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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Everyone else but the Agua Caliente’s historian and Vice Chairman actually have names. Maybe you could add their names also?