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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

The devil is in the details when it comes to protecting cultural resources on state lands—so says Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Jan Biella.

Archaeological resources on federal and state lands are treated differently because different laws apply, she says. And not only are those laws very different, but people have different interpretations of the state law. Despite criticism of the land office’s practices, neither its staff nor leasees are doing anything illegal.

Biella has worked as an archaeologist in New Mexico since the mid-’70s. Prior to working at the Historic Preservation Division, she worked for two different federal agencies as well as within the private sector. Just as the State Land Office’s Eck does, Biella and her staff advise leasees to look before they leap. “We suggest the survey is the best way to avoid inadvertent damage,” she says. “But we don’t have regulations in place that require it.”

The easiest way to rectify those differences is through a change in statute, she says. Addressing such variations in how different agencies treat the exact same resources would also simplify the process for everyone involved. It’s likely the public would support it as well.

There is something deep and compelling about the public’s connection with archaeological resources, whether those remains are of American Indians, the Spanish or those who settled across the state in the 19th century. “They put us in context through time…and I think the study of them tells us something about ourselves as human beings,” Biella says. “We don’t just live in the moment. We live in a much longer moment than that.”

That historic knowledge can be preserved for the present and the future generations, she says, but, “if we just allowed development to happen and there were no protections, then that’s lost. [Cultural sites] are irreparable and irreplaceable.
She adds: “I think it is that kind of thing that people instinctively get. I think they understand that there is something just inherently interesting about the people who came before us.”  SFR


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