National Historic Preservation Act and Federal Lands

By Luke Anderson

July 27, 2016

Historic preservation became federal policy in 1966 with the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). One of the great myths surrounding the historic preservation movement is that the NHPA or a listing on the National Register of Historic Places governs what a property owner can do to his or her private property. The National Historic Preservation Act only affects the treatment of historic properties that are owned by federal agencies or include some sort of federal money. The Act ensures that federal agencies have a historic preservation plan that is consistent with their own unique missions (Section 110 of the Act) and that they take appropriate mitigation actions when a proposed action will affect a historic resource (Section 106 of the Act). One of the iconic features of Wyoming and the west are the vast areas of land owned and managed by the federal government, including land managed by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Reclamation. The NHPA plays an important role on federal lands considering the enormous amounts of historic resources on these broad ranges. As Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest Heritage Program Manager and Tribal Liaison Kolleen Kralick said: “national forests and public lands are one of few places we don’t have unbridled development. Public lands have a large amount of resources that don’t have any real damage to them.” As many privately owned properties lose their historic integrity across the state, historic resources on public lands are protected by the NHPA.

Kolleen Kralick manages the archaeology and history programs for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grassland, which together reach nine different counties in Wyoming. Kralick has always been interested in the proto-historic and early historic periods of the west. She has a background in historic archaeology which includes a doctorate from the University of Buffalo where she researched the effects of protohistoric economics on what are now national forests in New Mexico. Kralick evaluates the potential of projects within the forest involving ground disturbance for their potential to affect cultural resources. After the potential effects are determined, she provides information on ways to minimize them. She says that “sometimes it’s easy to avoid negative effects, and sometimes there’s no way but to mitigate and minimize those effects.” The majority of preservation work in the national forest is pursuant to Section 106 requirements, which involves the mandatory evaluation of management actions’ potential impacts to historic resources. The rest of the preservation work is devoted to Section 110, which includes providing opportunities for public engagement such as interpretation, outreach, and adaptive reuse for significant historic structures.

Fire lookout towers are one of several historic resources that exist on public lands in the west. Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service

Public lands are part of Wyoming’s heritage. In fact, 48% of land within state borders is federally owned. Yellowstone, the United States’ first national park, was originally public land that was then transferred to the National Park Service after its creation in 1916. There are five national forests in Wyoming, which have ties to various industries that helped shape Wyoming’s early statehood including livestock grazing and the railroad. The Bureau of Land Management was created in 1947 in part to help manage the agricultural and other economic uses of the remainder of public lands. Wyoming is not unique in this aspect, with many western states experiencing a similar situation. The relationship between federal land management and the states and private individuals with which they interact is not always a simple one, and has led to conflicts over appropriate land use and competing stakeholder interests. One of those interests is cultural resource management, and because of the NHPA, as well as the sheer area of protected land in Wyoming, our state stands to benefit greatly by preserving a great number of artifacts and buildings. The National Historic Preservation Act aims to preserve not only the remnants of the people who came before us, but also the open spaces and cultural landscapes that help to define Wyoming’s unique beauty.

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