gotten used to and stuck with. The Register today serves only as a distraction from the real work of preserving the heritage of the nation, its regions, states, tribes, and groups. It imposes upon us the obnoxious perception that the Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service, has to verify what is historically, culturally, and architecturally significant. Why is the Secretary qualified to do this, particularly with regard to what, say, the people of Gallup, New Mexico or Nyack, New York may think is part of their heritage? And why should the Secretary spend even a small chunk of his budget making decisions about such things? Why not let the people decide -- and save a bit of money, simplify government, and improve management of the environment in the process?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Screen Test: A Bit of Archaeology

Writing a short paper at Mike Moratto's request on my archaeological mentor, the late and considerably lamented A.E. Treganza, I was reminded of the difficulty Trig had making the transition to the routine use of screens (sieves, as they’re called in some other venues); he, like others of his generation (the first generation of California archaeologists) had always been a shovel-and-trowel man.

It occurred to me that the issue – why Trig didn’t much like screens – might have had to do with his artistic, organic approach to archaeology; he really made himself at one with the site, and screening can’t help but remove the archaeologist from the site – either by putting him or her up on the backdirt pile shaking, or by leaving him or her down in the pit (oops – unit – that was another transition Trig had trouble with) relying on the screener to find the goods. The practice fragments, segments, partitions the excavation experience.

Like everyone else doing archaeology in the U.S., over the last 50 years I’ve gotten used to routine screening, but recently on Nikumaroro in Kiribati, pursuing Amelia Earhart, I had to pretty much eschew screens, and the results were interesting. We were stripping a large area of the site, going down only 10 cm. (because that’s about as deep as we ever find anything there), and doing it all by trowel. We had seven 2-meter wide lanes, with two excavators in each; they simply crawled, sprawled, along troweling and closely examining what appeared in front of them.

Interesting result: LOTS more tiny things found than we’d ever found in previous seasons screening. I think it was because the people were right down there with their faces in the excavation, with everything right in front of them, and they knew that THEY were the ones who had to find whatever there was to find, in situ. And because, given the particular character of the site – contained in the coral-rubble surge ridge on the windward side of an atoll – out-of-place objects were more evident in situ against the broken coral than they would have been if relocated into a screen full of the same rubble.

The Seven Site on Nikumaroro is a lot different from almost any site in the U.S., and I’m not advocating a wholesale abandonment of screens – just noting that there are times and places where, perhaps, they get in the way.

Unrelated screen/sieve note: I’ve sometimes wondered why British and Commonwealth archaeologists seem always to use dorky little circular sieves instead of the nice, efficient, rectangular rockers we prefer in the U.S.. Walking through the Spice Market in downtown Istanbul earlier this month, I came upon the answer – great heaping piles of the things, in every gauge, readily available for sale. Doubtless an implement of ancient and honorable parentage in the Middle East, picked up by the likes of Petrie and Wooley and a part of the standard tool kit ever since.