What are "Cultural Resources"?

The term "cultural resource" is not defined in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or any other Federal law. However, there are several laws and executive orders that deal with particular kinds of "resources" that are "cultural" in character.

  • NEPA itself, and the CEQ regulations, require that agencies consider the effects of their actions on all aspects of the "human environment." Humans relate to their environment through their culture, so the cultural aspects of the environment — for example, cultural uses of the natural environment, the built environment, and human social institutions — obviously must be considered in NEPA analyses. 

  • The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) sets forth government policy and procedures regarding "historic properties" — that is, districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects included in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Section 106 of NHPA requires that Federal agencies consider the effects of their actions on such properties, following regulations issued by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (36 CFR 800).

  • The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires Federal agencies and federally assisted museums to return "Native American cultural items" to the Federally recognized Indian tribes or Native Hawaiian groups with which they are associated. Regulations, by the National Park Service (NPS) are at 43 CFR 10.

  • The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) says that the U.S. Government will respect and protect the rights of Indian tribes to the free exercise of their traditional religions; the courts have interpreted this as requiring agencies to consider the effects of their actions on traditional religious practices.

  • The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) prohibits the excavation of archeological resources (anything of archeological interest) on Federal or Indian lands without a permit from the land manager.

  • The Archeological Data Preservation Act (ADPA) or Archeological and Historic Preservation Act (AHPA) requires agencies to report any perceived impacts that their projects and programs may have on archeological, historical, and scientific data, and requires them to recover such data or assist the Secretary of the Interior in recovering them.

  • The Federal Records Act (FRA) requires that agencies manage documents in such a way as to protect their historical value.

  • The Abandoned Shipwrecks Act (ASA) asserts U.S. title to abandoned shipwrecks and transfers title to the states.

  • Executive Order 12898 requires that agencies try to avoid disproportionate and adverse environmental impacts on low-income and minority populations. Impacts may be cultural — for example, impacts on a culturally important religious, subsistence, or social practice.

  • Executive Order 13006 requires that agencies give priority to using historic buildings in historic districts in central business areas to meet their mission requirements.

  • Executive Order 13007 requires that agencies try not to damage "Indian sacred sites" on Federal land and avoid blocking access to such sites by traditional religious practitioners.

A good NEPA analysis should consider impacts on all these kinds of resources and address the requirements of all these laws.

What is the "Human Environment?"

"Human environment" shall be interpreted comprehensively to include the natural and physical environment and the relationship of people with that environment (40 CFR 1508.14).

NEPA's concern is with the "human environment," defined as including the natural and physical (e.g., built) environment and the relationships of people to that environment. A thorough environmental analysis under NEPA should systematically address the "human" — social and cultural — aspects of the environment as well as those that are more "natural," and should address the relationships between natural and cultural.

Culturally valued aspects of the environment generally include historic properties, other culturally valued pieces of real property, cultural use of the biophysical environment, and such "intangible" sociocultural attributes as social cohesion, social institutions, lifeways, religious practices, and other cultural institutions. These impacts are usually analyzed either as impacts on "cultural resources," or as "social impacts," or as both — but many such impacts actually fall into the cracks between the "cultural resource" and "social impact" categories as usually defined.