SS America Preservation Project on Hold
For several of our projects, year 2000 has been a year of temporary setbacks. After four productive years on the America Preservation Project, the National Park Service has put our project on hold. For the long term this hopefully temporary halt may be healthy. From the start our project has been termed experimental and now the National Park Service is completing the compliance work that is required to work on an entity of the National Register of Historic Places. To do this they circulated our ten-year plan to other NPS archeologists and experts in the field. Two of the NPS archeologists responded that shipwrecks are classified as archeological sites and as such cannot be disturbed, stabilized, and preserved. Our position and the position of the Isle Royale resource manager is that the classification system for underwater sites should really be more like the classification system for land based “historic” sites which would allow preservation work on some sites. This has always been question in our preservation philosophy. Which of the several thousand shipwrecks in the Great Lakes should be preserved? The fact is that visitation of these sites by divers changes them and in effect clouds the evidence and conclusions about their history that can be drawn from studying the site. If you accept this fact then you have to accept that from a historic perspective there would be a value in leaving some of these sites untouched. Once these sites are heavily used much of the “positional” evidence, i.e. locations of artifacts, is destroyed, then the question becomes how best to preserve the history that remains. We believe that is where our preservation philosophy comes into play. Establishing the criteria of when you cross the line where it is better to maintain the structure than leave it deteriorate then becomes the question. One would think the answer should be based on things like usage, historic value, age, exposure to natural forces, and accessibility. We believe the America would clearly fall into this type of category. So it sounds like we need to change the rules before proceeding and that will take some time. Government works very slowly as we have learned from all the work we do with them. Frankly we have also been a bit negligent in documenting the work we have done, so we took the time to get caught up on that and build the case to proceed.
The other concern that was raised by the State Archeologist of Michigan was what liability we incur when we do this preservation work. We share that concern and the NPS Solicitor and our lawyer are both looking into the issue. Initial research results look favorable to our cause. The bottom line is they are forcing us to step back and get some of the issues addressed that we have ignored up to this point because we were more intent on saving the shipwreck. It is important that we do this, and hopefully it will only take this year to resolve. With last year’s completion of the stabilization phase it was as good a year as any to slow things down. I am happy to say that I noticed no new deterioration this year. The good part about laying this groundwork is that if we get these issues resolved, then I believe you could say that our work goes from the experimental stage to an "accepted practice." This is an exciting thought and a major milestone on the road to saving shipwrecks.