Although we have not yet seen the text of today’s Executive Order eliminating so called burdensome federal regulations — it is a safe bet that Trump has used his sharpie to revoked the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which has been the law of the land for 50 years and is perhaps the single best thing Richard Nixon accomplished when he signed it into law on January and 1, 1970. It seems equally likely that the National Historic Preservation Act (1966) was also gutted today.
While those are laws passed by Congress that can’t be unpassed by an Executive Order, the President can (or thinks he can) order the rewriting of the regulations implementing those laws — to effectively gut them. In the short term he can also exempt projects — as he did his southern border wall project.
This will probably need to be hashed out in court. When the dust settles, I’m not confident that this deregulation effort will work out in favor of continued effective consideration of historic sites and properties, endangered species, wetlands and the other things we take into consideration under NEPA and NHPA. That is all going to be pushed aside and paved over in a mad rush to get people back to work building stuff like highways and bridges before the November election.
For the last 43 years I’ve earned a living as an archaeologist — working mainly to ensure compliance with regulations issued in response NEPA and the National Historic Preservation Act. Those laws and their implementing regulations require federal agencies federal permittees and those using federal funds to take into consideration the effects that their undertakings may have on the environment and on historic sites and properties.
My work involves historic research and field surveys necessary to identify and evaluate the significance of historic sites and properties that may be threatened by federally funded or permitted projects and other sorts of undertakings.
The projects that require NEPA and NHPA review include a wide range of things like highway, bridge, and airport construction, construction of locks and dams and the operation of inland waterways, oil and gas pipelines, rural water supply projects, construction of federal buildings like post offices and courthouses, power transmission lines, cell phone towers, some mines and quarries, timber harvesting on US Forest Service and other public lands, training activities on military bases.
Since 1966 those sorts of ground disturbing activities that receive federal money or require federally issued permits have been subject to reviews to determine whether they would affect significant historic properties — archaeological sites, buildings, bridges, landscapes. This includes sacred sites and other kinds of properties that may be of special importance to Indian Tribes and Native Alaskans. That work is typically done during the early planning stages of such projects and sometimes but rarely results in delays. There is some cost involved in these reviews and studies but it is typically a tiny fraction of the total cost of the undertaking.
There are at most a few thousand folks like me who do this sort of work and none of us have been getting rich doing it, but many of us have found it intellectually rewarding. I've worked on NEPA and NHPA compliance projects in a dozen states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, California, Arizona, Alaska)
I’m asked from time to time about what sorts of sites or artifacts I’ve discovered that were the most interesting or important. No matter how often I’m asked, that is always a tough question to answer. The sort of work we do usually results in lots of mundane finds. Occasionally the work results in small incremental and cumulative improvements in our understanding of the past— a piece here and a piece there help to puzzle out the story of US. Most of the sites we deal with are not very significant, but this sort of work has its moments. We never know for sure what may be out there until we look.
I’ve helped to identify, excavate and rebury several hundred prehistoric and historic Indian graves in a cemetery threatened by an open pit gold mine. I discovered a long lost Spanish Mission period Indian village on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp threatened by a titanium mine. I helped find and identify the wreck of a side wheel steamboat in the Red River that tragically sank in 1865 at the end of the Civil War while carrying 800 paroled confederate prisoners and their families home www.shreveport.com/.... I’ve identified historic Creek Indian town and village sites along the banks of the Chattahoochee River threatened by military training activities and operation of Corps locks and dams. I helped excavate and rebury historic graves from a 19th century family cemetery threatened by a housing development. I documented several hundred miles of historic roads used by the Cherokee on their Trail of Tears journey in 1837-1839 to what is now Oklahoma. I helped to identify early French Colonial house sites threatened by bridge construction.
If Trump and his sharpie get their way, that is all history after today. To speed the economic recovery from the Covid19 pandemic, Trump is going to insist that we just stop doing those pesky job killing environmental reviews. He will have us rush to build lots of new stuff and if some old stuff and a few endangered species and few wetlands get destroyed in the process — well that is just too bad.
Some may call this progress, but undoing 50 years of public policy should require more than a sharpie squiggle. So Trump killed my job today. I do not have an entirely unbiased view of this, but I seriously doubt that Trump’s deregulatory EO will lead to more or better jobs for anyone else. It will make some federally funded projects a little faster to build. That is unlikely to translate into more jobs. The undertakings will just be a little more profitable for the contractors who build them.
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