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Cultural Resources

NRCS is committed to ensuring productive lands and watersheds are in harmony with a healthy environment, which includes cultural resources. Cultural resources are nonrenewable and often yield unique information about past societies and environments with implications for modern issues.

NRCS and Cultural Resources

Cultural Resources are evidence of past human activity. These include sites, districts, buildings, structures and objects significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture. Some examples are pioneer homes, buildings or old roads; bridges and other engineering structures, such as dams; precontact village sites; historic or precontact artifacts or objects; rock inscriptions; earthworks, such as battlefield entrenchments, precontact canals or mounds, shipwrecks and traditional cultural properties. Cultural resources are nonrenewable and often yield unique information, sometimes over thousands of years, about past societies and environments and provide answers for modern day social and conservation problems.

The NRCS is committed to ensuring productive lands and watersheds are in harmony with a healthy environment. Our programs deliver conservation and economic solutions to agricultural producers, local governments, sponsors, and others. A healthy environment includes cultural resources. Indigenous peoples (Native Americans, Native Alaskans, Native Hawaiian) have been here since time immemorial and Europeans and Africans for at least five hundred years. It is unlikely that there are any areas where there has been no human interaction or impact on the landscape and therefore, NRCS acknowledges that: there are cultural values, historical/ cultural knowledge, and significant material culture associated with our landscape; that healthy lands and waters have included human interaction through time; that indigenous people should have elevated voices in cultural and environmental solutions; and that the protection of one often equates to the protection of the other.  

One way in which the federal government, including NRCS, acknowledges and considers cultural resources is through compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act and other laws.  

National Historic Preservation Act Compliance (Section 106) 

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended (54 USC 300101 et seq.: Historic Preservation; Former citation: 16 USC 470 et seq.) and a specific section of the Act, Section 106, requires that federal agencies take into account the impacts of their undertakings on historic properties and give the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) an opportunity to comment. The ACHP promotes the preservation, enhancement, and sustainable use of the nation’s diverse historic resources, and advises the President and Congress on national historic preservation policy. The ACHP oversees 36 CFR 800, the implementing regulations for Section 106.

An undertaking is defined as a project, activity, or program funded in whole or in part under the direct or indirect jurisdiction of a Federal agency, including those carried out by or on behalf of a Federal agency; those carried out with Federal financial assistance; and those requiring a Federal permit, license or approval. At NRCS, that means that all of our projects must go through Section 106 so the agency is compliant with this law. 

The four-step process of Section 106 is outlined in its implementing regulations at 36 CFR 800 and includes 1) initiating consultation, 2) identifying historic properties, 3) assessing adverse effects, and 4) resolving adverse effects.  These regulations also define the roles and responsibilities of all participants in the Section 106 process.  

Consulting parties in Section 106 include the Federal agency, or Federal Preservation Officer (FPO), State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO), Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (THPOs), the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), producers, sponsors, and others who have a demonstrated interest in a project.  NRCS’s Federal Preservation Officer is located in NRCS’s National Office, Science and Technology Deputy Area in the Ecological Sciences Division. The NRCS’s Deputy Federal Preservation Officer is located at the National Watershed Management Center. NRCS’s State Conservationists are ultimately responsible for Section 106 compliance in their state.  Section 106 consultation is inherently governmental, must be done by NRCS federal employees, and cannot be contracted to any non-federal employee.

Tribal consultation, in Section 106, follows the regulations at 36 CFR 800 and NRCS must conduct this government-to-government consultation with the utmost integrity. Section 106 tribal consultation at NRCS, as done through the regulatory process, requires that a state’s Cultural Resources Specialist (CRS) be involved in guiding the agency through these consultations with a federally recognized tribe’s THPO and/or cultural resources staff. Additionally, NRCS has a tribal trust responsibility, which overlaps and plays a part in how the agency conducts these consultations at the highest fiduciary level.  

At NRCS, CRS staff in each state guide the agency through all four steps of the regulatory Section 106 process in their respective state, including consultation and developing relationships with SHPOs, THPOs, and all of NRCS’s Section 106 partners. In accordance with the National Prototype Programmatic Agreement (PPA), a CRS is also required to be on staff to implement a state’s PPA, provide training to NRCS staff, oversee any cultural resource contracts and cultural resources work, develop Section 106 agreement documents such as project-specific Programmatic Agreements (PAs) and Memorandums of Agreement (MOAs) and ensure that Section 106 compliance is effective and efficient. NRCS has training about the agency’s Section 106 compliance and identification and evaluation of archaeological resources that is divided into 8 modules. Modules 7 and 8 are taught at the state level by the CRS. This training is required of all NRCS staff involved in planning. Modules 1 through 6 are available via AgLearn, to the offices and agencies of the Department of Agriculture. Each state also has a State Resource Conservationist who oversee the CRS and their work. Questions about what documentation, studies, or consultation requirements are required for NRCS to comply with Section 106 of the NHPA should be directed to the CRS in each state.

NRCS’s National Prototype Programmatic Agreement (PPA)

In 2014 the ACHP signed an authorization designating a PPA for use by NRCS.  PPA’s are a type of NHPA Section 106 program alternative that assist federal agencies in their efforts to comply with the requirements of Section 106. NRCS’s PPA establishes streamlined efficiencies and protocols for implementing its undertakings. To use the PPA, each state works through their CRS to execute and implement subsequent agreements with the appropriate SHPO and/or THPO. The PPA ensures that consistent measures are used to address the impacts of NRCS programs on historic properties and are uniformly applied in each agreement negotiated pursuant to the PPA while allowing individual agreements to be tailored to conditions in each state. The agency’s FPO and a CRS in the state are required to implement the PPA.  

Since the authorization of the PPA in 2014, NRCS has completed PPA Agreements with 42 states, 3 American territories, and 6 Indian tribes. NRCS is actively pursuing completion of agreements with all states, territories and Indian tribes where implementation of the PPA will result in benefits to NRCS grant and technical assistance applicants and for the cultural resources involved in the Section 106 review.

NRCS and our partners have recognized the benefits of the PPA, which include reduced paperwork production and transmission, focused cultural resource inventory reviews leading to increased identification and protection efforts, expedited grant application and technical assistance reviews, and better working relationships with Indian tribes and SHPOs.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Compliance, Cultural Resources, and the NHPA Section 106

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, as amended, is another law that NRCS must comply with. NEPA established the President's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to oversee NEPA implementation. CEQ has issued regulations (40 CFR Parts 1500-1508) to implement NEPA. NEPA is a separate law. NEPA is not the NHPA or Section 106. However, NEPA also requires that NRCS consider cultural resources as part of the larger environment.  NRCS often uses information gathered in the process of compliance with Section 106 of the NHPA, to inform the agency’s NEPA analyses.   

NRCS’s statutory obligations under NEPA and NHPA are independent, but integrating the processes creates efficiencies and supports a broad discussion of effects to the human environment. Section 106 review must be complete prior to issuance of a federal decision, so that a broad range of alternatives may be considered during the planning process.

Integration of NEPA and Section 106 should begin early to enhance agency planning. Integration of NEPA and Section 106 makes sense because the historic properties of concern in Section 106 are one type of resource in the human environment considered in NEPA; both processes are triggered by federal funding, permits, licenses, or other assistance; both processes should be initiated early in project planning when a broad range of alternatives can be considered; and, completion of both processes is needed for NRCS to proceed to implement an action or undertaking. To help coordinate the consideration of cultural resources information under Section 106 and NEPA, NRCS has created a document that shows where NHPA’s Section 106 and the consideration of cultural resources falls within both NEPA and the NRCS’s nine steps of the planning.

Other Cultural Resource Laws

NRCS also has statutory obligations under a variety of laws, executive orders, and regulations that address cultural resources in certain circumstances. A list of some of those that NRCS considers can be found below under External Cultural Resource Guidance and Other Historic Preservation Laws, Regulations and Organizations.

External Cultural Resource Guidance and Other Historic Preservation Laws, Regulations and Organization

Erika Martin Seibert

NRCS Federal Preservation Officer

Chuck Carrig

NRCS Deputy Federal Preservation Officer