Thursday, 7 June 2012

Historic Battlefield Sites in US have Little Protection

Heritage protection legislation in the US does not currently afford protection to historic sites because of their historic values, but other criteria (such as whether they are burials or not and who owns the land now). A 2008 report shows that nationwide, 164 battlefields and historic sites from  the American Revolution and the War of 1812  face “medium” or “high” risk of destruction through development by 2018. Already 100 historic sites along the east Coast have already gone (John Fritze, 'Historians fret fate of War of 1812 Sites', The Baltimore Sun, May 27, 2012). Few federal resources have been directed to preserve from the War of 1812 (which will be remembered in a series of bicentennial events this year).
A bipartisan bill advancing in Congress could change that. The proposal, approved unanimously by the House Committee on Natural Resources in April, would expand the American Battlefield Protection Program beyond Civil War sites to include properties that played a role in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The measure authorizes $10 million in grants that local governments would match to buy historic properties for preservation [...] the bill, crafted by Democratic Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, has two Republican co-sponsors and could receive a vote by the full House in coming weeks.
“History is best experienced by those who can touch it and feel it,” Holt said during a hearing earlier this year. “There is really a desperate need to act and to act quickly”.
In the context of the portable antiquities collecting debate it will be interesting to see how this bill fares. This is for two reasons, first the criticisms that US collectors and dealers aim at the cultural preservationists for the "nationalism" that allegedly they exhibit in trying to preserve the heritage of a region. Is protecting historic battlefields in America (connected with the national history of the USA) any the less "nationalistic" than Roman remains in Bulgaria? (and if so, how?). Secondly the argument trotted out all the time is that if "source nations" want to prevent looters looting of historic sites they should "guard them more effectively". How well are these American historic sites guarded that 100 have recently disappeared? I've not seen the 2008 report, but wonder whether depredation by collectable-grabbing artefact hunters was one of the threats to the integrity of the sites discussed. I hope it was, and hope it was condemned for the damage it does. I have no doubt that the Task Force for Metal Detectorists' Rights will be up in arms about this new bill that threatens even further to restrict where they can go a-digging and a-hoiking.

One wonders however whether, as US lawmakers work to reduce federal budget deficits, buying up all the threatened land (taking it into 'Guardianship' in the terms of the English system) is the most cost-effective way of dealing with this problem. Why is the state lumbered with the task when it cannot afford it? Why not take a look at the British (and continental European) systems where land remains in private ownership, but there are limits placed by planning legislation (conservation zones, scheduled and listed sites) on the use and most particularly the changes in use of the land protecting the national assets that happen to be in and on that patch of land? This of course would entail a change in view towards those national assets on the part of landowners.  

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