Shelter in Place but Don’t Stand Still

Posted In: Deep Thoughts

By Marco Meniketti
Ex Officio Chair

Probably everyone is tired of dealing with the Corona virus and the inconveniences the pandemic has caused. Frankly, being inconvenienced as opposed to risking exposure to a deadly virus is a no-brainer. Seems to be akin to choosing between completing a long, deep dive with a mandatory decompression stop or blasting right to the surface because the stop is inconvenient.

The workload does not change just because we are working from home, and for those of us fortunate enough to have that option, we will likely have to get used to it for some time to come. It will be a long time before we return to “normal” routines.

Machiavelli once wrote, “The bold Prince never misses the chance to take advantage of the opportunities that arise in a real crisis.” The current Administration in Washington seems to be taking the advice to heart. Under cover of the pandemic, under the guise of streamlining environmental protections are being dismantled at an accelerating pace and protections for cultural resources on land and underwater are being degraded. Although, recent court challenges regulations have slowed the endangerment of historic cultural resources. For example, the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) and lawsuits against reversal of National Monument status of sacred Native American landscapes (such as Bear’s Ear in Utah).

Valley of the Gods, Bear’s Ears National Monument. Wikipedia.

However, more recent actions by Executive Order have swept away regulations that previously helped reduce impacts on heritage and archaeological sites. The most recent order (May 19, 2020) is consistent with Executive Order 13771, which was issued in the President’s first week in office, and requires that for every new regulation enacted, two must be eliminated.

A brief examination of just a sample of lawsuits brought against the Administration reveals that everything from paleontology, botany, and marine sciences are affected. To be specific, the EPA and NOAA, are directly affected by new rules or by the elimination of previous rules, some in place for decades.

Some deregulation that is industry friendly dispenses with Section 106 compliance assessments as too costly and an impediment, bypassing archaeological assessments. Others affecting water quality of coastal environments also affect archaeological assessment of submerged sites. Although funds for cultural resources have not been diminished by Congress, the deregulatory environment renders that moot. The Brookings Institution, which tracks deregulation by the current Administration, shows that from 2017 to 2020, of the 234 Acts or Executive Orders for deregulation that they monitor, more than a dozen impact heritage generally and a few target sites or specific landscapes directly. Most favor industry, private enterprise, and public health, a handful of which may have positive outcomes. It is the negative outcomes to cultural and archaeological protections that I am focused on here.

I for one do not want to return to our prior “normal” where cultural resources are threatened or destroyed to promote destructive development, and where underwater cultural heritage is diminished and deprioritized. The new normal we must strive for once we have moved beyond the pandemic is one where heritage is respected and vigilantly safeguarded. Perhaps it is time to rethink our language and nomenclature. Perhaps the term heritage resources implies that sites are simply commodities suitable for exploitation, like coal, oil, or natural gas. Let’s instead think in terms of heritage as a non-renewable endowment or an heirloom—unique and irreplaceable, not as resources synonymous with assets and capital—commodities, to be traded, horded, or devalued according to economic winds.

Now is no time to slow down letter writing, communicating with policy makers, or to take a break from research efforts. Now is the time to cement relationships and to crystalize connections throughout the heritage community. Now is the time to take advantage of the crisis at hand but following a different avenue from the one followed by Washington; to cultivate new partnerships and bonds of mutual benefit across disciplines. Underwater archaeologists and terrestrial archaeologists have been practicing social distancing for far too long. Such provincial thinking is a detriment to our professions. And we must go farther still by reaching out to those in the marine sciences, in anthropology, and even those folks with whom the public is always confusing us that actually dig up dinosaurs. We have mutual concerns.

While at home finding ways to convert my lecture and lab classes into on-line formats and still maintain a lively delivery (wishful thinking), I am making time to enhance my new-found internet skill set for the purposes of networking on behalf of cultural resource protection. I am actively seeking partnerships especially among ocean-oriented groups. Everyone in the underwater archaeological community should be actively networking as never before.

The Ocean Decade 2021-2030 has not lost momentum and the ACUA remains committed to partnering with other ocean sciences to promote a sustainable future that includes underwater cultural heritage preservation. Members are active in the Ocean Decade Heritage Network. A year ago this concept of proactive alliance between ocean researchers of different fields appeared to be worthy goal to pursue, it is now an imperative. The sweeping deregulation that threatens the health of the oceans also endangers archaeological research by eliminating the protections that heritage sites on land and submerged once relied upon. Unbridled expansion of development in the name of “getting the economy going again” will erode or dismantle existing programs, CRM monitoring, and will directly impact the employment of thousands of heritage specialists. As the nation confronts the current health crisis there will be many distractions and active reassessing of priorities. Just as physicians are on the front lines of protecting the lives of patients stricken with the virus, we are on the front lines of protecting the historic endowment to which we have committed our careers. Am I overblowing the situation? In do not think so.

It would be a tedious exercise to simply bemoan the state of affairs without offering positive steps that can be taken to mitigate impact. I am suggesting that the underwater community intensify networking so that effective strategies for heritage protections can be shared; that individual and organizational letter writing and communication with local legislators be ramped up; and that individually we reach out to the media as local advocates so that reporters and policy makers have a reliable source to turn to when in need of expert opinions and advice. While some members are precluded from taking actions owing to employment in government agencies, such restrictions do not apply to the rest of us. If you feel you lack relevant skills, I suggest taking advantage of the online training being offered by ARCUS, free through your SHA or SAA membership. Many of their training modules have direct relevance.

Like politics, all heritage is local. Deregulation from Washington can seem pretty abstract until the message is made clear concerning how local entities are impacted. Yes, we are in a crisis on several fronts, but it need not leave us scarred and need not be permanent if we act as a unified force.