Artifact monitoring now a part of digging on South Dakota reservation

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By Andrea J. Cook
Oglala, South Dakota (AP) October 2010

 In this photo taken Sept. 30, 2010,
Loni Weston combs through the brush
and dirt along a shoulder of U.S.
Highway 18 south of Oglala, S.D. 
AP Photo/Rapid City Journal,
Kristina Barker

The watchers are there as giant earth movers scrape and dig their way through the landscape of U.S. Highway 18 on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Working alongside the construction company as it grades and preps the route between Oglala and Pine Ridge for a new highway are six representatives of the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s historic preservation office. They monitor the digging and excavation for any hint that the work will unearth something of historical significance.

“For the first time in western South Dakota, we’re using monitors ... because of the probability of finding something,” said Todd Seaman, the regional engineer for the South Dakota Department of Transportation.

In the weeks since the construction project started, engineers and the contractor changed plans more than once when the work uncovered something that was potentially of historical or cultural significance, according to Terry Keller, environmental supervisor for the DOT’s Office of Project Development.

But no one is complaining. It is all part of digging in western South Dakota – an area rife with history dating back not only centuries by millenniums.

“We want to be good stewards,” Seaman said. “We would never go through a resource, regardless of who’s funding it.”

Involve federal dollars or federal oversight of any kind in a project and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) becomes applicable. Implemented in 1966, the act requires federal agencies to consider the impact a project could have on cultural resources.

Any undertaking – such as a highway, pipeline, construction or demolition project – that has a federal connection is required to undergo a Section 106 review required by NHPA.

NHPA created state and tribal offices of historic preservation to provide additional input into the Section 106 review.

“NHPA tells federal agencies to take into consideration and integrate cultural resources into overall management plans and priorities,” said Paige Hoskinson Olson, review and compliance coordinator for the South Dakota Historical Society.

Agencies are required to make a reasonable and good faith effort to protect historical resources, by knowing what they are getting into before a project starts, Hoskinson Olson said.

In the case of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which would cross diagonally across western South Dakota, the U.S. State Department has the final oversight for the Section 106 review.

Every federal agency has its own set of NHPA guidelines that require consulting state and tribal historic preservation officials, but the final decision-making rests with the supervising federal agency.

“The whole purpose is to identify properties that are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places,” Hoskinson Olson said. Properties such as buildings that cannot be preserved are typically documented to preserve a historical record.

The state is invited to comment on the historical significance of a site. The Office of Historic Preservation’s job is to represent the residents of the state “to make sure the federal agency is taking into consideration cultural resources,” Hoskinson Olson said.

If the destruction or disruption of a site or structure is unavoidable, federal, state and tribal officials will work to craft a memorandum of agreement and figure out a way to mitigate the loss of the site, she said.

The state office averages between 1,700 project reviews annually, according to Jason Haug, director of historic preservation for the South Dakota Historical Society.

Some reviews are lengthy, while others can be turned around in a week, Jason Haug said. The state has two archeologists and one architectural historian to manage those reviews.

Depending upon the federal agency involved, the project is completed before the information is submitted to the state office, Hoskinson Olson said.

The state’s Archaeological Research Center in Rapid City has oversight for projects on state lands. The center almost closed last year when it lost state general fund support. A portion of the state tourism tax now makes up the lost funds.

The center receives grants and performs commissioned archaeological surveys. Surveys might include interviews with residents of the locale, or a visual inspection of the area that might reveal anything from a likely camping site for nomadic tribes to a random arrowhead to a grave marker from the 1800s. When warranted, surveys also can include a “shovel survey” to probe below the surface.

Private firms also conduct archaeological surveys for various projects. TransCanada hired its own firm to conduct a ground survey of the Keystone XL route through western South Dakota, Hoskinson Olson said.

“They’re physically walking the ground to see what’s there,” she said.

Any project that crosses tribal lands falls under the scrutiny of the tribal historical preservation office.

Hill City paleontologist Peter Larson believes that’s one reason the Keystone XL Pipeline does not cross any reservation lands.

Larson contends the pipeline misses even the smallest parts of Bureau of Land Management lands in western South Dakota to avoid dealing with the federal government if an unexpected find occurs during construction. Under federal regulations, the company would be responsible for any mitigation costs or penalties if a resource is destroyed.

Historically significant artifacts found on private land are the property of the landowner.

“Fossils are real estate,” said Larson, who successfully lobbied the Public Utilities Commission to require TransCanada to pay for the costs of mitigation of any find made on private land.

Larson is not confident that TransCanada has done a thorough enough survey or will strive to avoid resources, particularly the wealth of paleontological resources that could be hidden beneath the soil of Harding County.

“I will guarantee they are going to destroy fossils and no one will ever see it,” Larson said. “That’s too much material that they’re going through. There’s no way they can avoid it.”

Keystone representative Jeff Rauh said TransCanada’s preference is to avoid potential or known sites of historical significance whenever it can.

“We’re bound by the requirements of state and federal agencies to treat any finds in a manner with their safe keeping,” Rauh said.

State Archaeologist Jim Haug acknowledges there are times when something is missed, even when a meticulous grid-by-grid assessment is made of an area.

“You’re sure that there’s occasionally sites that probably on a second look might have been more important that just ended up going under the bulldozer. You just don’t see it,” he said. “You make the best judgment you can, based upon the information you gather.”

South Dakota is divided into 24 archaeological zones. The State Plan for Archaeological Resources has summaries of resources in each county. Anytime an archaeological survey is performed, information on that survey is recorded.

The exact location of any find of archaeological significance is protected information.

The Archaeological Research Center has a standing contract with DOT to survey any highway projects. That evaluation often can include a consultation with tribal officials. Consideration also must be given to certain bridges that are eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, Keller said.

Surveys are done prior to design of a road projects. Pre-construction meetings are held to help identify possible historic sites.

“We do a really good thorough job at pre-construction,” Keller said. The meetings are painfully detailed, he said.

But no one complains. Contractors are familiar with the process and understand its importance, Keller said.

“It’s the right thing to do and it just makes good sense,” he said.