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The Washington Post
Archaeologists On The Block?
Park Service May Ax Its Experts in 'Outsourcing' Initiative
By Guy Gugliotta
July 15, 2003
The Bush administration is considering privatizing archaeological oversight of hundreds of national parks and landmarks and firing the National Park Service archaeologists who for decades have been charged with protecting their historic value and cultural heritage.
The administration says turning over the archaeology jobs to private contractors could save money, but critics charge that contractors are ill-equipped to cope with an array of endemic challenges, including influential outsiders trying to dictate Park policy, chronic congressional underfunding and serious personnel shortages that Park Service archaeologists mitigate by using thousands of volunteers -- an option not open to a private company.
And that says nothing about the institutional memory, experience and public trust that would be squandered, said Ron Tipton, senior vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association, a citizens' group that closely monitors the Park Service: "This is an agency that to some degree is respected and even loved."
Under an administration initiative first elaborated two years ago and modified several times since, the Park Service must decide by year's end whether to keep intact its Midwest Archaeological Center in Lincoln, Neb., and its Southeast Archaeological Center, in Tallahassee, or offer most of the jobs for bid to outside contractors.
The two centers between them employ fewer than 100 archaeologists, but with the help of volunteers, cooperative agreements with universities and their own outsourcing, they supervise the care, protection and promotion of national heritage resources at 122 national parks and 780 national historical landmarks in 22 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
At Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee, archaeologists from the Southeast Center are hurrying to excavate a 1,000-year-old Indian burial mound even as it washes into the Tennessee River. To accomplish this, the investigators must work around the graves of Civil War soldiers who were killed on the mound during the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 and buried on the spot.
At Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, Midwest Center archaeologists have led a 20-year project to study land use by Native Americans going back 9,000 years, and have used oral history, archives and excavation to document the movement of individual Chippewa families since the 1700s.
Besides working in their own areas, the centers also provide assistance and do outside work of their own for other government agencies on projects as varied as reevaluating the Little Big Horn site of Custer's Last Stand and conducting forensic investigations of the remains of pilots and aircraft found in Vietnam.
The privatization plan is part of a "competitive sourcing" initiative outlined by President Bush in the summer of 2001. Under the plan, agencies must submit 15 percent of their jobs to competition with the private sector. The goal is to achieve savings for the federal government through "efficient and effective competition between public and private sources," the agenda says.
The quota for the Interior Department is about 5,000 jobs, with the biggest piece -- 1,708 jobs -- coming from the Park Service, the agency's largest employer. Donna Kalvels, the Park Service's competitive sourcing coordinator, said that more than 11,000 of the Park Service's 19,000 jobs were deemed not "inherently governmental" and therefore subject to the initiative.
The Park Service outsourced its first 859 jobs by "direct conversion" of vacant positions and upcoming "new work," Kalvels said, but the rest are to come from five places, including 45 jobs from the Midwest Center and 50 from the Southeast Center.
The diversity of the center's portfolios is one reason the centers may end up on the auction block, she said. Since the centers do project work funded by other federal agencies, "budget people complain that they are taking work from the private sector," she said. "This process will put that argument to rest."
Since last fall, the centers' staffs have helped outside consultants put together detailed descriptions of what each facility does, a tedious exercise that has seriously sapped morale, say center archaeologists. Now the staffs must try to make the case that they can do the work better and cheaper than an outside contractor.
"You could call it a bitter pill," said the Midwest Center's Douglas Scott, lead investigator in the Little Big Horn study and an internationally known expert on battlefield archaeology. Last September, Scott received the Distinguished Service Award, the Interior Department's highest decoration, and "two weeks later our outsourcing study begins and they're asking, 'Are you really necessary?' "
Once the centers finish their plans, they will be compared to similar private-sector contracts. If the center's plan costs less, the jobs stay in-house. If the center's cost is higher, the jobs are put out for bid. Kalvels, the subject of much criticism as the Park Service official in charge of overseeing the outsourcing initiative, nevertheless said "we are feeling we can win most of these."
Why the centers were chosen in the first place has remained a mystery to many of those most intimately involved. John E. Ehrenhard, superintendent at the Southeast Center, noted that the centers "have been so underfunded and so understaffed for so long, that we've had to learn to be efficient. This whole idea is almost laughable, and it's an insult."
In an effort to find out how the centers came to be targeted, Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), whose district includes the Midwest Center archaeologists, demanded that the Interior Department produce the "feasibility study" or "assessment" that led the Park Service to its decision.
J. Scott Cameron, deputy assistant secretary for performance and management, noted in a May 30 reply that archaeology is the "fourth most commercial activity" in the Park Service, and that the centers employ large clusters of archaeologists in one place. Kalvels acknowledged that "we did the arithmetic" and settled on the centers.
Bereuter concluded that the initiative was driven strictly by quotas -- "a very arbitrary decision," he said: "On a job-by-job basis there are firms that could do this work, but you're not going to have the institutional history, archives and resources. This will destroy centers of expertise that can never be reassembled."
Even more important, added Ehrenhard, "you lose the watchdog function."
Park Service archaeologists are nonprofit-oriented, he said, and have the full weight of the U.S. government behind whatever decisions they make: "We do what's in the best interests of the public, which is not always in the best interests of some developer and may not make the most sense economically," Ehrenhard said. "But we're the government, and we can't be bought."