Tuesday, February 15, 2011

106: The Loneliest Number

In reviewing agency (and other) proposals for the treatment of historic properties in response to the requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), I’m astonished (or would be if I hadn’t become jaded by it all) at the agencies’ inability – shared, it seems, with State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs), the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), historic preservation consultants, and even litigants seeking to protect historic places – to count beyond 106.

Agencies seem quite routinely to decide that they will demolish, relocate, or otherwise muck about with historic properties (whether known to be historic or not) without considering the following rather explicit provisions of law:

Prior to acquiring, constructing, or leasing buildings for purposes of carrying out agency responsibilities, each Federal agency shall use, to the maximum extent feasible, historic properties available to the agency… (NHPA Section 110(a)(1) [16 U.S.C. 470h-2(a)]

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, any Federal agency …..shall, to the extent practicable, establish and implement alternatives for historic properties, including adaptive use, that are not needed for current or projected agency purposes… (NHPA Section 111, [16 U.S.C. 470h-3(a)]

In simple language, with these two sections of law Congress directed federal agencies to (1) use historic buildings to house agency operations before deciding to go build new ones, and (2) figure out creative things to do with historic properties of all kinds under their control when they become surplus to their needs. But agencies quite routinely don’t do either thing, and nobody seems to do anything about it. Yes, the National Trust for Historic Preservation occasionally brings the matter up, and I suppose the ACHP talks about it in its general advice columns, but does it come up in the course of Section 106 review? Do SHPOs or the ACHP ever ask agencies about Sections 110 and 111 when the agencies come screaming in with proposals to knock down old buildings so they can build new ones? Does anybody bring it up during NEPA scoping? Not that I’ve seen. The attitude seems to be: “well, we can’t really expect the agencies to do that kind of proactive stuff.”

Maybe we can’t, but Congress did, and pretty directly told them to do it, and it strikes me that it wouldn’t hurt, from time to time, to throw that fact up in the faces of agencies that expect their consultants, SHPOs, the ACHP, and the concerned public to twist themselves into pretzels to help them fast-track their projects through the Section 106 process. I wonder what terrible things would happen if agencies were regularly reminded that NHPA continues on beyond Section 106.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Beefing up Protection for Graves

Tribes and others interested in enhanced protection for ancestral graves might want to take a look at the bill currently being considered in the Guam legislature; it's on the web at http://www.guamlegislature.com/Bills_Introduced_31st/Bill%20No.%20B001-31%20%28LS%29.pdf.  I've only skimmed it, but it certainly looks like a serious effort to put some teeth into burial protection.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

It’s Not Easy Being a Statistic

A few days ago, the historic preservation lists flashed an urgent appeal. We were warned that the U.S. Congress might be about to make drastic cuts in the Historic Preservation Fund (which supports the State and Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (SHPOs, THPOs), zero out the “Save America’s Treasures” and perhaps the “Preserve America” special grant funds, and make deep cuts in funding for Heritage Areas. We were all urged to contact our Senators and Congresspeople insisting that they resist any such cuts.

Naturally, I immediately sent the following message to both my Senators (Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin) and my Congressperson, Donna Edwards:

As a long-time professional in historic preservation and environmental impact assessment, I am being urged to contact you opposing the proposed cuts in funding for such Department of the Interior programs as "Save America's Treasures" and "Preserve America," as well as funding for State Historic Preservation Officers. I want you to know that I SUPPORT these proposed cuts, and more. The Historic Preservation Fund program administered by the National Park Service has become bloated, swollen, and divorced from any apparent purpose. It badly needs through re-thinking and re-design, which MIGHT result from a deliberate kick in its fiscal pants. I urge you to support such a kick.

The ensuing silence has been deafening from Senator Cardin and Representative Edwards, but I very promptly received the following robo-response from Senator Mikulski:

I share your support for preserving our national heritage. Historic preservation projects such as the Save America's Treasures, Preserve America, and National Heritage Areas programs help ensure that our historic landmarks and buildings will be there for future generations. These valuable resources give people the opportunity to appreciate our national heritage and learn about America's history. Once gone, these resources will be lost forever.

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I have worked aggressively for programs that benefit Maryland and our country and will continue to do so. Knowing of your support for historic preservation will be helpful to me as the appropriations process moves forward. You can be sure that I will give your request for full funding for these worthy programs every consideration.

I drafted the following rejoinder before I realized that the Senator’s system provided no way for me to send it:

Senator Mikulski -- Your staffer who prepared the response to my post must not have read what I sent. AS a dedicated preservationist, I support CUTTING the wasteful fat out of the federal preservation program; I do NOT follow the mindless party line of supporting every federal program in historic preservation. Based on 45 years experience inside and outside the federal historic preservation establishment, I am appalled at the waste of money allocated particularly to NPS historic preservation programs and such feel-good grant programs as "Save America's Treasures." There is a real need to rethink the national historic preservation program, and I can only hope that a significant reduction in happy money would force the preservation powers that be to undertake it.

We can, of course, argue about the substantive utility or inutility of cutting NPS historic preservation funding, but it’s not my intent here to promote that argument. My purpose instead is to express the sadness and frustration I feel upon learning that even a legislator as experienced and thoughtful as Senator Mikulski automatically assumes that anyone identifying himself as a preservation specialist, or writing about preservation, must want to support throwing federal money at NPS, the SHPOs, and the various grant programs.

Is it, to members of Congress, unimaginable that someone involved in preservation might also engage in independent thought?