Evaluating and mitigating the impact of a project — whether it’s a new highway, transmission line or a renewable energy facility — on natural and cultural resources is a key step for every project, large or small.

This often means surveying and siting in hard-to-reach areas or even crossing historically significant archaeological sites and culturally significant landscapes. While these locations, known collectively as cultural resources, are important to protect, they don’t have to get in the way of a project and its schedule.

When projects have the potential to affect cultural resources, experienced teams can identify multiple site avoidance options during the planning phase to see that a project is designed to help avoid and minimize impacts.

A Creative Site Avoidance Case Study

A large electric transmission company in the U.S. needed to increase electrical transmission capacity generated by regional wind farms to enable more efficient delivery to its consumers and enhance the grid’s reliability. A part of this project involved upgrading existing access routes and the placement of new transmission structures in an archaeological district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Cultural resources surveys gather information to determine an appropriate path forward for a project, documenting and evaluating cultural resources that would be affected with an eye on local, state and national history. The cultural resources team should offer creative approaches to site avoidance, often to avoid delaying a project schedule for years with costly site excavation.

Since the project location was in a sensitive cultural resources area, the work needed to start with archaeologists surveying the location. This first step allowed the archaeologists to identify archaeological site locations or other historic features and brainstorm approaches to protect the cultural resources in a cost-effective way. This project location — primarily agricultural land — had good ground visibility, which helped archaeologists identify artifacts or other cultural features. Where ground visibility was minimal, archaeologists conducted shovel tests to identify subsurface cultural resources.

This survey identified many prehistoric artifacts, such as stone tools and pottery pieces in the sites. Although the top foot of the soil had been mixed up by agricultural equipment, there was potential for significant features underground that could be impacted by drilling or heavy machinery.

After considering several options to avoid disturbing the cultural resources, the team decided to conduct a geophysical survey, where a surveyor used ground-based physical sensing tools, such as a magnetometer or ground penetrating radar, to determine what was below the surface. The method chosen depended on things like how much metal was in the soil or the number of surrounding trees. This was a cost-effective approach, especially when compared to other options such as site excavation, stripping the plow zone or rerouting the project.

With experience, time and specialized equipment in hand, the geophysical survey was completed in a few days. The result was a construction corridor and transmission structure placement through the sites with minimal to no impact to intact subsurface archaeological features.

The client was then briefed on the composition of the site, developing a clear understanding of where the construction should take place and areas of the site to avoid. With early engagement on the site, a thorough site survey and a collaborative team, this cost-effective approach was able to avoid disruption of any cultural resources while keeping the project moving on schedule.

Keys to Success

Natural and cultural resources don’t have to be a roadblock to a project. Collaboration and creative approaches help streamline the efforts to comply with federal and state requirements.

When possible, get all stakeholders — surveyors, clients, the construction team, regulatory agencies and tribal governments — to engage early and often. Early engagement can help establish trust and transparency with those impacted by the project, which ultimately can support efforts to troubleshoot site avoidance approaches.

The need for natural or cultural resource services is usually identified well in advance, especially for complex projects. Records or constraints reviews are a proactive approach to site avoidance, helping to identify if a project will impact an area with a high potential for cultural resources.

The earlier a project team can identify the needs for cultural resources services, the more creative and cost-effective the site avoidance solutions can be. This helps to keep a project moving on schedule, with no or minimal unexpected delays or additional costs.


Extensive research into the background of a project by archaeologists and other professional staff can help projects navigate cultural resources to keep work on track.

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Amber Javers is a senior cultural resources specialist at Burns & McDonnell, where she oversees client compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and assists with the National Environmental Policy Act process.