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Disturbing the Pieces

Is New Mexico doing all it can to protect its ancient history?

February 25, 2009, 12:00 am

It’s nearly impossible to walk across any substantial tract of land in the state without spotting—or treading upon—archaeological resources, according to archaeologist Meade Kemrer. In fact, archaeologists have found and documented more than 160,000 sites in New Mexico. These include everything from prehistoric American Indian campsites to historic buildings, Spanish-era churches and even important roads or trails.

Thanks to federal laws such as the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, a company must hire archaeologists before beginning a project—whether for energy development or, say, the construction of roads, pipelines or transmission lines—that is on federal lands or funded by federal money.

Before the start of a project, these contract archaeologists check state records to learn if sites have already been documented in the area; they then conduct foot surveys to identity remains in the proposed project area.

Under the guidance of the state historic preservation officer’s staff at the Historic Preservation Division, they then determine if a site is worthy of listing on the State Register of Cultural Properties or the National Register of Historic Places.

Because the process for nominating a site to the registers is costly and time-consuming, sites on federal lands are protected—which generally means avoided—if they are deemed “eligible” for listing on either of those two registers. Sites that cannot be avoided during construction are excavated and studied—all at a cost to the company. It’s common, therefore, for developers to adjust their plans—shift the location of a well pad or re-route a road—and avoid archaeological sites whenever possible in order to save money and avoid time delays.

When it comes to state, county or private lands, however, those federal laws don’t apply unless certain things are found—such as human remains—according to Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, a former archaeologist and now a staff attorney for Advocates for the West.

And while there are three New Mexico state laws pertaining to the protection of cultural resources on state lands, these laws are not nearly as clear-cut as the federal laws. In fact, they leave much open to interpretation.

State laws direct agencies to consider only those archaeological sites already listed on the registers, Ruscavage-Barz says. Federal laws, on the other hand, protect sites considered “eligible” for the registries.

If a site hasn’t been listed—or archaeologists have not surveyed an area to determine what resources are present—a state agency can approve a project without having any idea if cultural resources are present. Of the 160,000 archeological sites documented statewide, only 2,000 are listed on the state registry.

“So, we don’t know what’s being lost because we don’t know the full universe of historic properties that are out there,” Ruscavage-Barz says. “We only know what is listed on the state or national register—and that, of course, is a very small subset of potentially eligible sites that are out there on the landscape.”

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