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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Who Gives a Rat’s Patootie?

Once again, I find myself being asked about how to resolve a Section 106 question in which both the responsible agency and the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) seem to be agonizing over obscure abstractions without asking the obvious, first-order, real-world question of whether anybody thinks the issue is a matter of concern.

The case involves rather minor new construction on a federal facility, marginal to a complex of buildings long ago determined eligible for the National Register, and adjacent to a seemingly rather ordinary building that may (or may not) be just barely old enough to be part of the complex’s defined “period of significance.” There is great angst over whether the proposed site (a parking lot) is or is not within the “district” and whether the building “contributes to the district’s significance.”

What nobody has asked, and nobody seems to have the mother wit TO ask, is “who cares?” Despite the fact that the Section 106 regulations clearly establish that one of the very first things an agency is supposed to do in initiating review is to “identify other (than the SHPO) consulting parties” (36 CFR 800.3(f)), defined as people with “legal or economic relation to the undertaking or affected properties, or … concern with the undertaking's effects on historic properties” (36 CFR 800.2(c)(5)). Neither agency nor SHPO, it appears, has even given thought to the question of whether anybody cares if the construction occurs on the proposed site, or about the historical/architectural character of the location. When I ask about this, the response I get is “we don’t think anyone gives a damn,” and that, I would guess, is almost certainly true, but absent some effort to DETERMINE whether anyone gives a damn, the agency has, at best, a flawed administrative record. What we PROBABLY have here is a fairly easy “no adverse effect” situation, but if the agency makes that determination, without SOME effort to identify and talk with people who may be concerned, then in the perhaps unlikely event there IS someone out there who’s concerned, the agency can get caught with its pants loosely draped around its quivering ankles.

I don’t blame the agency in this case; it’s trying to juggle lots of variables that need to be addressed in planning a needed facility, and it’s just doing what it’s been long instructed to do (albeit misguidedly) to comply with 106: “go to the SHPO and ask if it’s OK.” But I DO blame the SHPO, and the National Park Service that’s supposed to be overseeing how SHPOs do their business. By not giving the agencies straight advice about what they really need to do to comply with Section 106, the SHPOs encourage agencies to blunder on and waste everyone's time building molehill issues into mountainous unnecessary complexities. 

NPS needs to acquaint itself with the Section 106 regulations, which it’s shown no evidence of having read since approximately 1988, and then it needs to remind the SHPOs (who shouldn’t need it, but apparently do) that the bottom line in Section 106 review is determining the public interest, and that you can’t do that without talking to people. Which is why – yes, there IS a reason! – the regulations call for identifying consulting parties at the very beginning of the review process.

Sheesh, people, why is this so hard?


Anonymous said...

>>>Sheesh, people, why is this so

I'm much surprised to read this level of common sense coming from a well versed archaeologist. The answer to your above question is obvious.

This is ‘hard’ by design. Selfishness, over-zealousness, and hyper-scrutinization on the part of the federal archaeological bureaucracy in the United States are the root cause, all in the name of jobs.

In the last 3 decades, governmental archaeology has gone over the deep end - it's about process and bureaucracy in the interest of 'self preservation' (jobs), not historic preservation.

Anonymous said...

Purchased your book and read it in the last week.

How come the hard edge view you hold here in the blogs isn't present in the book?

Time and again, the blogs here focus on the foxes guarding the henhouse.

But the book, although using this quote early on, then proceeds to do nothing but defend federal archaeological resource management in the US as misunderstood, mischaracterized, or misapplied.

While some of the above may be true, I think there is more than ample room for other reasons (hyper-application to the Nth power purely in the name of being part of the collective mentality).

NPS and the State SHPO's may be the ring leaders, but the vast majority of federal archaeologists from field techs to high level executive managers are more than happy to tag right along with the process predicament. Archaeological methedology has become the religious beliefs that noone questions.

Again, you elude to this once in the book - (page 22)
"Today we're living with the results, and sadly, most of us - practitioners of the heritage laws, that is - are satisfied with them."

I'm disappointed by the book - enjoy the blogs.


Tom King said...

Sorry you're disappointed, Dino, but which book are you looking at? My thinking, such as it is, has evolved over the 14 years or so I've been cranking out books; I started out thinking that the system was tolerable and a more or less reasonable way to do business, but as time has passed I think (a) the system has gotten steadily stupider; (b) the people running it have gotten steadily less responsible and creative, and (c) I've gotten older, less patient, and more frustrated. My latest book for Left Coast -- "Our Unprotected Heritage" (2009) expresses that frustration; the earlier books don't, or don't so much.
But if "Unprotected" is what you read, I guess I can only say that the blog medium is a bit more accommodating than that of the textbook.
I think your statement is precisely on target -- except it ain't just archaeology. Other aspects of CRM and EIA have the same characteristics.

Anonymous said...

Tom -

It was "Unprotected".
Don't get me wrong, I think it is full of good ideas and a common sense approach toward a great many things in government. I just happen to be picking on one particular group of -Ologists because my namesake resource so often gets lumped with archaeology. I’m much happier with the book after a second read – actually reading what was there rather than what I was looking for.

As you’re obviously aware after a few posts from me , I perceive a lot of - let me put it kindly - grossly inflated importance put on heritage resources just because they have something to do with Homo sapiens (or earlier monkeys, which is where truly fascinating archaeology exists).

Grossly inflated importance has something to do with an innate homocentric view of the world – but it absolutely has everything to do with power, and control, and jobs, and money. Young archaeologists don’t start out this way. Bright young folks are genuinely enthused about the natural world, and all of the wonderful big questions of life. But after a decade or more in the system, and if they wish to become employed, archaeologists invariably become ‘brain-washed’ to the system in place, and willingly so if it means a job. I can’t say I blame them, and can’t say that if I had crossed over to the dark side of the force I wouldn’t be in the same position.

Thanks for posting my comments,