US Cultural Resource Management and the ICAHM Charter

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The ICAHM Charter for the Protection and Management of the Archaeological Heritage was developed to serve as an international statement of principles and guidelines relevant to archaeological resources (Lund 1989: 15-17). The need for such a document is great: even a brief survey of archaeological heritage management systems throughout the world (e.g. Cleere 1984; 1989) reveals that no nation currently offers adequate protection to its archaeological heritage. To varying degrees, all nations fall short of realizing the ideals espoused in the Charter. The United States of America, despite having highly developed preservation legislation, regulations and procedures, a full-blown archaeological bureaucracy and more than 20 years of experience in cultural resource management, is no exception.

How does archaeological heritage management in the United States measure up to the standards and ideals expressed in the ICAHM Charter? The US system is highly complex, idiosyncratic and fundamentally flawed. While it can claim many successes, it must also assume responsibility for a number of failures and basic, persistent problems when viewed in the light of the ICAHM Charter. This survey of the US system reflects the order of topics in the ICAHM Charter.

Cultural Resource Management: the US system

The ICAHM Charter stresses the fragility of the archaeological resource base and states that the protection of the archaeological heritage must be completely integrated into 'policies relating to land use, development, and planning as well as cultural, environmental and educational policies'. Archaeological protection should become part of the planning process at every level -- local, regional, national, and international (Article 2). The Charter also emphasizes that protection must be based upon a systematic legislative regime that includes the principle that funding for the investigation of sites threatened by development projects be included in the costs of those projects (Article 3).

Unlike many countries that claim ownership of all archaeological resources in their territory (O'Keefe & Prott 1984: 189-97), the United States offers varying levels of legal protection to its archaeological heritage on the basis of land ownership. Owing to its federal system and the traditional primacy of private property rights in US law, archaeological resources on private land generally are the legal property of the landowner and are subject to no external control, although there are some important exceptions, e.g. federally assisted projects that involve private property, or, in some states, abandoned cemeteries and unmarked burials. On federally owned land the legal control over archaeological resources is strong and is supported by an intricate panoply of federal legislation, policies, and regulations. The protection of archaeological resources on land owned by the states varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction; the states' authority lies somewhere between the clearly defined ownership of the federal government and the negligible protection afforded sites on private lands.

The different legal status accorded to cultural resources depending on the circumstance of land ownership is in large measure responsible for the current structure of the US preservation system, which comprises a complex, interdependent web of legal authority, administrative infrastructure, and activities that operate at the federal, state and local levels and within the private sector. The treatment of archaeological resources based on ownership is a critical weakness of the US system because only about one-third of the US land area is afforded the full protection of federal preservation law (and almost half of that one-third is in one state, Alaska). While some states have attempted to protect archaeological resources on private land, usually as part of a mandated environmental review process for proposed projects, comprehensive legal protection for sites on private property hardly seems a likely prospect in the near future. …