Follow by Email

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Roll On, International Rivers!

I’m really glad to see the latest issue of World Rivers Review devoted largely to what’s wrong with Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).  See:

http://www.internationalrivers.org/world-rivers-review/world-rivers-review-%E2%80%93-march-2013-focus-on-environmental-impact-assessments,

http://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/wrr-commentary-from-the-technical-to-the-fundamental-7881

http://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/why-environmental-impact-assessments-fail-to-protect-rivers-7885, and

http://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/talking-to-the-experts-can-we-improve-the-esia-process-7886

A lot of what the Review – the newsletter of the international NGO International Rivers – discusses in an international and mostly dam/reservoir context is much like what I’ve railed about domestically but with reference to all kinds of projects for the last several years, particularly in Unprotected Heritage (Left Coast Press 2009):


• Highly technical analyses that dodge the big issues;

• Impermeability to the public;

• Failure to consider broad community/cultural concerns (in the US, substituting a narrow focus on compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act);

• EIA performed by servants of development interests, who can be fired if they don’t whitewash a project’s impacts;

• And more.

I hope International Rivers keeps up the campaign, and that more groups joint suit.

Friends in the upper echelons of the mainstream EIA community express fear of acknowledging the problems with EIA, thinking that if we do we may “lose it all.” I don’t buy it. We’ll lose it all if we let the system continue to erode. 

Smart reforms – that create an honest EIA regime that’s simpler and more accountable than the present one – ARE possible if we put our minds to it, and might even find broad political support if carefully designed.



Monday, March 18, 2013

Bulletin 38 vs. Brief 36

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.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Gang Green


People concerned about the impacts of wind and solar energy projects on the environment have, I understand, coined a term for the cabal of developers, Big Enviro organizations, and Obama administration lackeys pushing industrial solar and wind energy development on our public lands, offshore, and elsewhere:

“Gang Green.”

I realize that the term also refers to a 1980s hard rock group and to fans of the New York Jets, but it seems especially appropriate when applied to the self-interested sunny-windy enterprises busy industrializing some of the nation’s most pristine environments. Especially, perhaps, to the president and his erstwhile Secretary of the Interior, who mouth platitudes about respect for Indian tribes and then pretend that they’ve addressed tribal concerns through sham "consultation" and by “avoiding” archaeological sites. Not a bad name, either, for the environmental impact assessment and cultural resource management companies that enrich themselves by abetting this enterprise, or for the major environmental organizations that buy into the game with never a peep of protest, suppressing the objections of their own members.

Gangrene, Wikipedia tells us, is “a serious and potentially life-threatening condition that arises when a considerable mass of body tissue dies.” Not a bad metaphor for what’s being perpetrated on the California desert and other places thought ripe for wind and solar development.

Maybe it’s necessary; maybe it’s the only way to get out from under our dependence on fossil fuels. The trouble is, we don’t know that. We haven’t tried, or even seriously considered, such seemingly simpler, less destructive, less expensive alternatives as:

• Subsidized (or not) large-scale deployment of high capacity solar arrays on the flat roofs of warehouses, industrial facilities, and parking structures;

• Placement of such arrays over canals, as is being done in India, thus gaining extra bangs for the buck by cutting down on evaporation;

• Shading parking lots with solar arrays, again multiplying advantages by gaining relief for people parking there from the sun and weather;

• Construction of wind and solar facilities in highway medians;

There are probably lots of other possibilities. But despite the seeming requirements of law and regulations, agencies like the Bureau of Land Management stonily refuse to consider such alternatives when they pretend to analyze the impacts of wind and solar projects on public lands.  As far as I know they’re not being considered elsewhere, either – except perhaps in other countries that still have functional, semi-honest, and intellectually viable environmental impact assessment systems. Ours has become a joke, perpetuated as usual on us.