Federal regulations ensure the preservation of national historic sites in the U.S.Written by Natasha Wheeler
In 1966, Congress signed the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) into law to protect cultural resources in the United States. Section 106 of the Act outlines the process for evaluating potential cultural resources and determining their eligibility for protection.
“Federal agencies must take into account effects of undertakings on any historic property,” notes Richard Currit, senior archeologist at the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).
For a piece of property to be eligible under the NHPA, it must be at least 50 years old and meet one of the four eligibility criteria. It must be associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history, be associated with significant historical persons, embody distinctive characteristics of a master or art form or yield important information about prehistory or history.
“We also have to apply common sense to all of this, and that’s why everything gets reviewed at least three times before it goes to the keeper of the records,” Currit says.
“It’s a very linear process,” Currit adds.
When a project involves federal funding, federal lands or lands managed by a federal entity such as the Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service, an NHPA evaluation must take place. For example, if the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is funding a fence line, the project area must be surveyed for any potential cultural resources that could be disturbed.
“I was out on one project where we were putting a pipeline in a stock tank, and the SHPO database said there was an old road that went through the area that hadn’t been recorded. It paralleled the old highway, so I went out to take a look,” he comments.
A survey of the area uncovered artifacts from old Model T automobiles, glass pieces from the late 1800s and a marker tree.
“It was the Rawlins to Red Lodge, Mont. freight road used from the 1880s up to about 1920. It connected two railroads and is very significant in the grand scheme of things because it contributed to the development of Wyoming and the creation of our ranches and homesteads,” he explains.
The next step was to reevaluate the project to determine if it could be redesigned to avoid disturbing the road.
“The prime directive is mitigation through avoidance. We want to redesign projects to avoid the cultural resource,” Currit remarks.
If no cultural artifacts are found within a project area, no further actions have to be taken. On the other hand, if something significant is found, a review process must take place.
“The planning process begins when someone walks in the door of the NRCS office and says they have a project they want to put in. We are going to identify and evaluate what will work on the ground and what the project looks like,” he notes.
In the following reconnaissance and feasibility phase, experts evaluate whether the project will be possible under federal and state agreements and if there are any potentially eligible cultural resources on the area.
“When we evaluate a resource, we look at it in terms of significance and that generates a class three report. These class three reports are 10 to 20 pages in length, and they take time to put together. Once we’ve put the report together, by regulation and policy we have to submit it to SHPO for review,” Currit explains.
The report must also be made available for comment from federal agencies, tribal councils and the general public.
“It’s a process,” he states. “If everyone agrees the resource is not eligible, the project can go through.”
If the resource is eligible, the project must be rated for risks concerning potential adverse effects to the resource.
“I review every one of our projects for the potential for two things. Are there cultural resources in the project area and are they eligible for preservation? Will our projects adversely affect these historic properties?” Currit remarks. “We will find a way to make it work.”
Richard Currit spoke at the Partners in Resource Excellence conference held in Laramie Nov. 2-5.