State in need of archaeologists
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By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
By Kevin Dayton
The ranks of employees in the State Historic Preservation Division are so depleted that archaeologists outside the agency are questioning how the remaining staff can protect historic sites and oversee the handling of Hawaiian burials in the midst of a statewide building boom.
The agency, which is part of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, has not had an archaeology branch chief for nearly a year and has not had a cultural branch chief since 2005. Five of its eight positions for archaeologists are vacant.
Without them, "the concern is that historic sites won't be taken into consideration as development proceeds, and we're back to the era before historic preservation laws were enacted back in the '70s, when it was OK to just go out and bulldoze," said Thomas Dye, president of the Society for Hawaiian Archaeology.
The State Historic Preservation Division's last full-time archaeologist on O'ahu quit last month, which means the agency no longer has staff archaeologists working on either the Big Island or O'ahu. The agency formerly had an archaeologist and assistant archaeologist working on the Big Island, and had the same staffing for O'ahu.
The Society for Hawaiian Archaeology has repeatedly sounded the alarm over the staffing problems.
Dye said by his count the agency now has 10 vacancies, including the five vacant positions for archaeologists, and "these positions are vital to historic preservation."
Of particular concern to Dye are the staff archaeologists, who review development proposals to make sure archaeological sites are protected, and scrutinize work done by private archaeologists on behalf of developers. That staff ensures that developments do not destroy the state's cultural and historic heritage, Dye said.
"What will happen is we'll lose a lot of sites; we'll lose the cultural heritage. ... That won't be protected anymore," he said.
Melanie Chinen, administrator of the State Historic Preservation Division, said her agency has become more efficient and has been able to keep up with its workload, but acknowledged she is concerned about the potential for staff burnout among the remaining archaeologists.
DIFFICULT TO RECRUIT
The agency now has one archaeologist on Kaua'i and two on Maui, but Chinen said it has been difficult to recruit qualified archaeologists to fill the remaining positions. Some archaeologists prefer to work in the private sector because they can earn more money or have more opportunities for extensive field work.
The Society for Hawaiian Archaeology, which is made up of more than 200 archaeologists and others from across the state, voted unanimously at their annual meeting on Maui last year to press for more staff for the State Historic Preservation Division, Dye said.
The organization wrote to Gov. Linda Lingle about the problem, and its representatives met with Peter Young, the former chairman of the Department of Land and Natural Resources.
The national Society for Historical Archaeology and the Society for American Archaeology have written letters, too.
The staffing issue also caught the attention of the National Park Service, which this fiscal year is scheduled to provide $495,273 in grants to the State Historic Preservation Division. That is roughly 40 percent of the division's budget.
Hampton Tucker, chief of the historic preservation grants division of the National Park Service, said parks officials have been working with Chinen for about two years to try to resolve staffing and other problems.
KEY VACANCY REMAINS
The Park Service last year required the State Historic Preservation Division to submit information on its efforts to fill the post of chief of the history and culture branch, which parks officials regard as a critical position.
"We've been working with them to try to bring them into better compliance, and Melanie Chinen in the office has made an effort to really work with us," Tucker said. He said the Historic Preservation office was "not in good shape when she took it over."
Still, the staffing problems have continued. Chinen said she told National Parks officials she was on the verge of hiring a highly qualified candidate as chief of the history and culture branch, but last month that candidate instead took a job in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The culture branch chief position remains vacant.
Julie Taomia, who left the agency last year, said she doesn't know how the few remaining staff archaeologists are juggling the workload she managed. She said she typically would sign off on five to 10 grading, grubbing or other permits each day as Big Island archaeologist.
"Then there's reviewing the archaeological reports that come in, and if there are any burial calls or other calls that we get coming in," she said. "It's a huge job, especially because there's so much development going on.
"I constantly had people calling me saying, 'Where's my permit? What's going on with it?' "
Chinen said the Maui archaeology team routinely visits the Big Island, and a private firm has been working to review projects and visit sites on O'ahu.
She said Historic Preservation "constantly" gets calls from people complaining that there is no archaeological staff on O'ahu or the Big Island, but said her office is trying to step up recruitment.
She is considering hiring a former staff member as a temporary emergency hire; has recruited a former burial council member to assist with reburials of ancient remains; and is pressing ahead with a national recruitment effort.
"We can work overtime and we can go the extra mile, but we do have an ongoing concern about how long can we have staff work under those conditions where they're carrying more than perhaps, an average workload," she said.
NORTH KONA CASE ALARMING
Information surfaced earlier this year that a North Kona agricultural complex site on the national register of historic places had been damaged or destroyed, but Chinen said that was neither her fault nor the fault of her staff.
That North Kona case alarmed some private archaeologists because the State Historic Preservation Division approved grubbing permits for the property in 2000, 2003 and 2006, apparently without noting that the national register site was on the parcel. Both the landowners and the manager who oversaw land clearing on the property said they were never told there was a national register site there.
Chinen said her agency is still trying to learn what happened to the Pua'a 2 Agricultural Fields Archaeological District, which included an agricultural heiau and 39 recorded archaeological features.
'POTENTIAL FOR LIABILITY'
The State Historic Preservation Division archaeologist who was sent to inspect the site and assess the damage has since resigned, and Chinen said he never filed a formal written report on the site.
"There could be a potential for liability, and there could be the potential for the state to bring charges against individuals if the site has been destroyed. We need to make sure that our facts are correct," she said.
"If, in fact, historic preservation missed that when they did a review for the county that occurred in 2000 or earlier, so to hold current staff accountable for sites being destroyed, I think, is grossly unfair to them."
Paul Rosendahl, head of the archaeological consulting company that prepared the survey for that property in 2005, said the archaeological site was gone by the time his staff prepared its report.
He acknowledged his staff was unaware there had ever been a national historic registry site on that spot, but said the incident raises questions about how the State Historic Preservation Division could have signed off on the permit.
Reach Kevin Dayton at email@example.com.