Thoughts on Unprotected Heritage

Our Unprotected Heritage by Thomas F. King is written in an easy, informal style. The style of writing makes the book easy to read, but the content of the book is difficult to swallow. King lays out for the reader the basics of what the world of cultural and historic preservation looks like from the inside, and the major problems with the process.

In section 106, according to King, it says that “federal agencies must ‘take into account’—that is consider—the effects of their actions on historic properties.” Here in lies a huge part of the problem, because agencies are only asked to consider their actions, not report on them, not explain them; Section 106 really doesn’t provide or enforce anything. False and fraudulent reports by EIA firms and CRM firms, hired by developers are technically following Section 106. The major problems that contribute to our losing cultural and environment resources are that the legislation meant to protect it is too convoluted and vague. Vagueness is something that works in the favor of those avoiding the spirit of law, when it comes to preservation. Those who do not wish to consult with local groups also use convoluted statements to their advantage. As noted by King, “obfuscation is often very convenient for a project proponent, or for an agency that doesn’t want to be bothered by the public. If they can confuse enough, you’ll give up and go away,”

The main problem is abstractions vs. real solid policies. Right now, policies make the assumption (as King says we should never do) that people care about cultural heritage, the environment, and other people. Suggestions don’t make people care, and neither do laws, but at least laws keep them beholden and offer an alternative of punishment.

Within agencies, it seems that no one is willing to step up and take responsibility or work through any project that may be messy—in fact, it seems like within federal agencies their whole job is devoted to creative methods of avoiding actual work. Section 106 regulations, as quoted by King “say to look at all kinds of effects, all kinds of properties, and to do so in consultation with interested parties.” Again, the wording of this clause makes it easy for people to interpret it any way they wish. Many agencies can simply create their own definitions of what “effects” “properties” and “consultation” means to them. True consultation is avoided since, as King points out, “Consultation is unnecessary, irrelevant, a mere bother if you’ve decided what you’re going to do and aren’t interested in considering alternatives.” Further, government agencies are just making things up to avoid doing work.

Compared to the other historic preservation book we read, this one is much more honest and realistic—and therefore refreshing. Although, King doesn’t give us a playbook about how to improve every situation he does take a critical first step in outlining where we need to begin in preserving our cultural heritage and natural environments. I think anyone working for a federal agency, contractor, and developer needs to read this book; so they know that people like King are well aware of what they are doing and that knowledge is being sharing with the rest of us.

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