Our heritage has been put at risk by a pattern of disregard for legislation that protects American culture and history. As an archaeologist, I have a front row seat to debates regarding public lands, pipelines, and historic and cultural places. I have the unique opportunity to see the long term and far reaching repercussions of actions like cuts to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and the approval of sections of the Keystone XL Pipeline in the Dakotas.
I define myself as an archaeologist, Army wife, and Central Valley native. My husband’s career in the U.S. Army has led us away from our home state of California. We’ve lived in Utah, Colorado, Alabama, Georgia and now Germany. We count ourselves as incredibly lucky. In terms of my career, the Army lifestyle has given me the opportunity to work in a wide range of locations and with several different time periods. I was born and raised in Fresno and moved to Bakersfield at the age of 17. I attended Edison High School and Bakersfield High School. I remained in the Central Valley for college, where I attended UC Davis. Spending most of my life in the valley taught me to have a deeply rooted respect for heritage and love of place.
It is this deep-rooted love of the valley, and the U.S. as a whole, that drives the disappointment I have felt watching a pattern of disregard for regulations and legislation that protect historic and cultural sites in our country. This pattern did not start recently; it has been an ongoing fight for decades that has only escalated during Mr. Trump’s presidency.
President Trump’s decisions regarding the KXL pipeline and public lands have ignored specific legislation. His decision on the KXL pipeline ignored Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the cuts to public lands in Utah ignored the Antiquities Act signed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906.
Together, these acts made the federal government a “full partner and leader in historic preservation” instead of an indifferent party, and “authorize[d] the President to protect landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest by designating them as National Monuments.” This means that, before projects that disturb ground are undertaken on federal land, an assessment has to be made that evaluates whether the project will impact historic sites and to what extent. It then requires a period where the public can comment on this assessment and provide feedback.
One of the true dangers in ignoring these acts is that it sets a precedent that will allow the government and public and private entities to continue to ignore their requirements. The acts are already vulnerable to being ignored or minimally followed because that speeds up development. If the U.S. government actively demonstrates that these acts can be ignored or the that implications of Section 106 assessments do not affect project plans, development companies (including the U.S. government) will have a reason for doing the same.
Ignoring these acts means that National Park Service lands, such as Yosemite or Sequoia and Kings Canyon, are vulnerable to reduction. These lands house several historic structures and archaeological sites. It would also mean that development projects could potentially affect previously listed structures on the National Register of Historic Places. Kern County currently has 24 places listed on this register, including the Beale Memorial Library and Fort Tejon.
Further, a large sector of jobs is tied to these acts, including administrative support, writing specialists, biologists, historians, archaeologists and more. These jobs are all at risk. For California, this is a huge problem because it has one of the largest archaeological communities in the nation.
For those seeking methods to protest these actions, I recommend three things: (1) continue to educate yourself about legislation like the Antiquities Act and NHPA (check out the websites of the National Park Service, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and National Register of Historic Places), (2) contact your reprsentatives and senators, (3) join and/or donate to organizations that are actively fighting these actions, such as the Society for American Archaeology.