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Reclamation's Heritage: Stewardship Of Many

The Bureau of Reclamation celebrated its centennial in 2002. When the agency was born, just after the turn of the last century, it was venturing out into heretofore pristine territory in two ways. First, the west was still pretty much uninhabited. Second and conversely, it was dotted with frontier towns that had been abandoned for years, as well as the ancient sites of pre-historic peoples that remained undisturbed, in some cases, for centuries.

The agency didn't begin with a focus on preserving artifacts or cultural resources. It began with engineering, and Arizona's 1903 Salt River Project. From those bold beginnings at Roosevelt Dam, Reclamation moved forward through the years with construction in the Colorado and Missouri River Basins. Each facility was a step toward national self-sufficiency and industry. Each project linked facilities and turned whole regions of arid desert into productive farmland. And each power plant generated hundreds of megawatts of power to feed the factories and homes of a growing United States.

In the late1940's, Reclamation introduced itself to archeology by asking the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service to conduct a survey in proposed project areas. This was the beginning of a period of increasing public awareness and concern for discovered artifacts and human remains on federal lands, and was support by a spate of federal laws designed to protect those resources. The agency hired its first preservation officer, an archeologist, in 1974. Today, dozens of historians, archeologists and anthropologists locate map and document historic properties that may be affected by Reclamation projects in order to preserve them for future generations.

Since then, the agency's role in historic preservation has grown. "We have a number of legislative mandates," says Christine Phaff of Reclamation's Denver Technical Center. Phaff is a historian and cultural resources specialist. "The key piece is the National Historic Preservation Act that was passed in 1966." Phaff says that act really put the Federal Government in the role of steward of heritage and cultural resources on federal lands. "We have very specific mandates that come from Congress to look after cultural resources, and preserve and protect them.

"One of those mandates is to insure that with regards to cultural resources, the agency operates within the scope of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. NEPA insures that whenever a federal action will affect public lands, a process including the examination of those lands for cultural resources, be conducted. It insures the public trust is protected.

"Cultural resources are generally within the realm of archeology," says Barbara Blackshear, "meaning it can be anything concerning the remains of historic and pre-historic people." She's the staff archeologist for the Provo Utah office of the Bureau of Reclamation. As someone whose job it is to know the status of more than sixty dam-sites in Provo's multi-state area of responsibility, she has her work cut out for her.

"Once the engineers tell me what the project is going to be, they'll give me a design so I know exactly where the disturbance will be. Then, I go to the (Utah) State Historic Preservation Office and conduct a literature search." After that, she inventories the site, prepares a report and sends it to the State for their review. Some surface sites can be avoided while others have to be mitigated for inevitable damaging effects. "In those cases," she says, "we have to send archeologists out to dig them, which can be very expensive and time consuming." But Blackshear says they'll spend the money to learn all they can before the site is irreversibly changed.

She also says, that in the course of all this other work, she may also be consulting with the tribes and have public meetings to explain the work under NEPA. "And," she says," we do public education type of things."

"I think people who get into cultural resources work go into it because they have a passion for it," says Phaff. "They care about preserving those tangible reminders of the past and interpret them for the present. A lot of times, it's a balancing act. You've got different, competing things going on and cultural resources is just one of them"

And, Reclamation, like other federal land managing bureaus, must carry out its primary mission of water resources management as well as cultural resources compliance. This includes the accountability of museum property under Reclamation's jurisdiction, which it has transferred to the Department of Interior to curate. As Reclamation's parent agency, Interior has more than 80 facilities with a total of more than 4.5 million pieces including 200 pieces of fine art.

"One of those pieces is in the [Washington D.C] Hirschhorn [museum]," says Department of Interior Museum specialist Ann James. The pieces in the DOI museum in the nation's capital range from distinctly modernist to abstract to post-cubist, and speak to the role of the museum in the overall effort to protect and purport Reclamation's cultural resource heritage.

In another effort to meet its responsibility as steward of the nation's cultural heritage, the Reclamation section of the Department of Interior museum in Washington will begin a new installation in March 2004. The presentation will feature a map that is updated to reflect all Reclamation projects and sites through 2003, and will be the center piece of an astounding collection of artwork and artifacts collected by Reclamation over its last 100 years. "Reclamation has contributed to the wealth of cultural resources," say Pfaff.

Ann James recognizes the power of artifacts to convey a sense of history. "One of the things I love about the mural on the second floor [of the Interior building] is that it shows a batch plant. Concrete was made on site and they used local materials, and often times, it was recently achieved developments in concrete technology that allowed dams to be built." She says the synergy of technology and accomplish made even more accomplishment possible, and the artifacts reflect that. "To be able to have concrete cores that help you get a sense of the materials . is very important," she says. "We get very excited helping people discover things for themselves about these artifacts because they do tell a very rich story."

For the last hundred years, the Bureau of Reclamation has been "reclaiming" the American West by putting its rivers at the service of the American people. But, for almost as long, Reclamation has also been reclaiming the nation's heritage by protecting its cultural resources. It sees both legacies as priceless.

 

Last updated: January 22, 2007