Sunday, March 04, 2012

"Historic Properties" and "Cultural Resources" -- Take 17

I would’ve thought this issue would have been long since resolved, but just the other day I got the following from a much-respected colleague in the west:

I keep running into situations where NEPA documents are produced that deal with cultural and historic resources as synonymous with “Historic property.” I can’t find anywhere that says cultural and historic resources under NEPA are or should be confined to places that qualify for the National Register. Yet, time after time, EAs/EISs include chapters on “Cultural Resources” that only talk about identification and evaluation efforts in terms of looking for National Register eligible places. And everything that doesn’t qualify gets dropped from any further consideration.

Have I misinterpreted the scope and breadth of what NEPA should be concerned with? Shouldn’t cultural and historic resources under NEPA include not just eligible places, but practices, and other intangible qualities and values that are considered culturally important to and by folks and groups who may be affected by a project? If there’s a plant gathering location out there in a project area that’s been used for a couple years to gather materials for important medicinal or ceremonial purposes, shouldn’t that qualify as a cultural resource worthy of consideration under NEPA regardless of that place’s historicity? Is NEPA really constrained by the National Register, or has the rest of the world just chosen to overlook the distinction?

I was able to give my interlocutor copies of several publications in which I’ve written about this problem, and point him toward such things as 40 CFR 1508.27, where “historic” and “cultural” resources are laid out as two separate things to consider under NEPA, but I doubt if it will do much good. Anybody who’s so bone-stupid as to use “cultural resource” as a synonym for “historic property” is probably beyond being educated.

But just in case there’s somebody out there who does “CRM” and “EIA” and who’s both willing and able to think about the matter, here we go again – VERY briefly:

1. “Historic property” or “historic resource” is defined in the National Historic Preservation Act as a place that’s included in or eligible for the National Register.

2. “Cultural resource” is not defined in statute or in government-wide regulation, so we’re left with dictionary definitions:

a. “Cultural,” says the free online dictionary, means “of or relating to a culture or civilization.”

b. “Resource,” says the same source, means “something that can be used for support or help.

3. So a “cultural resource” is something relating to a culture or civilization that can be used for support or help, presumably by someone wishing to participate in that culture or civilization.

4. Such “resources” might include languages, modes of discourse, story telling, songs and dances. They might include ways of using plants, animals, water, and other aspects of the environment. They might include oral and written history.

5. They might, in short, include one hell of a lot more than places included in or eligible for the National Register

6. NEPA analyses are supposed to address impacts on the “quality of the human environment.” That environment obviously includes “cultural resources” as defined above.

7. If you equate “cultural resources” with “historic properties” – or even with places that might be historic properties but haven’t yet been evaluated, as some self-defined “experts” do – you’re very systematically not addressing most of the cultural resources actually affected by whatever it is whose impacts you’re analyzing. That’s not consistent with the requirements of NEPA.

8. So you’re breaking the law, and you ought to stop it. Or others ought to sue you silly.

I’m well aware that some federal agencies have put language in their own regulations and guidelines that define “cultural resource” in some more narrow way than as “resource pertaining to culture,” but I’m not persuaded that this gives the practice any legitimacy. Saying something stupid in official jargon, or in chorus, does not make it smart, or right.

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