Evaluating Visual Effects of Projects on Traditional Cultural Property

Kathryn Leonard, M.A., RPA

In this article, we will analyze how the National Register Bulletin 38 affects evaluations of visual resources in the assessment of cultural resources – specifically, properties the National Register has defined as Traditional Cultural Property.

National Register Bulletin 38 establishes a general definition for Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) as a particular type of historic properties that is “eligible for inclusion in the National Register because of its association with cultural practices or beliefs of a living community that (a) are rooted in that community’s history, and (b) are important in maintaining the continuing cultural identity of the community.”

Like cultural landscapes, TCPs are not considered an “official” NRHP properties type. However, unlike cultural landscapes, they can take the form of all five NRHP-recognized properties types:

  1. Building
  2. Structure
  3. Object
  4. Site
  5. District

As with landscapes, TCPs are recognized as capable of possessing both natural and human-made attributes. In some cases, TCPs may consist solely of natural elements. Unlike landscapes, the character-defining features of TCPs may include non-material values (e.g., spiritual value or cultural value) that cannot be quantified, do not necessarily have a physical expression that can be disclosed due to confidentiality considerations, or be subject to objective evaluation by an observer.

The inherent problems in identifying discrete character-defining features have significant implications for integrity assessments of TCPs. Consequently, Bulletin 38 attempts to address the problem of assessing the integrity of a class of historic property for which character is largely defined by its shared meaning and use.

The NRHP has established seven aspects of integrity which a property is to be judged if it is to be considered a protected place:

  1. Location
  2. Design
  3. Setting
  4. Materials
  5. Workmanship
  6. Feeling
  7. Association

The bulletin advises that the seven qualities of integrity be eschewed in favor of a focus on the factors of “relationship” and “condition.”  It exhorts practitioners to ask, “…does the property have an integral relationship to traditional cultural practices or beliefs; and second, is the condition of the property such that the relevant relationships survive?”
Regarding the effects assessment, Bulletin 38 recommends that recordation of the TCP focus heavily on elements of its setting, stating:

“… it is vital that the nomination form or eligibility documentation discuss those qualities of a property’s visual, auditory, and atmospheric setting that contribute to its significance, including those qualities whose expression extends beyond the boundaries of the property as such into the surrounding environment.”

The problems associated with effect assessments for TCPs are essentially the same as those inherent in their identification and NRHP eligibility evaluation. The subjective nature by which these properties draw their significance, renders it virtually impossible for an objective observer to evaluate effect on cultural resources. Because the assessment of visual effects to TCPs is subjective, they may be limited to a simple “presence/absence” determination as to the visibility of project elements. The more nuanced determination of whether visible project elements constitute a “no adverse effect” or “adverse effect” may remain elusive.

Furthermore, the confounding analyst’s ability to discriminate the nature of indirect effects is the contention by tribes and/or other groups that ascribe significance to historic properties. It creates an “adverse effect” on the spiritual values and cultural practices embodied in the property.

With large infrastructure projects, the landscape-level nature renders the need to consider visual effects to TCPs and cultural landscapes inevitable.  Given the common struggle of land managers to resolve impacts with these important resources and balance the mandate to strengthen the transmission of both renewable and non-renewable energy sources across public lands, other solutions may emerge. This could be accomplished through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA ) review process or through other legislation and Executive Orders (EO), such as the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), or EO 13007 pertaining to Sacred Sites.

Regardless, successful implementation of effects evaluation and mitigation strategies will rely, not only, on effective analysis of visual resources of project elements, but also on robust government-to-government consultation under all legal authorities.

Source: nps.gov