A press for preservation

Does Nevada need a law to protect archaeological and historic sites on private property?

Many archaeologists are unhappy that Nevada has no antiquities law when it comes to private property. With the exception of the Truckee Meadows Regional Plan, no local ordinances exist in the state to protect archaeological and historic areas on private property.

In other words, except for the TMRP’s protection provision, Nevada property owners and developers are under no legal obligation to report, preserve or excavate sites they find—unless human remains are found.

“I know of counties where there are resources on private land that have been destroyed,” says Nevada Historic Preservation Office archaeologist Rebecca Palmer. “Even if the public complains, we can do nothing.”

Even in the area covered by the TMRP, there’s only so much that Washoe County or the cities of Reno or Sparks can do, county Planning Manager Sharon Kvas says.

“It’s a real balancing act,” she says.

The balance: preserving land rights vs. preserving historical sites. When those two collide in the TMRP area, it’s a matter of negotiation. Usually, both Palmer and Kvas say, issues can be worked out. Palmer cites things that developers have done in the Damonte Ranch area south of Reno, at the Saint James Village area on Mount Rose, and efforts involving the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency as compromises that allowed for sites to be reviewed and artifacts to be saved—and even presented to the public in displays.

“When [the TMRP] is followed, it is good,” Palmer says. “It results in some positive preservation and mitigation.”

But in other areas of Nevada, it’s no balancing act. The developers can do whatever they choose. Both Palmer and Kvas support an antiquities law to give the state and/or local authorities more power to protect sites found on private property. Kvas also says she’d like to see money provided for property owners to be bought out if their property is determined to be important archaeologically.

Tribal leaders support such laws as well, as they watch more and more land important to their ancestors getting developed.

“We would prefer there were no development [in these areas],” says William Dancing Feather, the cultural resources coordinator for the Washoe tribe. “But that’s not practical.”

Such laws have been introduced before in the Nevada Legislature. But they never make it far, Palmer says, because developers don’t want them.

Anchor Storage owner Timothy Farrell doesn’t want more laws for developers to deal with. However, after his experience with the Big Metate site, he thinks developers could benefit from clearer guidelines on what to do if they find historically significant artifacts and want to preserve them.

“I think laws have a tendency to get out of hand,” he says. “The hoops are excessive already. There just need to be guidelines established.”

Thus, the battle between the interests of developers and the interests of historic preservation rages on. And as Nevada continues to grow at its nation-leading pace, the battle promises to continue for quite some time.