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Rethinking Archaeological Mitigation

Lynne Sebastian

Editor's Note: This issue's column is adapted from an open letter which appeared in NewsMAC (a newsletter for the New Mexico Archaeological Council), in July 1995. Although the letter was originally from the New Mexico state archaeologists to her colleagues practicing in the state, the message has national relevance and deserves consideration by the archaeological community at large. Kevin Pape

As I am sure you all are aware, the archaeological record of this country and the practice of archaeology itself are at greater risk today than at any time since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. In the current anti-regulatory, pro-business political climate, Section 106 compliance, especially as it concerns archaeology, is coming under intense scrutiny and pressure for change.

Every place I have gone in the last year, I have found individuals and organizations, such as the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO), and the Society for American Archaeology, talking about the threats to preservation in this country and what to do. Frankly, much of this discussion has amounted to hand-wringing and discussions about what we can do or stop doing in order to get ourselves "off the radar screen" of congressional budget cutting and program elimination. The NCSHPO, for example, has formed a task force on "rethinking archaeological mitigation" with a subtext of "how can we make archaeology a lot cheaper?"

First of all, I want to say that the archaeological sky is not falling just yet. On the other hand, there are some clearly visible cracks in the firmament. What I would like to propose is the somewhat Pollyannaish view that we all view this as an opportunity rather than an impending doom. There are things that we can do to improve the way we do archaeology, and now is a very good time to make those improvements. There almost certainly are going to be important changes in how we do public archaeology in the future. We can wait to have these changes imposed on us--by the ACHP if it continues to exist, by the NCSHPO or the National Park Service, or worst of all, by Congress. Or we can try to get ahead of this wave of change and make our own, carefully thought-out changes before change is imposed from outside.

I am proposing that we work together as a professional community (and I will describe how I envision that happening below) to look not just at the costs of archaeology, per se, but at the cost/benefit ratio. The question that I would like us to address is "How can we improve the cost/benefit ratio of publicly funded archaeology?" By publicly funded archaeology I mean archaeology paid for by the public, either directly in tax dollars spent by federal agencies or in Section 106 compliance costs incurred by industry and passed on to consumers. By costs I mean both monetary costs and costs in time delays, which we all know are sometimes more of a concern for industry than the monetary costs. And by benefits I mean both the current benefits to the public and the long-term benefits to our society of increased knowledge about the past.

Specifically, I plan to convene a working group that will address a set of critical questions. What are the costs of archaeology both in federal dollars and private sector dollars spent? What proportion of cost of doing business on federal land or with federal approvals is archaeological expenses? What are the public benefits of archaeology in increased knowledge, enjoyment, educational opportunities, recreation? What is the impact of heritage tourism on the state's economy? How has public archaeology contributed to our knowledge of the past? How good a job are we doing at preserving the prehistoric heritage of this state? How many jobs, how much money in taxes, and how much money in purchased goods and services (including per diem) are generated by archaeology in the state? And most important, what steps can we take to improve the cost/benefit ratio by minimizing the costs in money and time and maximizing the public benefits?

I have no interest in figuring out how to do cheaper archeology. But I and every archaeologist have a critical interest in figuring out how to ensure that every dollar spent on public archaeology is necessary and is yielding the greatest possible gain in preservation, research excellence, and public benefits. We owe it to the public that is paying for this; we owe it to the resources that we are professionally committed to preserving and conserving; and our job may well depend on our doing our best.

The results of the process that I am envisioning here will potentially affect every single archaeologist, and I would like to see everyone get involved. I propose that all of you form regional groups. These groups should include contractors, federal and state agency archaeologists, and academics--all professional archaeologists.

I suggest that one or two volunteer organizers for each regional group coordinate with your SHPO office, and the groups need to begin discussion NOW--face to face, phone, fax, email, small task groups, however you want to do it. But you need to be ready with information, ideas, and representatives to participate in the statewide working group. I know everyone is desperately busy; we are too. But please believe that nothing that any of us is doing is more important than this or has a greater potential to affect all of our professional lives more fundamentally than this. Most of us could find ourselves thoroughly not busy very soon if we do not address this issue seriously. We are going to be asked very difficult questions, and we must be ready with answers.

This working group will be making recommendations about the fundamental issues of public archaeology--site eligibility, effect, preservation, and mitigation. These are not things that the SHPO's office can or should decide alone; these are decisions that should be made and must be supported by the profession as a whole. Once the statewide working group comes up with a plan, we will work through the regional groups to give everyone in the profession an opportunity to comment on the plan; we are even discussing the possibility of convening a statewide congress to discuss the plan. Next we will begin working with other interested groups--tribes, industry, government agencies, avocational societies, etc.--to consider their issues for inclusion in the plan and to attempt to gain their support.

Where we go will depend on what has happened in Congress in the meantime. Assuming the Advisory Council's existence, the New Mexico SHPO will propose to amend our state substitution agreement with them to incorporate the procedural changes identified by the working group so that Section 106 can be carried out according to the plan. Whatever happens, we will be better off for having a plan in place and an organization set up for disseminating information and ideas throughout the professional community. We very much need each other's help to ensure that we can meet and weather the challenges to public archaeology posed by the current political climate.

Lynne Sebastian is the New Mexico state archaeologist.

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