The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, February 7, 2011

Tactless Tactics

One of the more frustrating aspects of working in environmental consulting is watching your work become a part of the political football game that surrounds many major projects. For example, several years back, I worked on a transmission line project in California's San Joaquin Valley.

The purpose of the project was to upgrade the existing electrical grid to account for population growth (and hence increased power construction) in the county. There were several potential routes, and the environmental crews were performing review activities to determine which route was the most environmentally feasible. As I performed the archaeological surveys for the project, I routinely encountered land owners (including home owners, farmers, and ranchers) who made it clear that they felt the project was necessary and even a boon to the community, but who routinely informed me that they would fight tooth and nail to make sure that the project crossed somebody else's land.

The fighting involved professional attacks against my work. A group of land owners denied access to my crew, preventing us from surveying these locations for archaeological sites. So, with no other recourse, we used a combination of older archaeological reports and records, historic photos and maps, and current topographic maps, as well as observations made from public roads, to gain a rough idea of the likelihood of finding archaeological sites in these areas. The report that was finally produced stated clearly that the estimate was rough, and that it was no substitute for a careful archaeological survey, and that such a survey must be performed before anything could be built.

Well, the landowners who had denied us access got hold of a copy of the report, saw this, and then contacted members of the local Native American tribal organization and the head of the local historical society, claiming that the project crossed through a known native village site (not true, the village site was several miles to the north of the proposed project area) and that my crew and I didn't perform any analysis of the area in question and claimed that a "windshield survey" (where you drive through the area and look at stuff from the road, which we did admittedly do as a part of the larger analysis) was sufficient (which we very definitely did not claim, the exact opposite was stated in the report, in fact). A letter containing these, well...let's call them dubious statements*, was sent to the tribal organization and the historical society, who then complained to the state agency in charge of licensing the project. The next thing I know, the agency's environmental office is demanding an explanation for my alleged malfeasance, which is odd as had they bothered to actually read the document in question (and which was sent to them before it was sent to anyone else) they would have found that the claims being made about the report were completely untrue.

Luckily, my boss knew the historian, so I was able to call her. Once I had her on the phone, we had a very strange conversation in which she started by telling me how terrible a job I had done and how poor my professional ethics were, but as I walked her through the report and the information contained therein (and pointed out the page numbers where it was shown that we were unable to perform a pedestrian survey because the very same landowners who had gotten her worked up had denied our crew access to the land), she began to change her views and take my side. When all was said and done, she asked for a few changes to make it clear that any route selected would be subject to pedestrian survey (which was already stated clearly and prominently multiple times in the report, but I was willing to play politics enough to include it yet one more time), but was otherwise satisfied that we had done the best that we could, and that there may be more to the situation than she had been led to believe.

The weird irony is that the other possible routes were riddled with archaeological sites and weird biology issues. The route where the landowners had denied us access was an unknown, but our preliminary analysis indicated that it was likely to be the worst of the all possible routes. The problem is that, lacking data, there is a possibility that the powers that be at the utilities company might eventually decide to take a gamble on the route for which little is known rather than sink money into mitigation for the other routes, and the stunt with the lying about the studies hurt the credibility of the opponents of the route. The effects of the attempt to prevent construction of the route by denying access and lying about the contents of the report are still unknown, but there is a possibility that it may result in these people losing land in an eminent domain grab and essentially backfire. Time will tell.

*A polite way of saying "slanderous bullshit told by liars with no sense of morality and a desire to get their way even if it means screwing other people over." Not that I have an opinion, or anything.

No comments: