With all the fervor of a prince denied his rightful throne, the Interior Department has been dueling with the tiny Advisory Council for Historic Preservation over who is the appropriate guardian of the country's archeological, cultural and architectural treasures.
In the eyes of some council members and preservationist groups, Interior is trying to undermine the due process guarantees of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. To do what Interior wants, they feel, would either give federally funded bulldozers a license to plow history under or clog the courts with endless preservationist lawsuits.
But in Interior's view, the council has usurped its prerogatives and committed a crime in the eyes of the Reagan administration: conspiracy with intent to regulate.
The fight centers on the council's existing rules and its proposed changes to them, which have been on hold at the Office of Management and Budget for 13 months. Council chairman Alexander (Sam) Aldrich says the revisions would streamline the process of reviewing the historic aspects of federal projects while maintaining the council's role as a broker between warring developers and preservationists.
But Interior maintains that even Aldrich's "regulatory reform" proposals overstep the council's legal mandate. Ric Davidge, special assistant to the assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, contends that the rules make the council a de facto regulator, controlling agencies that build the nation's highways, redevelop its cities and license new dams.
Instead, Interior wants to control the process and write the standards all federal builders must use when they evaluate the historic value of a site and consider how to protect it.
The prospect of Interior control horrifies such preservationist groups as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the association of state preservation officers, both of which get some of their funding from Interior and both of which have been threatened with a complete cutoff.
They see the need for an independent federal watchdog to monitor the historical components of environmental impact statements, solicit comments from the public, offer its own, and make other agencies take a second look at the damage their projects might do to historic sites.
The issue now has landed in the lap of the Justice Department, which OMB has asked to decide if the council's proposed rules exceed its authority.
The outcome of this impassioned bureaucratic war could affect the future of scores of national historic sites that find themselves in the path of progress. In recent months, the council has been involved in battles from downtown Manhattan to Wallace, Idaho--though not always on the side of the preservationists:
* Along the Ohio River, the Army Corps of Engineers granted a permit for an oil terminal next to one of the docks of the historic Anderson's Ferry, which runs between the Ohio and Kentucky shores. The corps began a historic review, but, council staff said, short-circuited it and granted the permit. The construction has since been blocked by a federal judge while the review continues.
* In downtown Manhattan, the Morosco and Helen Hayes theaters were recently razed to make way for a 50-story luxury hotel financed in part by a $21.5 million federal grant. Broadway stars from Lauren Bacall to James Earl Jones took part in sidewalk protests; in an unsuccessful court challenge, opponents had argued that White House counselor Edwin Meese III had tried to pressure the advisory council into approving the demolition.
* In the old mining town of Wallace, the advisory council joined local citizens in trying--unsuccessfully--to persuade the Federal Highway Administration not to build a four-lane elevated highway to complete the last section of Interstate 90.
After the plan was unveiled in 1980, the council asked for a new public hearing and several times asked road builders to reexamine the option of a surface roadway. In the end, state and federal highway officials overrode the council.
FHwA officials say the council's suggestions were "frivolous" and cost the long-delayed project an extra year. "It shouldn't have taken any time at all," said FHwA's Ali Sevin.
"You do this because it's due process," counters a staffer of the National Trust. "It's listening to the little man whose house is about to be bulldozed."
But Davidge said, "These preservation groups are extremely partisan; they advocate particular agendas. We don't quarrel with the need for advice on historic preservation questions. We question how and by whom."
Davidge says the review should be done by the head of the agency that is licensing the construction, in accordance with standards Interior will develop. "If that person makes a bad decision, he can be hauled into court and explain it to a judge."
But that's exactly what council chairman Aldrich, an attorney and former New York state official, wants to prevent. He too wants to see the process streamlined. But he wants the council to retain authority to mediate, or ask an agency why it can't do its project differently.
If the council-run review process is jettisoned, Aldrich said, "the alternative is federal litigation, and that's going to be more expensive all the way around."
Aldrich is fuming now because he thought Christopher DeMuth, head of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, had guaranteed OMB's approval of the changes. After the agreement, however, Interior Secretary James G. Watt wrote OMB Director David A. Stockman about the "complicated and burdensome process" and the rules have been on hold ever since.
Meanwhile, Davidge is busy drafting letters and executive orders and soliciting legal opinions saying the council's rules have no basis in law.
But Aldrich said, "I look on these regulations as important. They represent a middle ground between a pure preservationist attitude to prevent any development and the other end of the spectrum, the federal agency which doesn't want to think about historic preservation."