Friday, March 11, 2011

SHPOs: Wimping Out Doesn’t Help

I imagine it’s expectable, in these stressful times, but it seems to me that every time I’ve turned around lately, I’ve found another State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPOs) wimping out and letting an agency run roughshod over the Section 106 process and the (presumed) historic and cultural interests of his or her state’s citizenry. Recurrent issues include (but certainly aren’t limited to):

  • Consulting firms contacting SHPOs and making/seeking (on the assumption that the SHPO awards such things) determinations of “no historic properties affected” or “no adverse effect,” sometimes based on the promised implementation of conditions, with no evidence that the responsible federal agency even knows what’s being determined and promised. This truly reduces the 106 process to a paperwork exercise, since there’s no reason to think that the consulting firm’s statements mean anything once the firm has collected its money and gone.
  • Agencies (or consulting firms) initiating 106 review by filing determinations of eligibility or effect (or petitioning the SHPO to award them with such determinations) without any prior consultation at all – thus eliminating the guts of the process.
  • Determinations of effect that address only historic buildings when the project under “review” clearly has the potential for effect on archaeological sites, landscapes, and other kinds of properties that don’t happen to have four walls and a roof, with no evidence that anybody has considered these other kinds of properties.
  • “Consultation” only with the SHPO, with no effort whatever to identify and engage other consulting parties.
  • Unrationalized areas of potential effect (APE) – sometimes nonsensically big, sometimes absurdly small – that have nothing to do with the actual likely effects of the project.
  • Evaluations of individual buildings that are in fact parts of complexes, without any attention to the overall context of which the building is a part. I’ve lately seen one whole federal installation that’s literally been picked to pieces, with each piece – judged solely on its own out-of-context merits – judged insignificant, even though the whole installation was almost certainly eligible for the Register.

SHPOs, I realize that you’re under pressure; your staffs are being eviscerated, you get no help from NPS or the Advisory Council, your governor and legislature are on your backs, but for heaven’s sake, if you're going to accept any old piece of paper that anybody throws at you as evidence of compliance with Section 106, you're rendering the whole business -- and a large part of your existence -- meaningless.  And you're not helping anyone.  You’re not helping the agencies, or the taxpayers who pay for them, by nodding and winking at their violations of law and regulation; you’re undercutting the efforts of anyone in an agency who’s trying to promote effective compliance, and you’re setting the agencies up for successful litigation. You’re certainly not helping your states’ historic resources, or the citizens who care about them. Going along with BS “compliance” doesn’t help resolve the problems you’re facing; if anything it makes them worse. You’re helping make the Section 106 process worthless, and in the long (or maybe short) run that won’t help you or anybody else. If you can’t or won’t do your jobs, why don’t you just stop pretending to?


Anonymous said...

Although it might be a minority, I think that it is important to also keep in mind that some SHPOs operate on the opposite end of the spectrum and overextend their regulatory authority to such a degree that they end up costing taxpayers, agencies, and resources dearly. It is a very interesting dynamic. I think it is unfortunate (and perhaps a great flaw of the Section 106 process) that individual personalities in key positions seem to drive the process so greatly and provide great inconsistency in the application of this federal legislation throughout the states and territories.

Thomas F King said...

Very true, but I think it's part and parcel of the same phenomenon. Many SHPOs (a) have a pretty thin understanding of their jobs under 106 and (b) hire staff who know even less, and they establish comfort zones in which everything is OK as long as they're getting what they decide is the "right" paperwork from somebody and filing it in the right place. Often what's "right" in their eyes is based on personal preference or very narrow, uninformed professional biases.

Anonymous said...

While some SHPO's may assume "authority" outside the role defined in 36 CFR 800, it seems most such circumstances arise from federal agencies ignoring their own responsibilities and relegating the consideration of historic properties to a "make SHPO happy" paperchase. SHPO's are in a damned if you do, damned if you don't position when confronted with absentee FPOs and federal agency staff that have no interest in managing their own process. The Council's reticence to actually advise* anyone is just the last kink in the line that points the whole train off track.

*advice on how to implement PA's that further reduce the Council's vestigial participation seems to be available 24/7.