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From the President: What's in a Word? Volume 58 Number 4, July/August 2005
by Jane C. Waldbaum

A proposed change to federal law will put our heritage at risk.

An amendment to the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), now under consideration by Congress, may jeopardize the protected status of thousands of archaeological sites. So say eight major cultural-heritage organizations, including the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), which presented testimony to the National Parks Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Resources at an April 21 hearing in Washington (see below for a list of the other organizations).

The amendment would make a small but critical change to NHPA's Section 106 involving the National Register of Historic Places, "the Nation's official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation" ( Section 106 requires that federal agencies assess the potential damage to historic sites from construction projects on federal land or projects carried out with federal funds, and to institute a plan to reduce any damage to sites "included in or eligible for inclusion in the National Register." The amended text would read "included in or determined by the Secretary [of the Interior] to be eligible for inclusion in the National Register."

Under the current process, state historic preservation officers help determine National Register eligibility, but their input would be eliminated in the new formulation. Proponents of the amendment say that consideration of sites not already nominated to the National Register is contrary to Congressional intent when the law was passed, fails to respect private-property rights, and costs too much time and money for developers. The amendment could have catastrophic results. Undiscovered or newly discovered archaeological sites would be vulnerable since they would not be on the National Register or have come to the attention of the Secretary of the Interior (currently Gale Norton). Furthermore, removing the decision making from the local level will create more red tape and expense in determining eligibility, and overwhelm the small staff allocated to the National Register office in Washington. All of this makes it likely that project areas might not be surveyed and sites might simply be destroyed.

What might be lost? SunWatch Village on the Great Miami River in Dayton, Ohio, is one example. This 800-year-old Native American settlement was threatened by the city's plans to expand a sewage-treatment plant. Evaluation of the site, however, identified it as eligible for the National Register under the current process, and the expansion was relocated. The city of Dayton allowed the Dayton Society of Natural History to excavate the site and reconstruct several houses. Today, SunWatch is visited by thousands of people yearly and is a National Historic Landmark. Under the proposed wording, this site might have been bulldozed and forgotten. And, as Margaret Conkey of the American Anthropological Association testified, "Historic places, once damaged or destroyed, can never be recovered or re-created."

At the time of writing, the subcommittee had not made its recom-mendations to the full Committee on Resources, nor has the final language of the bill gone forward. Updates on this issue and links for further information about it will be posted on the AIA website.

Jane C. Waldbaum is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

Joining with AIA in presenting testimony were the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA), the Archaeology Division of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), the Lawyers' Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation (LCCHP), and the World Archaeological Congress (WAC).

* See all letters from Jane C. Waldbaum and past president Nancy C. Wilkie.

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M/J 2005
© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America