27 Feb 2012
By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
On Thursday a long battle began to wind to an end.
A simple attempt by lawmakers to clarify an existing law turned into a covert and overt campaign by a state agency to stop the Underwater Cultural Resources Act.
Rep. Dr. Jim McClendon (R-Springville) successfully received passage of HB54 at the very closing of this week's House session.
“Once this bill is turned into law, those people who wish to preserve the artifacts and the history of Alabama will be able to do so without fear of a government agency,” said McClendon after the bill's passage.
The Senate version of the bill (SB81) will be carried by Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster).
In a phone conversation, Ward said, “I am very pleased by the news that HB54 has been carried in the House. We look forward to swift success in the Senate.”
The bill was vigorously challenged by the Alabama Historical Commission, a state department created by the State’s Legislature. In the agency's view, any artifact found in an Alabama waterway is the sole property of the state.
The Commission’s stance has led to lawsuits, arrests and a full-scale assault on lawmakers and private citizens.
The bill, carried by McClendon, was written to implement a three-word change in defining a “cultural resource.”
The legislation will clear up confusion that had kept divers and artifact collectors from bringing these historic relics up from Alabama rivers.
McClendon said, “The current law is confusing and has caused much consternation among those people who wish to retrieve those artifacts that no one else is going after. Unless these people are allowed to do this they will stay in the mud and continue to deteriorate and be lost to future generations of Alabamians.”
The Historical Commission over the years has done little to explore, retrieve or preserve these artifacts according to McClendon and professional collectors. Under the existing statue, for example, if a family was fishing along the Coosa River and one of the children while attempting to land a fish in his net happened to scoop up a civil war mini-ball, that ball would belong to the state. The child could also be charged with a crime for disturbing the artifact. While this may seem absurd, the current law can be interpreted that narrowly. This narrow interpretations has led to untold historical artifacts laying in muddy waters of Alabama.
In retaliation to McClendon’s bill, State Archaeologist Stacye Hathorn sent out emails using her government-provided computer and during her workday, as a paid employee of the state, to lead an attack not only on the bill but on the Senator and Representative who sponsored it.
In a coordinated effort, The Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation on its website posted the following: “Alabama Senate Bill 81 alters the current Alabama Underwater Cultural Resources Act by changing the definition of "cultural resources" to only items related to shipwrecks. The bill removes protection from all other sites in Alabama waters, including Native American sites, human burials, forts, historic sites, and others. If it isn't a shipwreck, it isn't protected under the proposed law." In an earlier interview, Sen. Ward responded to the the web posting by saying, “They are saying that this is going to allow scavengers to dig up Native-American burial sites and loot shipwrecks and specifically the bill does not allow that. If you read the bill you will see that some of the hysteria that they are pushing out there is absolutely not true.” In fact, even a cursory reading of the bill reveals that such acts as described by The Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation are expressly forbidden in the plainest of language. As if taking talking points directly from the State’s Historical Commission memos, many Democratic Legislators, hammered away at McClendon during the bill’s debate.
Repeatedly, ships, graves and the right of the state to claim ownership to any and all artifacts became the meme du jour.
State Archaeologist Hathorn’s lobbying efforts and other complaints have led to some rethinking of the Historical Commission’s standing and effectiveness as an agency.
“In the interest of consolidating state agencies it has been suggested that the responsibilities of the Historic Commission of Alabama could well be turned over to the Department of Archive,” said McClendon, “The parks currently under the authority of the Historical Commission could be likely managed by the Department of Conservation.”
The bill will be taken up in the Senate within the near future. It remains to be seen if the Historical Commission will continue its efforts to derail the legislative process.
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