How the Park Service Subverted the Coldwater EIS

In the final Environmental Impact Statement for the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines property in Hennepin County Minnesota, the National Park Service has produced a rigged document, designed to achieve the result it wanted to achieve, and avoid the result it wanted to avoid. In the process the public interest has been subverted and the interests of Dakota people in the cultural and historical heritage of Minnesota—the place that bears the name the Dakota gave it—have been have been deliberately thwarted.

Federal environmental review processes are governed by NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act. As it happens January 1 of this year was the 40th anniversary of NEPA. Just a few days ago President Barack Obama issued a proclamation to mark the anniversary. He stated:

Forty years ago, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was signed into law with overwhelming bipartisan support, ushering in a new era of environmental awareness and citizen participation in government. NEPA elevated the role of environmental considerations in proposed Federal agency actions, and it remains the cornerstone of our Nation’s modern environmental protections. On this anniversary, we celebrate this milestone in our Nation’s rich history of conservation, and we renew our commitment to preserve our environment for the next generation

NEPA governs the actions of agencies like the National Park Service. And in terms of NEPA, the environment is defined to include the historical and cultural aspects of the environment—the meanings of places like Coldwater to people such as the Dakota. NEPA states that aim of NEPA is to “preserve important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage, and maintain, wherever possible, an environment which supports diversity, and variety of individual choice.”

An important aspect for consideration in a NEPA environmental review would be to determine if a federal property contained places of importance to people, and more specifically places defined under the criteria of the National Register of Historic Places as TCPs or traditional cultural properties. The definition of that term owes a lot to Thomas F. King, an archaeologist and noted expert in the field who co-authored National Register Bulletin 38, “Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional Cultural Properties.”

King has authored many books and articles on the topic of NEPA and other laws governing environmental review. Recently he wrote to President Obama applauding his proclamation on the 40th anniversary of NEPA, but at the same warning of ways in which the law has been undermined by the federal agencies it governs. He wrote:

I especially appreciate your call for executive branch agencies to promote public involvement and transparency in NEPA implementation. I fear, however, that in the last decade or so most federal agencies have forgotten how to make their decision making transparent, and moreover, forgotten why doing so is a good idea. It is all very well and good for the concerned public to be able to look through the transparent window and see what an agency is doing, but if that public is unable to do anything about it, it only produces frustration.

King’s comment applies well to the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines EIS process, one that has fostered the opposite of openness, particularly on the question of the importance of Coldwater for Dakota people.

Three years ago, commenting on the draft EIS for Coldwater, I questioned in detail the conclusion the Park Service had come to in relation to the spring, pointing out that it was based on faulty reasoning and incomplete information. I stated:

The Park Service’s stance does little to undercut the traditional cultural importance of Coldwater Spring, but it does do great damage to the Park Service itself. The Park Service’s arrogant assertions about Coldwater Spring have already had and will continue to have a profound and disproportionate effect on the federal government’s environmental review process relating to the disposal of the Bureau of Mines property. As a result it is unclear if the Park Service is capable of carrying out a fair and unbiased environmental review.

It is now clear that the Park Service was not capable capable of carrying out a fair and unbiased environmental review in relation to Coldwater Spring. The proof is in the final Environmental Impact Statement released on December 11, 2009.

Environmental reviews are dependent on the gathering of complete and accurate information. When information is inaccurate or incomplete it can bias the conclusions that result. In relation to Coldwater Spring it was important to gather full information on the all aspects of the environment of the property, including its cultural and historical features.

It is in this sense that the federal EIS process has subverted the public interest in having complete information about the Coldwater/ Bureau of Mines property, and the interest of Dakota people in having their heritage and connection to the place acknowledged.

Like the draft EIS, the final version interprets the history of the Fort Snelling area in general and Camp Coldwater in particular through the lens of European history. While detailed and extensive information—much of it easily available in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul—on the activities of Native people, both Dakota and Ojibwe at the spring and the area around it, was submitted by members of the public in November 2006, none of this was incorporated into the final version.

This information supported the statements made by Dakota and Ojibwe people for the last ten years and longer about the historical and cultural importance of the place. However, in its record of responses to much of this information, the authors of the final EIS merely state: “Comment noted,” without any further effort to interpret the information.

The final EIS continues to rely on a cursory historical study completed in 2002, before the EIS was even contemplated:

A historical study completed in 2002 by Barbara J. Henning focused on the Center and also made a determination as to whether Camp Coldwater Spring is independently eligible for the NRHP. The author concluded that neither the spring nor associated features are independently eligible for the NRHP. However, she did conclude that Camp Coldwater Spring does contribute to the significance of the Fort Snelling National Historic District, the Fort Snelling National Historic Landmark, and the Old Fort Snelling State Historic District.

Henning’s statement exemplifies a puzzling aspect of the NPS Coldwater/ BOM EIS process: Dakota tribes and communities were repeatedly assured that while the federal government would not recognize their own heritage, it would preserve Coldwater Spring because it was part of White, European-American heritage. But Henning’s conclusion was faulty, based on a brief study of secondary sources. In one of the most obvious errors, the study stated:

In a book published in 1835, Charles Joseph Latrobe stated that “lodges of the Sioux and the Chippewas encamped near the Reservation, or near the trading houses.” These would have been temporary visits, if only because the Dakota and the Chippewa were enemies unlikely to reside near one another except for brief visits to traders, the Indian Agency, or the fort.

But the evidence submitted in 2006 revealed an extensive written record of repeated interactions between Dakota and Ojibwe at Coldwater Spring, in which they met ceremonially, traded, and danced together. This information too supported to statements of Native people as recorded over the last ten years. But it was not acknowledged in the final EIS. As a result, in five separate places, the final report states: “no historical documentation of American Indian use of Camp Coldwater Spring has been found,” (first statement on page 72).

Besides ignoring the important written documents that support Native connections to Coldwater, the statement is  a clear and forthright admission of a shameful ethnocentric bias in the interpretation of what constitutes history and documentation. The Park Service discounts the importance of oral history and tradition for documenting the importance of culturally important places. The  FEIS states:

The studies completed for the EIS and Section 106 reviews located no ethnographic sites eligible for inclusion on the National Register. Oral traditions and histories collected during these investigations suggest that natural springs, like Coldwater Spring, are associated with ceremonies and deities of the Dakota Indian spiritual world. Coldwater Spring is currently used by some members of the federally recognized Dakota and Ojibwe communities, and other American Indians, as a source of water for ceremonies. Many American Indian communities have a traditional association with the area surrounding the spring.

Oral traditions and histories also state that Coldwater Spring itself is a place of traditional cultural importance. But this fact was simply not acknowledged in the various versions of the EIS. The Park Service also continues to reject the study by Michelle Terrell and her associates, the contractor for the Park Service, who found in a 2005 study that the site was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as a traditional cultural property. Without even acknowledging the conclusion of that study the final EIS stated:

In support of the EIS planning process, an ethnographic resources study was completed at the Center (Terrell et al. 2005). The primary focus of this study was to document tribal use and perceptions of this area, to assess whether Camp Coldwater Spring constitutes a TCP under NHPA section 106 (16 U.S.C. 470f) or a sacred site under Executive Order 13007 (Indian Sacred Sites), and to identify any additional ethnographic resources present within the area of potential effect of the proposed action and alternatives being assessed in this EIS. A TCP is generally defined as a property that “is eligible for inclusion in the NRHP because of its association with cultural practices or beliefs of a living community that (a) are rooted in that community’s history, and (b) are important in maintaining the continuing cultural identity of the community” (Parker and King 1998).

After review of the study, the National Park Service has determined [contrary to the conclusion of the Terrell study] that Camp Coldwater Spring does not meet the criteria listed in the NRHP for designation as a TCP. However, Camp Coldwater Spring and Reservoir are culturally important to some Indian people for ritual and ceremonial reasons. The importance ascribed to this area, including the spring and reservoir and the subsequent need for protection, is addressed in the alternatives presented in this EIS. A copy of the draft ethnography report was also provided to the Indian tribes and interviewees that participated in the study by the National Park Service. The ethnographic resources study will be sent to the Minnesota SHPO as part of the section 106 process occurring concurrently with this EIS.

The treatment of the TCP issue, the rejection of the Terrell report, the misplaced reliance on the Henning report, and the purposeful rejection of historical documentation on the historical use of Coldwater by Native people, are all evidence of the way in which the EIS process has been rigged and subverted by the National Park Service. As a result, the decisions that the Department of Interior is expected to make in the weeks ahead about the disposal of the property will not be grounded in complete and accurate information about the cultural and historical aspects of the environment of the Bureau of Mines property, though they may embrace the results the Park Service was seeking from the beginning.

More on this, and the 106 process mentioned in the quotation above from the FEIS, next time.

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