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What Actually is Cultural Resource Management?

By Alexis Eades

Cultural Resource Management. When I first started working here, I remember hearing that phrase and having absolutely no clue what on earth that could mean. It never really came up in the work I did, so I never gave it a second thought.

But that’s changed, because I was alerted to the fact that our Houston office now provides cultural resources for jobs across the country.  I was interested in learning what the heck it was. So I went to our cultural resource expert herself, Natural Resources Project Manager Lauren Maas. I set up a meeting with her after only a tiny bit of googling and a very loose understanding of what it means. Something about archeology, something about checking job sites for… stuff???

I quickly learned that Cultural Resource Management, or CRM, involves investigating and preserving cultural sites. What might these sites be? To name just a few, any architecturally significant building, Native American burial sites, shipwrecks and historical districts.

Who is Lauren? 

Lauren grew up watching Indiana Jones, dreaming of one day becoming an archeologist herself, and discovered this very cool, niche arena for it. But not just anyone can do this. Lauren got her bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from Texas A&M University and a master’s degree in Anthropology from University of Houston.

You only need a B.A. to do fieldwork at a technician level. In order to be a Principal Investigator, and often times to direct fieldwork and/or do report writing, you need your M.A.

You must be “S.O.I. qualified,” which means you meet the Secretary of the Interior’s qualifications, to be a Principal Investigator. Meeting those qualifications is a requirement of most regulatory agencies.

Lauren is also a Registered Professional Archaeologist (RPA). While not a required credential, it often signals that you are qualified to lead/direct these types of projects. It’s looked for by other firms, agencies, etc.

Sooo Why Do We Have This Service? 

Ok, so imagine you have a site where a company wants to build a warehouse. In America, you can’t just look at a piece of land and start building on it that day, right? You gotta check it out first. You might perform topographic and boundary surveys to see what you’re physically dealing with from a design/construction standpoint. But you more than likely need to check it for endangered species or other environmental concerns. Well, okay, somewhere in my head I already knew that. What I didn’t know was that exactly like you have to check for environmental factors and for certain species of animals, bugs, and plants, you also have to check for cultural significance. Here’s where Cultural Resource Management comes in!!

Just like if you discover an endangered species, if you find arrowheads or clay pots, or anything that could possibly mean that this spot has significance to a culture from the past or present, you can’t just ignore it. Sometimes we do Cultural Resource Management because something has physically been found. And sometimes it’s just because there’s a likelihood that this spot may have something, and we have to check to be sure.

Cultural Resource Management is not project-type dependent. Meaning from land development, solar, gas or electric transmission projects, any time there is federal funding, or a federal permit involved, certain state or local requirements are triggered, and someone has to research the site for cultural significance.

What Does Lauren’s Job Look Like? 

Again, speaking broadly, Cultural Resource Management addresses certain regulatory requirements when it comes to environmental work performed for construction and design projects. But that entails a lot of different tasks.

Lauren could be looking at the side of the road in New Jersey on Monday, then an old chemical plant in Pennsylvania on Wednesday. And she could be in the office writing a report or dealing with other regulatory questions and permitting issues on Friday. She looks for historic structures and archeological sites, historical landmarks, and at cemeteries. There’s lots of front-end background review, using online data bases and contacts. Her favorite part of her job is the research part, when she gets to be a sleuth and sift through information. She searches online, on databases, in old records, and in official documents.

She also said, “When we find an artifact, I get excited about that, the academic side. Of course, it’s not good news from a regulatory perspective for the company. But then my job becomes creating solutions. From the inception phase to finding things to presenting it to federal and state agencies to creating solutions for how to deal with it exactly, problem solving is the bulk of what we do.  And that’s exciting.”

In the Weeds with Cultural Resources

Cultural Resource Management involves multiple phases.

Many states do not separate Phase I investigations into A & B. They are often done together as just a Phase I. However, sometimes they are separated, so we are going to look at them individually here.

We Need To Research

Phase 1A entails desktop analysis. This means someone looking at available information to see if there are previously recorded cultural resources in, adjacent to, or within a pre-determined radius of a proposed project. You also look to see if there were past surveys of the site. You would also examine soils, geology, and possibly potential geoarchaeological liability depending on where you are. Basically, you’ve done your homework on a place before going out there.

Phase 1B is when she actually visits a site in person. She takes photos, and digs to search for artifacts or features (e.g. hearths, quarry sites, etc.) that indicate humans were there in the past. It helps us know more about the area, the people who may have been there, and potentially a host of other research value (or not) depending on the site.

So We’ve Found Something

Phase 2 is more significant digging, usually if something had indeed been found in 1B, which is not always the case. Basically, if you come across a site that requires more intensive excavation to be fully examined, and or you want/need to be more detailed, you would move to this phase. Getting to this phase is more common with sites that are better preserved, larger, denser, or known for some reason.

Phase 3 are larger, deeper, longer term research projects. You wouldn’t do these for the kinds of projects we secure permitting for. A company would avoid these at all costs and/or agencies might prohibit them from impacting a site that would warrant a Phase III. These are almost entirely academic research-level type projects.

Now You’re (Basically) a Cultural Resource Management Expert

So they’re all about problem solving, just different types of problems, different audiences, and different levels of complexity. I guess at its core, that’s what this service is. It’s all about identifying challenges and formulating solutions that serve both the firm and client, and also the people and cultures that we come across.

That wasn’t so bad, right?

I’ll catch ya next time I ask, What Actually? 

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