If you are assigned to screen (by whatever name this procedure is called in your agency) a proposed action to see if it is categorically excluded from detailed National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, you are going to have some kind of internal procedure to follow. There is an excellent chance, however, that this procedure will be very much out of date, incomplete, and ineffective. It may employ some kind of checklist with a question like:
- Will the project affect any districts, sites, buildings, structures, or objects included in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places?
- Will any significant cultural resources be affected?
And it may give you no guidance whatever about how to figure out the answer to the question.
The first question is, in a way, the simpler one to answer, because there are definite procedures for answering it. These are set forth in the regulations of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) for Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (36 CFR 800). You are going to need to follow those regulations in order to decide whether historic properties are likely to be affected.
- If the project involves altering buildings or structures, digging in the ground, disposing of real property, or changing land use, there is probably the potential for effects on historic properties. Whether such effects will actually occur is something you are going to have to find out.
- It is not enough to just check the published National Register of Historic Places.
- Historic places are not always recognizable. They are not always buildings, they may be sites or districts, and they probably do not have signs identifying them as historic.
- You are probably going to have to do some kind of study. Examine the ACHP regulations, discuss things with your agency's historic preservation or cultural resource staff, and consult with outside authorities as needed – for example, the State or Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO or THPO), local historic preservation officials, and local preservation organizations.
In addition to considering historic properties, you ought to consider impacts on other types of "cultural resources," even if your categorical exclusion (CatEx) procedures do not explicitly ask you to. Other cultural impacts – for example, on an Indian tribe's religious practices or on the use of resources for cultural purposes by a minority group or low-income community – have to be considered under NEPA, whether or not the people who composed your CatEx checklist knew it at the time they prepared the procedures you are trying to follow.
Generally speaking . . .
- If the project will disturb the ground, there might be impacts on archeological sites, which may or may not be historic properties (i.e., eligible for the National Register of Historic Places), and which may or may not have religious or cultural value to descendant communities. Following the Section 106 regulations should help you deal with this possibility. You may also need to deal with the regulations implementing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). You will need to consult archeological and historic preservation authorities, and Indian tribes if Native American graves or cultural items may be affected.
- If the project will result in the disposition of documents, you are going to need to comply with your agency's procedures for implementing the Federal Records Act (FRA). Failure to do so can result in fines and imprisonment. Your agency should have an FRA coordinator who can advise you.
- If the project may do anything to the economy of an area, to land use, access to natural resources, or traffic volume or traffic patterns, it may have impacts on the sociocultural activities of communities and neighborhoods, which will need to be considered under NEPA. Finding out about this may require special social impact analyses, which will probably have to be done under contract.
- If the project involves the use of rural land, including but not limited to Federal land, there may be Native American cultural issues to be concerned about – not only general social impact issues, but also issues involving the religious use of natural areas, subsistence and religious use of natural resources, perceptions of spirituality, and ancestral burial sites. Consultation with potentially concerned Native American groups will be important, and may be required by law and executive order. Your agency should have an Indian tribal or Native American liaison official who can advise you. Think about whether low-income groups or minority communities might be affected by the project, because they live near where it is supposed to occur or because they use the area or value it for some reason. Consider possible cultural concerns – for example, community concern about a place where traditional fishing is done or about the character of a neighborhood – as well as concerns about such obvious impacts as exposure to toxic materials. If such groups or communities may be involved, you may have environmental justice issues to deal with that you will need to resolve before deciding whether the project can be categorically excluded.