January 01, 2020

Vantage Point

Erin Flannery Keith, Issue Editor

Before law school, I lived on Nantucket, an island 30 miles off the Massachusetts coast. I worked for an organization dedicated to preserving and interpreting Nantucket’s history. The entire downtown area is a National Register of Historic Places historic district that reflects Nantucket’s evolution from a colonial agricultural community to an eighteenth and nineteenth century whaling capital to a twentieth century art colony and resort. The historic district is composed of homes, businesses, municipal buildings, ferry terminals, boatyards, museums, a lighthouse, places of worship, and cobblestone streets. Several cemeteries—some with graves dating to the late 1600s, and some with native Wampanoag graves—lie just outside the historic district boundary. Thanks to building and land use regulations that strictly control development, redevelopment, and renovations, many of these historic resources have endured for centuries and coexist with the infrastructure necessary for modern life and a growing population.

Like many waterfront historic districts, Nantucket is battling climate change–driven sea level rise on all sides. Stronger and more frequent storms cause flooding that creeps ever farther into town, damaging buildings, disrupting transportation, and causing catastrophic sewer failures. Can the same laws that protect the historic character of places like Nantucket allow for building upgrades, widescale sewer renovations, and green infrastructure while maintaining cohesive historic streetscapes and waterfront areas? Communities within historic districts need to face this question now and pursue creative solutions.

This is NR&E’s first issue on cultural resources and historic preservation, and its articles examine cultural resources and historic preservation law at the local, state, tribal, federal, and international levels. One author predicts that federal and international historic preservation law will need to adapt to protect historic and cultural resources from increasingly frequent disasters. Authors explore how Vermont’s rural character and unique historic preservation and land use laws combine to protect historically significant structures and landscapes. Other authors offer case studies on how National Monuments designations can simultaneously protect fragile and important ecological, historic, and tribal resources while promoting environmental justice. Climate change’s impact on historic and cultural preservation echoes throughout this issue. One author recounts the efforts of a Louisiana tribal community to preserve their sense of culture and place when forced to relocate due to sea level rise, while another author illustrates the complexities of preserving historic cemeteries in the face of coastal flooding. Two authors explore the legal frameworks available to preserve historic structures within National Parks, and another examines new ways of navigating relevant federal laws when dealing with hazardous waste cleanups that involve historic properties.

There is something beautifully and essentially human about protecting historic and cultural resources. Robust historic preservation and cultural resources legal frameworks can allow communities to honor predecessors, preserve sacred lands and meaningful landscapes, and remember and interrogate our individual heritages and collective past.

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Erin Flannery Keith, Issue Editor