A few days ago, I spent the afternoon on a phone/internet connection waiting to testify in a case before the California Energy Commission (CEC). The project in question, the Hidden Hills Solar Solar Electric Project – just across the state line from Pahrump, Nevada – will if approved plant solar collectors in a valley that is reported (by Paiute people and ethnographers) to lie athwart the Paiute Salt Song Trail corridor. It’s also a landscape that’s valued for other spiritual/cultural reasons by the Pahrump Paiute and others. And it’s in the viewshed of the Old Spanish Trail/Mormon Road, a prehistoric/historic travel route associated with, among other things, the enslavement of Paiute by early white settlers, and that’s the subject of a management plan being developed by the National Park Service (NPS).
Obligatory caveat here: I have no beef with solar power, and in fact support it, but I don’t think solar (or wind, or other “green”) projects ought to be put in without honestly considering their environmental impacts, including their sociocultural impacts. Or without considering alternatives that may have smaller impacts. And if in the end it’s necessary in the public interest to screw up a tribe’s (or anyone else’s) culturally valued landscapes, the government ought to be honest enough to acknowledge that this is what it’s doing, rather than determining on esoteric administrative grounds that the landscape isn’t truly important to the people, or that the impacts of the project aren’t really serious (c.f. pee-snow on the San Francisco Peaks).
I (as disembodied telephone voice) was on a “cultural resources” panel with tribal representatives and two professional experts – Tom Gates representing the CEC staff and Lynne Sebastian speaking for the applicant. I can hardly recall a discussion that’s left me more profoundly depressed than did the exchange of views between my two colleagues.
Lynne did her usual shtick – shucks, folks, it’s too bad, but however sincerely these poor benighted tribal people might believe in their cultural landscape, it just doesn’t meet the rigorous standards of the National Park Service, so it’s not a National Register-eligible traditional cultural property (TCP). She went into considerable detail, citing National Register Bulletin (NRB) 15 as the “bible” on which she relied, with occasional out-of-context quotes from NRB 38 – the Register’s guideline on TCPs, drafted back in the 1980s by Pat Parker and me.
And Tom did something I’ve heard him do before and have yet to understand – saying that in essence he didn’t want to talk about the landscape as a TCP but as an “ethnographic landscape,” per NPS Preservation Brief 36. He went into considerable detail about how this qualified the landscape as an “area” as opposed to a “place” under standards he said had been promulgated for evaluating things for the California Register of Historic Resources (CRHR).
Confused yet? I would have been if I hadn’t seen this tired ground tilled altogether too often before. I felt pretty sure that the eyes of the Commissioners receiving the testimony were rolling back in their heads, so when it came to be my turn to talk, I just said how disappointing and depressing it was to hear such a lot of meaningless nitpickery masquerading as expert testimony on cultural resource management.
I said I did not believe that Congress enacted the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in order to provide opportunities for quasi-academic specialists to engage in pedantic debates about words use in technical publications. NHPA was enacted, I think, to ensure within reason that government would respect the cultural values citizens ascribe to their surroundings. In the 1980s, seeing such values becoming subordinated to the narrow interests of archaeologists and architectural historians, Pat Parker and I proposed, and with the support of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) and ultimately NPS, wrote what became NRB 38. A few years later, another arm of the NPS cultural resource program (an organism with many arms but no brain) issued Preservation Brief 36 about the care and feeding of cultural landscapes. Unsurprisingly, nobody in NPS tried to coordinate anything about the two publications, which created a fruitful field in which to grow pickable nits and splittable hairs. So now we are back again to a situation in which specialists can expend their often well-remunerated time expounding on technical irrelevancies, while the public and its representatives nod off or grope for understanding.
So what’s the relationship between Bulletin 38 and Brief 36? They describe overlapping types of historic property. Some TCPs are cultural landscapes; some aren’t. Some cultural landscapes are TCPs; others aren’t. This shouldn’t require dissertation research to sort out.
There’s some good stuff in Brief 36 that we didn’t think to cover in Bulletin 38 – notably the acknowledgement that plants and animals, both wild and domesticated, can contribute to the significance of a place. If one is evaluating a landscape that’s likely to have traditional cultural significance, it’s wise to derive guidance from both publications.
There seems to be some perception that TCPs are smaller than cultural landscapes, but there’s nothing in either Bulletin 38 or Brief 36 that says that. Since some of the examples discussed in Bulletin 38 are pretty expansive chunks of land (e.g. mountains), one might think it obvious that a landscape can be a TCP, and vice versa. If it’s not obvious, let me clarify: there is no specified size limit for a TCP, and there is nothing to keep a landscape from having traditional cultural significance.
I told the CEC, in essence, that they ought to ignore the nitpicking and recognize the obvious fact that in the Hidden Hills landscape they had a place of great expressed cultural significant to Paiute people and others. This is what they should factor into their decision making about whether to allow the solar project to be built. Whether it’s called a place, an area, a property, a district, a landscape, a TCP or a pink rabbit is beside the point. Tribal representatives then took the floor and spoke eloquently about the area’s significance and the impacts of the proposed project. Whether any of this resonated with the Commissioners remains to be seen.