Saturday, February 20, 2021


Back in 1965-66, Robert R. (Bob) Garvey Jr. (1921-96) was one of the authors of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). At the time he was the Executive Secretary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Upon enactment of the NHPA, he became Executive Director of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), created by the NHPA, which at the time was lodged in the National Park Service (NPS). A couple of remembered vignettes about Bob – one long, the other short – seem to me to perhaps be relevant to the current discussions around replacing the ACHP’s Chair and Executive Director.

Hearing What the Indians Have to Say

The first vignette dates to about 1971; at that time, I was an anthropology graduate student at the University of California, Riverside, overseeing the University’s newly formed archaeological research unit and working with an Indian tribe, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians to document and protect landscapes that were important to the tribe. One of these was Tahquitz Canyon, which figures in Cahuilla origin traditions and is accordingly a very sacred place. The Corps of Engineers at the time proposed to dam up Tahquitz Canyon to protect high-value residential property in Palm Springs from a hypothetical 300 year flood event. Agua Caliente strenuously opposed the project and wondered if we could use Section 106 of the NHPA to force the Corps to consider the canyon’s cultural significance.

In those early, benighted days, Section 106 required agencies to consider the effects of their actions only on places that had been included in the National Register of Historic Places, so my colleagues and I got to work with the Tribe’s traditional historian and its elders to prepare a nomination. This was my introduction to the kind of place that 20 years later Pat Parker and I, in National Register Bulletin 38, would call a traditional cultural property (TCP). Our nomination was successful, so the Corps had to consider the Canyon’s cultural significance, which otherwise they would’ve ignored.

There were not then any regulations for implementing Section 106, and the ACHP staff consisted of Bob Garvey and some three other NPS employees – Glennie Murray, Lou Wall, and Ben Levy. So the Corps flew Garvey and Murray out to Palm Springs to walk them around in the desert heat showing them that the Canyon contained no great architecture, indeed nothing, in the Corps’ eyes, that might be culturally important. The Tribe was not consulted, but the Corps put on a public hearing at which Agua Caliente was invited to testify. The Tribe asked me to help coordinate the testimony. My colleague George Jefferson and I got up and gave what we thought was a pretty impressive showing of the canyon’s archaeological significance, which George, Steve Hammond, and Tribal Council members had documented in minute detail during surveys over the preceding baking-hot months.

I sat down feeling reasonably good about what I had said, and about all George’s spectacular graphics, and then Garvey – here’s the vignette – rumbled from the back of the room: “that’s all very interesting Mr. King, but I’d like to hear what the Indians have to say.”

This was a surprise to all of us; we had understood this 106 review stuff to be all a matter for discussion among white-eye professionals. But Agua Caliente’s historian and Vice Chairman were eloquent speakers, so they quickly took their feet and explained in detail the role the canyon played in traditional history.

The ACHP comments drafted by Murray and signed off by Garvey were very negative about the Corps’ project, and to everyone’s surprise, the Corps walked away from it. There were questions about why this actually happened, and there were many more acts to the Tahquitz Canyon saga, eventually leading to a much scaled-down flood control facility, a major archaeological research project carried out by Agua Caliente, and transfer of the canyon’s ownership to the Tribe, which now maintains a handsome visitor center and self guiding trail.

What I want to emphasize in that vignette is Bob Garvey’s polite dismissal of my fancy-pants professional explanation of why the canyon was significant, and his insistence on hearing from the people themselves. This was absolutely fundamental to Bob’s character, and it was a very important part of my education. Bob had this strange notion that what ordinary citizens had to say about historic places was important, and should be respectfully attended to.

Putting Ourselves Out Of Work

The second vignette – really a suite of vignettes but I can deal with them much more directly – dates to the 1980s, by which time the ACHP was an independent agency with a staff of 40 or so people. I was its guy overseeing Section 106 review, with Garvey as my boss. What I remember him saying, repeatedly and with emphasis, was that our job at the ACHP was to work ourselves out of our jobs. We should work to make the thoughtful, consultative consideration and resolution of impacts on historic places so fundamental to the workings of every agency that there would be no need for anything like the ACHP to remind them of their duty. Not, perhaps, a very realistic expectation, but a noble one.

So What?

How do these vignettes relate to the ACHP’s current situation? In a couple of ways I think.

First, I think that both the Chairman and Executive Director should be guided by Garvey’s sort of populism – not populism in the fascistic Trumpy sense, but populism in the sense of paying close attention to the voices of those most affected by federal undertakings, notably local residents and members of low income and minority groups – including but not limited to Indian tribes. Experts and government officials have important roles to play, and are citizens themselves and hence people whose concerns agencies should address, but they’re not the only important participants. Candidates for the Chairmanship and Executive Directorship should be closely questioned about how they would make sure the voice of the people is heard and attended to by the Federal establishment.

Second, I think the ACHP leadership should undertake, as an urgent matter, a thorough review of the Section 106 regulatory system. In the years since Bob Garvey’s retirement and untimely death, Section 106 review has become steadily more distant from the public, more and more a matter of deals cut between agencies and State Historic Preservation Officers. Programmatic Agreements and other alternative ways of doing 106 review routinely cut out the affected public and substitute complex, agency-run decision making systems for the simple consultation-to-agreement approach that is at the core of the 106 regulations. Bob Garvey’s populism, tempered by the clever deviousness of his General Counsel Ken Tapman, created regulations that called for something pretty straightforward: figure out what your project may affect; figure out how it will be affected; figure out what to do about it – all in open consultation with those affected. It would be wise to try to get back to such a system. Those regulations – initially issued with very thin statutory authority – were far ahead of their time in being centered on consultation among affected parties, aimed at reaching agreement; I don’t know of another environmental regulation that’s so populist, and that’s too bad.

There are understandable reasons that the Section 106 process has become so impenetrable by the public, and I won’t deny my own responsibility for some of its complexities. But the biggest factor in the deterioration of Section 106 review, I think, has been a disinterested ACHP leadership that devotes little intellectual energy to it. That leadership has been much more interested in doing other things – giving awards, overseeing grant programs; nice quiet activities that get attaboys from congressmen and presidents, stuff that doesn’t make trouble. Forgetting Garvey’s dictum of trying to work itself out of existence, the ACHP seems to have become more devoted to its own survival and prosperity than to its legal mission.

I hope that the new Chairman and Executive Director will change things; I hope they’ll be inspired by Bob Garvey’s legacy and devote real brainpower and creativity to resuscitating the Section 106 process and putting it to work in the interests of our planetary heritage.

Monday, February 15, 2021

The National Mall Underground

I’m pretty skeptical of most infrastructure construction projects, thinking them usually ill-considered and likely to create unanticipated environmental impacts. But one I support, and hope to see made a part of President Biden’s infrastructure program, is the National Mall Underground in Washington DC.

The Underground is the brainchild of the National Mall Coalition, a spunky little non-profit, and notably of its vice-president, the internationally acclaimed architect Arthur Cotton Moore. It would install a large structure under the Mall between the Smithsonian Castle and the National Museum of Natural History, theoretically invisible but for a couple of low-visibility access/egress structures. The structure would include:

·               Facilities to receive and store up to 30 million gallons of stormwater – the volume of a 200-year flood event like the one that swamped the Mall in 2006

·               Parking for a large number of tour busses and cars – the former especially contribute mightily to DC congestion and lousy air quality;

·               A field of geothermal rods to provide clean heating and cooling energy to nearby government and Smithsonian buildings;

·               A visitors center serving all the Mall’s museums, monuments, and public buildings, perhaps including exhibit space to augment what’s provided by the existing museums;

·               A “shelter-in-place” facility for tourists and others during inclement weather or other disaster; and

·               Cisterns to receive, store, and distribute groundwater to irrigate the Mall’s greenery.

It wouldn’t be a huge project – its cost is estimated to run about $300 million – but its location would make it a highly visible one, a symbol of the country’s determination to put the dark years behind us and build for the future. And the needs it would meet are serious ones. Flooding from interior sources as well as tidewater and the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers has been described as an “existential threat” to the Smithsonian museums, federal buildings, and National Archive facilities around the Mall, and nobody’s come up with better solutions than higher levees along the rivers and pumping plants to shoot floodwater over them. No better solutions other than the Underground, that is, which actually was inspired by the unrealized recommendations of interagency committees over the years.

Such committees have looked at the Coalition’s proposal too, and generally been supportive but unable to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles to doing anything. Governance of the National Mall is divided among half a dozen federal agencies, the District of Columbia government, and the Smithsonian. Nobody seems able to make the thing happen.

The Corps of Engineers has examined the Coalition’s proposal and concluded that:

The Underground offers an innovative, multi-purpose potential alternative for stormwater retention and flood risk management on Constitution Avenue and in the Federal Triangle area. Concurrently, it could address the documented need for tour bus parking, as well as provide a tourism visitor center, geothermal energy, and irrigation for the National Mall turf grass and gardens. Additionally, revenue potential from parking fees and water credits may offer self-financing opportunities that attracts a public-private partnership.

But the Corps can’t take action by itself, and neither can any other federal agency. Direction is needed from Congress, and maybe from the President, who after all lives on the Mall with his family, and whose basement (he wasn’t in residence then) was flooded in 2019.

Some of my historic preservation colleagues have asked me how such a project could possibly be permissible under the National Historic Preservation Act, given the requirement of that law’s Section 106 that federal agencies “take into account” the effects of projects on historic places like the Mall. I respond that “take into account” does not mean “don’t touch” – as the whole history of Section 106 review since the law’s enactment in 1966 vividly documents. A proposal to build the Underground would trigger consultation among interested parties – negotiations aimed at a Memorandum of Agreement as to how the project would be carried out; I don’t see much in the way of legitimate obstacles to achieving such an agreement. Of course, what’s “legitimate” to my eyes may be very unlike what’s “legitimate” to others, which is precisely why Section 106 review has multi-party consultation as its centerpiece.

But maybe I’m wrong. I invite everyone who’s interested to take a look at the Coalition’s Underground web page -- National Mall Underground | National Mall Coalition – and let me know of any objections.

Or additional ideas. For example, what might the visitors center contain in the way of fixed exhibitions? It’s been suggested that the workings of the Underground – its automated parking, its circulating groundwater cisterns, its geothermal plant – might be on display as examples of green engineering, and this seems to me a good idea. Perhaps the visitors center might also be a place to acquaint people with the indigenous Piscataway, Pamunkey, Nanichoke, Mattaponi, Chickahominy, Monacan, and Powhatan peoples of the area. One can learn about them at the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall, but one has pretty much to go there by intention. A treatment of indigenous history and culture in the Underground’s visitors center might help all visitors meditate on our use and misuse of the lands occupied by the predecessors and victims of colonial governance. I’m sure there are lots of other good ideas out there, and the Coalition’s very keen to learn about them.

Incidentally, a lot of interesting ideas were discussed, leading to some refinements in the Underground’s design, during a presentation the Coalition made to the American Institute of Architects (AIA) last June; see .

Take a look, and let me know what you think. And if you like it, you might mention it to your Congressperson. Thanks.