Noël Strattan & Ira Beckerman

Meet Noël Strattan and Ira Beckerman. These two archaeologists have seen and helped create a cultural change in Pennsylvania's approach to managing the impacts of federal- and state-aided projects on historic and cultural resources.

Beckerman, who works for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), remembers in 1996 when "the cultural resource program [at PennDOT] consisted of three overworked archaeologists thinking of a career change." Now the staff numbers 15 and includes architectural historians as well as archaeologists, with 11 members out in field offices participating in decisions about transportation projects from the earliest possible scoping stage.

At the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the state historic preservation office (SHPO) where Strattan is on staff, the project review team has not grown much from the six people employed in the mid 1990s. What has changed, however, is the time required to review the impacts of state and federal projects on historic and cultural resources.

"Having a cultural resource professional at PennDOT involved earlier in the planning process has made consultation much easier and more productive," Strattan said. "We've stopped fighting with the engineers and started working with the cultural resource professionals."

Two important partnership activities contributed to the change in the agencies' relationship. The first was the Minor Projects Programmatic Agreement, a program-wide agreement executed under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which removed about 60 percent of all projects from lengthy review and established set criteria for deciding whether a transportation project was "minor" (having little or no adverse impact on historic resources). The second led to the creation of the Cultural Resources Geographic Information System (CRGIS), a comprehensive database available online to all state agencies and the public that has helped reduce review time and made it possible to consider cultural resources much earlier in the review process.

Strattan and Beckerman devoted ten years of their professional lives beginning in 1992 to developing the CRGIS, which debuted in 2001.  What had been, according to Strattan, "just shelves and shelves and shelves with cards of about 128,000 sites" became a fully searchable resource of more than 140,000 records that can be accessed from anywhere in the world.

The system's success was due to a combination of visionary leadership and hands-off trust from the top, as well as perseverance and a bit of luck. "We were working for some big picture people," Strattan recalled. "They said, 'We need this so make it happen.'" Beckerman added: "We had a small team, just a couple of people. We did it under the radar and were not micromanaged. We reported to our supervisors only on substantive progress."

Both freely admit that there were plenty of stumbles along the way. "Doing something like this is not for the risk-averse," Beckerman said.

The changes in partnership and procedure have resulted in an enriched working relationship for both agencies. Beckerman says that PennDOT once "used to rely on the SHPO to tell us right from wrong. Essentially we didn't own the process. Now we can tell our own engineers, 'You can't blame them for this call, we made it!'"

The partnership around the CRGIS has also led to better accountability and partnerships at other state and regional agencies. "There was a lot of trust," Beckerman said of the development of the CRGIS. "There were days when the only thing we had to go on was the belief that the other person knew what they were doing. We were basically convincing people we could do this when no one had done this before."

Together, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and PennDOT demonstrate how a state can strengthen its partnerships and information systems so that its cultural resources can be best evaluated – and therefore protected – in the course of proposed federally-funded projects.