#204 Fine or Permit?

This post is in response to a great blog post over at Northwest Coast Archaeology entitled, “Controversy at Cherry Point site WA, 45WH1”. Go check it out.

The NCA post is regarding a Lummi Nation territory site in northern Washington State, near Bellingham. That’s close to the Canadian border. The part I want to talk about is where the developer for a major coal port decided to bulldoze the area and drill core-samples without authorization from anyone. Apparently they’d never thought to read the Army Corps’ Appendix C. Recently, the developer was taken to court and fined $1.6 million. My guess is, that’s nothing compared to the costs, and eventual profits, of the port itself.

Forgiveness or Permission?

Let me back up a bit before I continue. When I was in the Navy, I worked for a guy that “knew how to get things”. He didn’t steal, per se. He just “re-allocated”. As far as he was concerned, if another department, or squadron, had what he needed and couldn’t get, for one reason or another, he took it. The excuse was that it all belongs to the U.S. Navy and they’ll just get a new one. This was my first exposure to the phrase, “It’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission”.

I’m hearing it a lot more lately, and not just from morally questionable people that “have been known to acquire things from time to time” (bonus points for naming that movie in the comments). It’s being said, by their practices, by engineering firms, development firms, and anyone that is frustrated by the regulatory process they have to go through prior to development.

Permits for Land with Sensitive Resources

The news article linked above, and in the NCA post, quotes one of the lawyers in the court case about the drilling at the Cherry Point site as saying, “that way if they get their permits someday, they’re ready to build right then” (emphasis added). There are so many things wrong with that statement. 

First, I’d like to think there was just a disconnect at the project management level and that the sub-contractor hired to bulldoze the site and drill core samples really thought they had permission to do that. Maybe they acted alone or maybe the project manager higher up gave them permission thinking it would come any day. Or, maybe they really just didn’t care and figured the fines would be less than the delays in waiting would cost. Maybe I’m living in a dreamland where every one is good and the world is just. (Comments about the last statement will be deleted! Just kidding. No, they will.)

In the quote, I emphasized “if”. That’s a crucial word. They might not have been given permission to put the port in there, although that’s not likely. They might have been required to do more work on the cultural resources first. Who knows? Now, it doesn’t matter. The site is partially, if not totally, destroyed. So, is the problem with greedy developers, a miss-understanding of the relevance of cultural history, or the regulatory process in general?

Greedy Developers

In a perfect world, everyone would be honorable and do the right thing. While some people might strive to that ideal in their personal lives, at work they often have impossible deadlines and unrealistic expectations to achieve. Everyone has a boss, even if it's just their company's investors. 

Many development projects run into the hundreds of millions, and billion, of dollars. Paying $1.6 million in fines is a drop in the bucket. They spend that in one hour. Fines might give injured parties some solace, but the cultural resource is still damaged, and, thanks to the arrow of time, and the absence of a working Tardis, can't be fixed. 

I do believe, though, that most people have good intentions on an individual level. When taken on the corporate level, though, not so much. In short, corporations can be bastards.

Relevance of Cultural History

Everyone likes watching the History Channel and Discovery, right? Well, everyone but archaeologists and historians. We know the story behind the drama. Corporations are staffed by people, though. It stands to reason they like the same things everyone else likes. So why don't they often see the cultural resources they are about to destroy, or already have, as historically important as Egyptian Tombs or any street corner in Rome? 

I think the reason is that we have failed to communicate the cultural significance of the small sites we see every day and take for granted. The reason many sites in the west are not talked about often comes down to confidentiality. Either the BLM, the client, or both often require a level of secrecy related to location and types of sites. This concept is past it's time. 

Most of the sites we find in the west are recorded in their entirety during the Phase 1 survey. There is no reason we shouldn't be able to talk about them in public settings. Of course, locations should remain a secret, but the general information about the area can be given. With agencies and clients, however, it's often an all or nothing policy. If CRM firms would start including outreach in their proposals, maybe the importance of these small sites would trickle down to the general public, and more importantly, the people at these corporations making all the decisions.

Regulatory Process

The regulatory process, from beginning to end, is complicated, confusing, and needs to be considerably updated. Tom King has made a career out of just trying to explain it to people and companies. I won't attempt to go into detail here, suffice it to say that the process encourages companies to take short cuts because the penalties for doing so are often cheaper than proceeding down the regulatory path.

Take Action!

What can we, as field technicians, crew chiefs, and project managers do to get the word out about these sites? For one thing, talk about your job. Start a blog. Write a book. Be excited to tell people you're an archaeologist. It's a great and fascinating job and people love hearing about it. Don't tell them about all the weeks of shovel testing where all you found was an old shoe. Don't tell them about the hours upon hours of driving to and from project areas. Emphasize that one great project, or that awesome artifact you found. We all have one. Get energized! Get fired up! Shout out your love for this field from the roof tops! Maybe then people will start to get the picture.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the field!