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Thursday, December 30, 2010


I was just asked (by a client, unfortunately) where the hell I am, since I’ve been relatively quiet in cyberspace lately. Quick answer for anyone else who may wonder: I’m buried, but will, I am intent, dig out within the next week or so. The burial is not in snow, or even paying work, but in indexing the Companion to Cultural Resource Management, which Wiley-Blackwell will publish in March (See

Although indexing involves mostly just plowing through the manuscript (a PDF) identifying and tagging items that someone might want to refer to, and organizing these into an alphabetical list, it’s not entirely without interest. For example, can you guess how many times 32 authors of 30 chapters on CRM topics use the word “standards?” Answer: 120. Now, does one index every use of the word, or only those referring to specific standards? Answer (for me): the latter. But how specific? Does a reference to UNESCO standards in general qualify, or only a reference to a specific UNESCO recommendation? What about a comment on the relevance of SHPO-generated standards? And what about standards set forth by the Companion’s authors themselves? Sheri Ellis provides some useful standards for dealing with “intangible” cultural resources, derived from the UNESCO convention on the same; should I index these? (Answer: yes). Reba Fuller provides some thoughtful guidelines for consulting with indigenous communities, based on the UN declaration of their rights; do I index these, even though she doesn’t exactly call them standards? (Answer: yep, those too). And by the way, yes, thank you, President Obama, for bringing the U.S. into the community of responsible (or at least self-congratulatory) nations by endorsing that declaration – now will you kindly direct your *&^%$# Secretary of the Interior to get on board and do something tangible about it? Like re-thinking the give-away of the western deserts to the solar industry without meaningful tribal consultation?

Anyway, that’s what I’m up to, and my deadline for getting it done – and proofing the 565-page ms – is January 10. Don't be shy about dropping me a note between now and then, but please understand that I may be long getting back to you. And clients, yes, I certainly WILL get your work done.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Environmental Conflict Resolution and Section 106: a Minor Epiphany

I’m grateful to Western Cultural Resource Management, Inc. (WCRM) for making it possible for me to take part in its training last week in Reno, NV. The training was in environmental conflict resolution (ECR); the class was taught by Joan Calcagno of the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution at the Udall Foundation, University of Arizona. I think that Tom Lennon and his colleagues are very much to be commended for trying to make WCRM into more than the usual walk-the-transect-and-dig-the-hole cultural resource management firm by getting familiar with the principles and methods of things like ECR.

As one who’s theoretically been doing ECR for decades, in the guise of project review under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, I experienced a mild sort of epiphany during the training. Joan spent a good deal of time discussing what makes a case ripe for ECR – what conditions have to be present. I found myself thinking that it must be nice to be able to think about ripeness; in the 106 game we don’t have that luxury. The only game in the town of 106 review is ECR, in the form of consultation as prescribed in the regulations. Which led me to think -- here's the epiphany -- that this uniformity, this absence of options, may be the central flaw in the regulatory process.

The regulations, it occurred to me, essentially assume that there is always some kind of conflict to be resolved, requiring a more or less standard sort of multi-party (though often only bi-party) consultation. And they give little to no direction about how to decide how much consultation is necessary. The only real guidance is that if a project will have “adverse effects,” it requires some more consultation, sort of, than does a project without such effects.

And “adverse effect” is defined in a very abstract, theoretical way – you have an adverse effect if you’re going to diminish the integrity of a historic property. It doesn’t matter if you’re just going to diminish it a little bit or a lot, and more importantly it doesn’t matter whether anybody objects to the diminution. Everybody involved can be happy as clams with what you’re going to do to the place, and you’ve still got to go through the motions of consultation and execute a memorandum of agreement. On the other hand, some people can hate what’s proposed, and that doesn’t trigger any higher level of review – unless, of course, the haters are State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) staff, based on whatever technical standards they elect to apply.

Inevitably, such a system allocates unnecessary time, effort and angst to routine, non-controversial projects, while allocating insufficient resources and attention to projects that are troublesome. And there’s nothing in the system to flag troublesome projects early on, alert people to one another’s concerns, and allow people to think about whether there’s the need for some form of ECR. And because it’s so cumbersome, and mind-numbing, to try to consult about every single project, applying the abstract criteria of adverse effect (to say nothing of the National Register criteria), agencies and SHPOs get frantic to find means of “streamlining.” They negotiate programmatic agreements (PAs) to achieve this objective, but since nobody has a model other than what’s in the regulations, the PAs that get negotiated tend to be weird permutations on the standard Section 106 process that usually exacerbate its faults and dilute its strengths.

Although I think the National Trust for Historic Preservation was right, in its recent “Back to Basics” report, to call for a halt to PA development pending the establishment of better standards, it would be interesting to experiment with a PA that discriminated among projects not on the basis of their abstract effects on historical or architectural integrity but on the basis of the degree and kind of conflict they provoke. Perhaps if we could apply some of the principles that Joan Calcagno talked about in the WCRM class, we could come up with a more rational, simpler system of project review that’s more accessible to the public, more responsive to the public’s interests, and less taxing on all concerned.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Visit to the Veterans Curation Project

I had a fascinating and, I might even say inspirational couple of hours yesterday visiting the Washington DC lab of the Veterans Curation Project. The VCP is the brainchild of the Corps of Engineers’ remarkable Sonny Trimble, and is currently funded with ARRA money, though a bill to give it permanent funding has passed the House and is – well, somewhere in the Senate.

The basic idea of the VCP is to train wounded veterans in the skills involved in artifact and archival curation – classification, catalogue-building, imaging, restoration of decaying documents, and so on – not with the necessary expectation that they’ll go into archaeology, museum studies, or historic preservation, but because the work teaches them things that are useful in a wide range of jobs, helps prepare them for higher education if that’s what they want, and (there’s some anecdotal evidence for this) may help overcome the effects of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PDSD). The group of veterans I visited were working with an old collection of both artifacts and records from Richard B. Russell Reservoir; they seemed to be engaged, focused, interested in the work, and having a relatively good time. They were articulate in discussing their work, and seemed to be handling it with great patience and aplomb. Their supervisors, Alexandra Jones and Amelia Chisholm of Brockington & Associates, which runs the program for the Corps, seemed to have things very much in hand and to be getting along fine with the troops. I was really impressed.

Working these days as a consultant to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), I hope we can find ways to build on the strengths of the VCP (which VA co-sponsors with the Corps) and relate it in a systemic way to the VA’s historic preservation program. And I hope other agencies, institutions, organizations and firms will look to the VCP as a source of highly trained, skilled, motivated and disciplined curators.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Eruvim and TCPs

David Rotenstein has done another of his fascinating blog postings on Washington DC-area eruvim – see . This one flatteringly quotes me (a dumb-as-dirt goy resident within the Silver Spring eruv) and mentions my connection with traditional cultural properties (TCPs; see for instance

Before anyone starts jumping up and down about this, I wouldn’t for a moment propose that every eruv set up by an Orthodox Jewish community is a National Register eligible TCP. Some might be, I suppose, but I don’t think the mere designation of an area as an eruv would qualify it for the Register or impose any legal constraints on the activities of federal agencies in its vicinity.

The connection I found between eruvim and TCPs is this: I’ve lived within the boundaries of the Silver Spring eruv for about 30 years, and until David started publishing his research, I had no idea that this was the case. When I saw funny little sticks and strings running up utility poles, I figured they were something the power company had put in for some obscure electrical-engineering purpose – when I thought about them at all. Yesterday I saw one and thought: “Oh, a…..” and hurried home to check David’s site and remind myself that it was a lechi.

Anyway, it is much the same with, for instance, Indian tribal or Native Hawaiian spiritual places. Most of us live in, work in, travel through, view, or ignore such places without consideration of their spiritual qualities, because they aren’t marked with crosses, stars, crescents, or other such indicators of religiosity. And we never notice when we cross their boundaries, because those boundaries are marked, if they’re marked at all, in ways that only someone knowledgeable in the ways of the culture can recognize. But this general anonymity doesn’t make the places any less significant in the eyes of those who ARE within the culture. Just as a breached eruv boundary can have real effects on the perceptions and behaviors of an Orthodox Jew on the Sabbath, so a perceived violation of a tribal spiritual place’s important characteristics can affect the sociocultural integrity of a tribe – even though the violation is entirely innocent and the violator has no idea that he or she has done anything.

I doubt if knowing that I live in an eruv will alter my behavior, but if I were responsible for managing my neighborhood I’d certainly want to consult with the Orthodox Jewish community before, say, taking out a bunch of utility poles on a Friday – not because there’s a specific law requiring that I do so, but because I’d think such consultation to be the fundamental responsibility of a public servant. And I wouldn’t assume that I could determine just what actions would have impacts on the beliefs and values of my Jewish neighbors; only they could do this. In just the same way, a federal land manager ought to be careful about doing things that may impact the values, beliefs, and practices of tribes (and others) who view themselves as tied somehow to the lands being managed – not necessarily to avoid doing things, but to consult with those affected and to mitigate the effects.