The time to change the cultural resource management industry is now 15

The rebirth of the American economy gives us a chance to change the cultural resource management industryWe didn’t choose for things to end up the way they are in cultural resource management archaeology, but we can choose to change them.

I’ve only been a CRMer for a decade or so. I’ve seen things change for the worse but, these days, it looks like things are on the upswing:

  • I watched projects go from having ample time to finish the job to having no time.
  • Low-balling always existed before but now it’s nearly customary.
  • We used to get our own hotel room while out on the field, then we were double-bunking it every single time.
  • I watched the HR and accounting people start taking back the per diem that you didn’t “need” unless you showed all your receipts (which meant CRMers started forging receipts or shopping for their weekly groceries at a gas station just to make sure they got all of their pay).
  • Archaeological technicians used to be staff employees then, all of a sudden, only PIs and project managers could be sure of a paycheck. Then, even that went the way of the dodo.
  • CRM companies had more projects than employees, then they had no projects and almost no employees.
  • I’ve watched big environmental firms vacuum up small, local companies, fire all the support staff and throw away the company report library to save overhead (When asked if the archaeologists should even use books and reports to make historical contexts the management just said, “That’s up to you.”)
  • I witnessed corporate heads jet-setting around the world attending conferences they weren’t even presenting at right after laying off all their archaeological technicians and furloughing the remaining crew chiefs.
  • Worst of all: I’ve seen cultural resource management go from a force for contributing to scientific inquiry to a commodity to be purchased at the lowest possible price.

This has been a long time coming. The Great Recession only made it worse, but CRM archaeologists have been talking about the deterioration of our industry for over 40 years now.

Let the good times roll

Here’s the good news. The economy is picking up. Stuff is getting built. Governments are getting taxes again (unless you live in a Red State) and they need environmental consultants. Now is a great time to graduate from college and go into CRM for a number of reasons:

We are in demand again— Good archaeologists can actually find jobs again. It’s not like jobs are falling off of trees but it’s also not like the bad old days of scouring the globe for a temporary monitoring position that didn’t even pay the minimum wage.

There is work— Projects are going down again. I’m starting to get calls about work. Companies are asking me if I know of anyone who needs a job again. I like that.

It’s not just suburban sprawl anymore— I came into the industry at the tail end of the telecom/fiber optic upgrade period. We had miles and miles of area to survey in anticipation of fiber optic line construction. These projects lasted weeks, usually provided decent per diem, and allowed enough time and budget to write decent reports. Then, we started doing suburbs and townhouses for private developers who didn’t want anything except for the low bid. A lot of them ripped CRM companies off by failing to pay for curation or reporting. Projects were consistently underbid so often that CRM PIs started thinking that was the only way to get a project.

The most profitable contracts today are infrastructure projects and for natural gas and oil exploration. Corporations with money are driving revenue again. This is good for archaeologists that want work.

Moving away from low bid to functional budgets— During the Recession, government agencies that used to be pretty good at supporting quality archaeology drank the kool-aid and started accepting totally underbudgeted proposals. Unlike the telecom and energy-sector companies, it wasn’t so easy to get these agencies to take change orders for more money. A lot of companies started eating it on IDIQ projects. Work quality suffered. The downward spiral continued.

The government got burned throughout the Recession. A lot of those “best value” projects were completely blundered and the agencies are left holding a fistful of crappily done reports and projects. Land-administering agencies have incentive to choose the lowest (or second lowest) bid, but administrators get reprimanded for work that was done shoddily by contractors. Many of these agencies have learned their lesson and are choosing more feasible proposals. Also, Section 110 requirements provide an opportunity for the agencies to redo what wasn’t done right the last time. The conversations I’ve had with agency archaeologists lead me to believe there is more room to do quality work again these days.

There’s never a better time to start over than today

During the Recession, we were all scrambling for jobs. Every single day, PIs came to work obsessed with finding a way to pay their employees. They low balled and issued change orders because many felt like they had to. Companies laid off everyone they could because they were trying to stay in business. Better to save some jobs than have everybody standing in the unemployment line.

The slowly restarting economy is giving the cultural resources industry a second chance. We can do all the things we’ve always done well (conduct a lot of archaeology and historic preservation at a reasonable price) AND we can improve upon what we haven’t been doing well. As usual, I have some suggestions:

Become historic preservation service providers— The cultural resource management is too focused on archaeology. This is bad because archaeology is usually a “one-and-done” endeavor. Once you’ve done the survey, dug up the site, written the report, and curated the artifacts, you’ve got to go back out on the street and start hustling again.

Fortunately, archaeologists in the United States are trained as anthropologists which means we have the capacity to study the human condition from a number of different angles. This makes us well-poised to capitalize on the new trend of re-appropriating things that were en vogue or constructed prior to the 1950s. We are also familiar with local bureaucracies and can provide longue durée-style advice on what has and has not worked in urban planning and sustainable agriculture.

Farmer’s markets, heirloom crops, traditional crafts, vintage restaurants, organic gardening, urban farming, community block parties, food trucks, mass transportation, walkability, revitalized downtowns, basically every hipster thing we think is cool in the 2010s has already been extensively researched by CRM archaeologists, architect, and historians. We can make all these things more “authentic”, better informed, and more economically viable through the artful application of anthropological, ethnographic, and historical skills CRMers already possess.

Basically, cultural resource management industry has a unique skillset that is very suitable to our current society. We know how things were done in the past because it’s all we think about all day long. And, we’ve been writing about it for decades. Now is the time to make this knowledge known. If we want to stay alive, we have to reposition ourselves on heritage consultants—THE ones who know how stuff was done in the past.

Potential actions:

  • Create cookbooks and home canning books based on turn-of-the-century recipes.
  • Advise planners on how walkable neighborhoods and mass transit have been created for the last 6,000 years. What works? What hasn’t?
  • Figure out which crops were popular in local gardens for the last few thousand years and create information sessions on how those can be grown again.
  • Become advisers for organic and urban farmers on how residents can increase household self-sufficiency.

Diversify income streams—We cannot continue to rely on simply doing archaeology to make ends meet. As I mentioned before, CRM has remained too reliant on hand-to-mouth proposaling that results in an irresponsible boom and bust cycle.

Diversifying income streams is necessary but it depends on the part of the country, local economies, and the local skillsets that are in demand at any given time. Nevertheless, we are all smart enough to know that cultural resource management will not survive for very much longer unless we figure out ways to tap into other industries or generate sources of residual income.

Potential Actions:

  • Create online courses for local universities.
  • Become creative content consultants for hipster businesses (restaurant, architecture, design, ect.)
  • Create and sell both fiction and non-fiction eBooks.

Reinvest in assets— I’ve worked for CRM company owners who are millionaires. They didn’t start off that way but, over the years, they were able to create lucrative firms that helped them make money.

Some of these successful CRM-only outfits set up shop across a multi-state region. Others morphed into full-service environmental consulting companies that also spread across a larger geographic area. This expansion has been executed in two ways: starting satellite offices in other communities or buying other companies that were already established in these areas.

The only problem with these techniques is you are not only spreading the potential for profit into other areas, you are also assuming all of the liabilities of these new offices. The upside is you can make money in another part of the world. The downside is you have the potential to lose more money because you are assuming all the operating costs of these new branches with no clear guarantee of increased revenue. Basically, opening a new branch or buying a small company can quickly transform from purchasing an asset to assuming a liability.

The key is to make sure the company continues reinvesting profits in assets (i.e. things that put money into the company) in order to absorb the potential losses that can come from opening a satellite office that crashes and burns or buying a company that flounders once the founder moves on.

Potential Actions:

  • Buy investment real estate.
  • Make sure each office is housed in an income-producing commercial building.
  • Start/buy an online training program that sells certifications for certain industry necessities (CPR, MSHA, HAZWOPER, NHPA, NEPA, OSHA, ect.)
  • Purchase ranch or farmland that can be leased to local agriculturalists.
  • Buy properties that have significant tax benefits. For example, properties that are eligible for new markets or historic tax credits.
  • Look for assets abroad. For example, stuff like foreign mass transit systems, schools, subsidized housing, and utilities. Try and invest in infrastructure items formerly owned by the government that every country needs.

Here's how cultural resource management archaeology can become a community assetIdentify previously unheard of partners— This whole exercise will require us to think outside the cultural resources box we’ve been checking for decades. Perhaps it will also get us into thinking about unconventional partnerships that we may have been overlooking. Here are some partnerships I’ve identified that could help diversify income streams and/or further the cause of becoming embedded heritage consultants:

University/CRMers: Connecting CRM firms with local universities should be a no-brainer but it is not a widespread occurrence even though the private firms stand to gain much by training future employees before they graduate. CRMers could teach classes or whole courses at local universities, which would give students a taste of CRM before they get their diploma. Local firms could also offer part-time internships and research assistantships that could qualify for college credit and help supplement anthro departmental RA/TA stipends.

Students gain experience and exposure. Companies save money by training future employees before they graduate. Universities get to tap into experienced local instructors and expand their departmental offerings. Sounds like a win-win-win to me.

Developers/CRMers: Real estate development is dependent upon calculations. The difference between a profitable deal and an unprofitable one lies in the preliminary estimates that include potential funding sources, interest, insurance, and tax liabilities. As experts in historic preservation, CRM firms can market themselves as an information source for real estate developers who are interested in using historic preservation and other tax rebates to make their deals more viable. We can also provide advice on ways historic preservation can increase the value of nearby properties. Finally, we make NRHP eligibility recommendations that are the primary vehicle for accessing historic tax credits.

Rather than simply being compliance consultants, we can partner with certain developers to help them find lucrative deals and how to leverage historic preservation to increase their bottom lines. CRM firms with the right people can become trusted advisers to the multi-billion dollar real estate development industry.

Native American Tribes/CRMers: To a certain point, this already exists. But there is much room for improvement. Today’s anthro students are more aware of proper ethical interactions with Native Americans than any previous generation. This could potentially make the next wave of CRMers a very reflexive and collaborative cohort.

Many Native American THPOs are doing an excellent job of managing their sites, but most Native communities do not have the professional capacity to provide full, in-house compliance. A lot of work on the reservation is contracted out to CRM firms. A firm with the right relationship with Native tribes is in an excellent position to not only help tribes and the federal government meet their regulatory obligations, it is also a chance for skilled, experienced CRMers to help the next generation of tribal cultural resource consultants.

Strong Towns/CRMers: Chances are you have not heard of the Strong Towns movement.

The Curbside Chat Trailer from Gracen Johnson on Vimeo.

Here’s the nuts-and-bolts version: Suburban growth in the United States since World War II has left us saddled with public debt and sprawling, non-functional cities. In order to pay for what we’ve already built and provide a future for our children, we will have to increase use of the urban core while simultaneously curbing sprawl. This means infill, increasing density and sustainability, alternative modes of transportation (i.e. walking, biking and mass transit), increasing the number of small businesses and jobs in the city limits, and reducing tax giveaways for big corporations. By doing all of these things, we will increase tax revenue without building more stuff we have to pay for.

The cultural resource management industry is particularly well positioned to help rebuild our cities and make them into more sustainable. Historic preservation has always been based on the concept of amenity. It strives to make communities more livable. We can use the best of what we know about the past to advise communities on how they can replicate what our great, grandparents used to do. We can also help make the kind of interesting, attractive urban places that attract talented people while also saving money for local governments.

This is the direction our country is already moving. CRMers can help move us along at a faster pace.

Rebranding CRM is not going to be easy but it will be worthwhile

I know what Americans think about archaeologists. They like us. But, I don’t know what they think about the cultural resource management industry. Some Americans think we are a roadblock to development. Others may think we are another industry suckling from the government teat. I’m not sure how many Americans think we help preserve our heritage.

We need to start helping make communities better. Practicing Plentitude is, possibly, the only way we can keep the industry afloat.

The main goal for the cultural resource management industry is for it to move beyond compliance archaeology. In order to do that, we have to rebrand ourselves as a community asset that helps increase the quality of life on the local scale while also increasing public revenue/decreasing liabilities. We have done a pretty good job working with local governments but have a long way to go with regard to embedding ourselves into the communities in which we work.

Our knowledge needs to be seen as something that makes life better. We know about the past, but haven’t effectively communicated how this knowledge makes life better in the present. We also care about human communities, but haven’t used our skills, services, or profits to reinvest in the local community. Cultural resource management is at a crossroads.

The industry is mature and has weathered several recessions. It is resilient and full of extremely smart, skilled, and compassionate practitioners. All we have to do is turn some of our attention away from chasing the next contract and start thinking about what we can contribute to our local communities. We need all the minds we can muster if we are ever going to solve the larger problems within our industry and American society.

What do you think. Is cultural resource management broken? Am I crazy or do we need to change? Should we become a force for community change or should we just keep writing reports and proposaling until we’re blue in the face?

Keep the conversation going. Write a comment below or send me an email.

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15 thoughts on “The time to change the cultural resource management industry is now

  • Chron

    Your solutions and fixes are sound. However, we have NO power to do any of it. How do we influence the decision makers to make the changes? Who even are these decision makers? What is the first step towards this that we can all do tomorrow?

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Thanks for leaving me a comment. You are correct. My suggestions are fixes with no clear pathway toward success. I wrote this post after being strongly influenced by my time living in Tucson where there are several things that have culminated in the unique place this town is today. I urge you to check out the Sonoran Conservation Plan. It’s an open space initiative that prioritizes historic preservation and heritage conservation.

      The only way to influence policy makers is to forge alliances with a bunch of different constituencies and trade groups. HOAs, builders groups, veterans, retirees, youth organizations. All of these will have to come together and urge their local politicians to act in our favor.

      Where to start? That’s always the question. Think about what you love most about archaeology and historic preservation. Then, think about how that part of our job can help make your community better. Does your knowledge of prehistoric ceramics help inspire local artists or ceramicists? If so, find a way to share that knowledge with them and think about what you can learn from them. I’ve chosen to go the education/training route but you certainly shouldn’t follow me if that’s not what you’re interested in.

      If you really want to help, figure out how you can buy a house in a historic district. That’s really putting your money where your mouth is.

      I think you inspired my next blog post. Thank you so much for reading.

  • Chris Sims

    Another fantastic post, Bill!

    This is simultaneously nerve-wracking and encouraging. I’d love to hash out some ideas with you and Webby and have you on the Go Dig a Hole podcast to chat about when to get out, and where to look for the future if you’re in.

    You also hit the issue of Red States lacking funding for CRM right on the nose.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Sure. Let’s do a podcast.

      Red states actually have the most to gain from historic preservation and I’ve seen some major success stories from communities in red states. But, blue states are the ones leveraging histpres to its fullest.

      Email me for a podcast. Thanks.

  • Kaitlin Yanchar

    I caution trying to appeal to hipsters as a way to revitalize CRM. They tend to see historic buildings and other cultural resources as kitsch and don’t really understand why these places and things are important. On the other hand, smaller towns and cities tend to have a vested interest in protecting historic places because they hold personal or familial significance. They are willing to spend money on doing things right if they are given a decent proposal. It’s even better if you can tie grant funding into the project. And by the way, I like what you had to say about education about CRM. I think there is a definite lack.

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Great point. Hipsters are vapid but they have been a driving force for keeping development that destroys historic buildings at bay. Downtown Tucson and Ballard Ave in Seattle come to mind (even though Ballard isn’t a historic district).

      Thank you for reading and for the insightful comment.

  • DudeMan

    About government agencies accepting the crappy low bids: the government MUST accept the lowest bidder. This is a law. While the individual contracting officer from the particular local office might balk, they have no choice and his/her superiors at the regional or national level will make sure they will comply.

  • Joseph Reeves

    Some nice ideas, but change on that scale is unlikely simply because of the egocentric psychology that drives most CRM workers have. (I could use stronger words here, but I won’t.) The intellectual snobbery of most archaeos (something that happens on all levels, from techs to PIs) creates too much alienation, hostility, and unhealthy, ego-based competition in the CRM community. The whole internal paradigm needs to change before we can bring any ideas like the ones presented here to our communities.

    • Matthew Sanger

      Good points – but how are internal paradigms rewritten if not through grass-roots calls for action like this one? Change always seems impossible until a tipping point is reached – we may not be as far away from that point as we think

  • Matthew Sanger

    This post has elicited quite a bit of buzz, and for good reason – it strikes a nerve among the many archaeologists working in the industry that would like to do more, but are not quite sure how to do so. I think that there is a potential groundswell out there and many of the suggestions made in the post are feasible. However, the one think that you do not mention (although I know it is on your mind considering your many other posts on the matter) is what is the responsibility of Academic Institutions in training a new generation of CRM professionals that would be equipped to make the revolutionary changes you suggest? The sorts of projects you are talking about require training that is rarely, if ever offered in our graduate or undergraduate programs. I have written on the potential importance of academics in response to your posting – you can find it here – I hope you get a chance to check it out and don’t mind me tweaking the image you used for the original post

  • Doug Mackey

    It’s been about 5 years since our book came out – but some of these same issues were identified in the Chapter I wrote. My focus was on the importance of making sure CRM Archaeology stays relevant (that is – it makes sense) to the general public (those who pay for the work). As you consider “changes” to make, you may want to consider some of the ideas identified in that chapter and this book as a whole.
    “Archaeology & Cultural Resource Management:Visions for the Future” edited by Lynne Sebastian and William D. Lipe. Published by SAR Press – 2010

    • SuccinctBill Post author

      Mr Mackey,
      You’re giving a away my secrets. I actually used your “keeping CRM relevant” chapter in the field school I taught this summer. That whole book is excellent. Thank you for reading my post and taking the time to

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