Editor’s Note: This discussion of historic sites has been prepared byTerry Fifield, Heritage Program Leader, White Mountain National Forest
Historic sites and artifacts on federal lands are the legacy of all Americans and should not be disturbed for personal interest or commercial gain.
In general, all sites over 50 years old are considered historic. These may include buildings (or other architectural features such as bridges and culverts), camps, graveyards, mining camps, logging camps, cellar holes, farmsteads, mill foundations, dams, equipment and vehicles (including aircraft) and many other types of past material culture.
The term archaeological refers to the material remains of past human activities now buried in the ground. Archaeological sites may be historic or prehistoric in age. Archaeological sites might include Native American villages, camps, butchering sites, etc. represented by stone and ceramic artifacts and camp features such as hearths, house floors, or stone piles; camps, settlements, farms, cemeteries, industrial sites from the European colonial period through the mid 20th century.
A variety of federal laws protect historic and prehistoric cultural resources on federal lands (including National Forest Lands). These include:
(1) The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (1979): applies to archaeological sites over 100 years old. ARPA amplifies the Antiquities Act (1906) and provides stiff civil and criminal penalties for destruction, damage, defacing, or removing archaeological resources.
(2) 36CFR800: Protection of Historic Properties: applies to sites over 50 years old
(3) 18USC641: Theft of Government Property: applies to all cultural sites over 50 years old
The ethics, science, and law of historic preservation:
(1) The “Leave No Trace” message: leave it where you find it for the benefit of future visitors and future generations. Do no damage. Be a steward! We all have special feelings and experiences when we come across or visit historic places on the forest and imagine ourselves walking in the footsteps of those who passed this way before us. Leaving historic sites as you find them, taking only photos, passes the opportunity to have that special experience on to our children and grandchildren.
(2) The Science message: In large part we preserve historic and prehistoric sites because they embody the opportunity, when studied scientifically, to yield important information about past human lives and the uses of the land and its resources. Artifacts and features and the spatial relationships among them give us clues to past human (and natural) activities. Cultural sites are non-renewable resources. Once damaged, disturbed, destroyed, or removed they are no longer available for study and that opportunity to learn is lost not only to the archaeologist but to the public as well. The puzzle is made unsolvable if the pieces are removed. Scientific researchers, who may be permitted under federal laws, are required to create a detailed record of discovery allowing later researchers to use their data to reconstruct the past. Professional archaeologists are required to publish that information for future reference and use.
(3) The Legal Message: Recognizing the non-renewable character of historic and prehistoric sites and their value to the American people federal (and state) governments enacted laws prohibiting the destruction of these sites out of personal interest, requiring permitting of qualified professional researchers, and providing criminal and civil penalties for illegal destruction of important cultural resources. The various laws impose fines (from a few hundred dollars to $250,000) and jail time depending on the severity of the offense.
A good website for information about laws related to Historic Preservation is: http://www.nps.gov/history/laws.htm