Conservation and Society

: 2022  |  Volume : 20  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 313--324

Are Threats the Connection? Linking Cultural and Natural Resource Conservation

Madeline Brown1, Whittaker Schroder2, Timothy Murtha2,  
1 University of Maryland, Maryland, USA
2 University of Florida, Florida, USA

Correspondence Address:
Madeline Brown
University of Maryland, Maryland


Despite the recent values placed on integrating cultural resources into natural resource landscape conservation design, cultural resources are difficult to define, challenging to manage, are not integrated into analysis and planning until natural resource priorities are established, and face complex threats which are not fully understood. In this paper, we focus on how practitioners define threats to cultural resources through successive freelists, outlining eight categories in order to better align cultural resources with landscape-scale conservation design in North America. Identifying and understanding threat perceptions to cultural resources will improve their management and conservation. We find that although some practitioners recognise both direct and indirect threats, many clearly focus management decisions on direct threats such as the physical degradation of cultural resources. Indirect threats, including climate change or lack of funding, are also identified, but transcend daily management practice. While integrating cultural and natural resource conservation is critical, we need core studies to establish preservation priorities and shared definitions and identify key threats facing resources. We conclude that one potential path toward integrated conservation could be established by defining the shared threats facing both natural and cultural resources and explicitly developing a foundational model of threats for cultural resource conservation.

How to cite this article:
Brown M, Schroder W, Murtha T. Are Threats the Connection? Linking Cultural and Natural Resource Conservation.Conservat Soc 2022;20:313-324

How to cite this URL:
Brown M, Schroder W, Murtha T. Are Threats the Connection? Linking Cultural and Natural Resource Conservation. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2022 [cited 2023 Mar 31 ];20:313-324
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As the conservation of natural and cultural resources enters the third decade of the twenty-first century, resource managers, policy makers, and scientists are increasingly approaching environments as complex coupled natural human systems, wherein nested scales of problems and solutions are considered dynamic pieces of broader systems (Barrett and Barrett 2001; Baviskar 2003; Castillo-Burguete et al. 2019; NAS 2017; Potts 2017; Toothman 1987; Winter 1997). This approach, championed recently in the United States by the North American Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs), is based in part on a still-incomplete recognition by technoscientific conservation ideologies (though recognised by many traditional ecological and Indigenous knowledge systems) that humans are not merely drivers of damaging anthropogenic environmental impacts, but also core parts of ecosystems and generators of complex landscape dynamics which create unique ecological niches and may positively impact nonhuman species (Salmon 2000; Erickson 2006; Turner et al. 2000; Crabtree et al. 2019; Anderson 2006; Kimmerer and Lake 2001; Berkes et al. 2000; Kimmerer 2000; Odling-Smee et al. 2013; Bliege Bird et al. 2008). Simply, humans and natural systems are tightly coupled so that any focus on natural resources needs to address and integrate information about human systems. The human part of the systems equation often refers to social practices and their emergent effects on natural resources or landscapes, less often emphasising elements of the built environment or shared natural heritage which also exist within these systems. Natural resources do not represent a closed system, and the human dimension cannot be easily compartmentalised and separated from natural structures (O'Neill 2001; Pickett et al. 1992; Laumann et al. 2019). What would conservation look like if both the cultural and natural aspects of complex systems were considered integral parts of not only landscape change, but also of the landscape itself (Barrett and Taylor 2007; Brown and Murtha 2019a; Murtha et al. 2019)?

The successful integration of cultural resources into landscape conservation design and planning requires that they are considered as part of the conservation process from the beginning (Murtha et al. 2019; Brown and Murtha 2019a; Murtha and Brown 2019). While the importance of systems integration has been recognised globally for almost two decades, this priority has only recently emerged in North America (Murtha 2017). Treating cultural and natural variables as co-factors in conservation planning offers pathways for integrated management. However, significant challenges remain as identifying and defining cultural resources can be reductive, management techniques are not universal, and few coordinated efforts have been taken to categorise and analyse threats facing cultural resources (Fatorić and Seekamp 2017a; Gourley 2017; Sebastian and Lipe 2009). Here, we argue that integrated conservation can be advanced by moving beyond simply defining cultural resources to additionally focus on the threats facing diverse types of resources and their functional roles. Emphasising the threats facing cultural resources should highlight the similarity between drivers of cultural and natural resource conservation needs and identify integrated opportunities for current practitioners. Simply, instead of targeting potentially conflicting lists of preservation priorities and competing definitions about what constitutes a cultural resource, focusing on the threats to natural and cultural resources can refocus attention on shared threats, and important funding can then address threats across resource communities, whether they are cultural or natural. Of course, understanding threats does not directly yield insight into values or prioritisation, but doing so can advance strategies for responding to threats or building consensus around shared conservation priorities under conditions of land use and land cover change. Perhaps more importantly, this approach can also provide a window of perception into future pathways for cultural resource preservation practice and a foundation for what we perceive as necessary foundational studies to bring cultural resources into the early stages of landscape-scale conservation design and planning, especially across North America, where natural resources have more established methods and shared preservation priorities.

This is a study founded in practice, so we do not approach this topic at the conceptual level. Our study focuses on the perceptions of threats to cultural resources among resource practitioners and specialists in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, deriving from ethnographic observations and interviews with federal, state, and municipal resource managers. Here, we present the results of a survey with specialists across multiple institutions and jurisdictional scales as a first insight into what we hope to be a broader study across the North American landscape. We selected this region because it allowed us to compare our results to broader understandings of threats to cultural and natural resources, while also conducting parallel research with the Appalachian LCC which has since folded. We also targeted this geographic context because it offers a complex management region for federal agencies and presents resource managers with a variety of cultural resource types and geographic settings. From archaeological landscapes to battlefields, and from rural communities to urban landscapes, a full suite of cultural resource types is identified across the region. Our focus on threats here builds on our previous study focused on definitions of cultural resources, which illustrated the underlying resource complexity of this region (Brown et al. 2022). When compared to the broader North American landscape, this region offers a complex overlay of land management, settlement patterns, and community attributes. In this context, we can begin to explore how these community attributes influence the perception of threats to resources. For example, in urban settings, physical threats to specific resources cluster, while in suburban and rural settings, threats can be more diverse and less focused on threats to the physical integrity of resources.

This is a unique study because we are attempting to improve integration across resources by focusing on the threats to resources instead of attempting to prioritise resource types. It is also unique because the integration of these resources in North America is not nearly as developed as it is in other global settings, despite long-standing institutional commitments to cultural and natural resources. To do this, we discuss how the threats to cultural resources identified by practitioners in the Mid-Atlantic may also be applied in natural resource conservation and leveraged to develop shared conservation priorities, programmes, and task forces. We also re-emphasise emergent areas in practice which clearly demonstrate the value of integrating cultural resources and anthropological information in landscape-scale conservation design and planning. Cultural and natural resources face shared threats, but the relative impact to each of these categories is unclear. Tightly coupling these resources and evaluating threats provides an effective technique for developing long-term landscape ecological plans. In prior work, we explored the need and potential pathways for the integration of cultural and natural resources through the lenses of definitions (Brown et al. 2022), analysis methods (Brown and Murtha 2019b), and modelling. Here, we close the loop by focusing on the prospects for relying on shared threats in order to catalyse integrated preservation planning and design.

Defining Cultural Resources

Threats are the key focus of this paper. We have analysed the definitions of cultural resources and the pathways for preservation in more detail in a prior paper (Brown et al. 2022). For clarity, we start here by commenting on what we consider as cultural resources for this paper, derived from this broader research and discussed in more detail previously (Brown and Murtha 2019b; Murtha and Brown 2019). In the United States, cultural resources are not specifically defined in federal law but are included in the National Environmental Policy Act under the “human environment,” defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as “the natural and physical environment and the relationship of people with that environment” (40 CFR § 1508.14 1993; Flatt 1994: 90; Signer 2007: 55). The definition of cultural resources we use is informed by data reported here and ethnographic observations discussed in previous papers (Brown et al. 2022; Murtha 2017; Murtha and Brown 2019). Cultural resources are defined by shared meaning among one or more groups of people. Cultural resources may be embodied by objects, places, or traditions whenever their interpretation, value, or significance are shared by a group. Often, the significance of cultural resources may vary across and within groups of people; for instance, a monument has different meanings to a veteran, resource manager, tourist, or community member. Significantly, the meaning and character of cultural resources change as different groups of people engage with, interpret, or redefine them. A natural resource becomes a cultural resource when it facilitates particular lifeways, is embedded in community identities, or becomes a focal point for symbolic information (e.g. ethnoecological knowledge, historical narratives, folklore, and art). Therefore, we consider a full spectrum of cultural resources from intangible to tangible, historic to modern, and physical to phenomenological. Perhaps more critically, our perception of cultural resources is driven by and founded on a landscape framework, recognising fuzzy boundaries between and among resources. This recognition in particular is meaningful when considering threats, especially in North America where definitions of cultural resources are not typically as broad. Institutionally, the traditional definitions of cultural resources in the US privilege past human activity, but here we emphasise the importance of cultural resources to the present.

This survey and focus on threats was initiated after we conducted pilot studies with the North American LCCs attempting to integrate cultural resources within natural resource landscape-scale conservation design (Murtha and Brown 2019). In that work, we first developed a conceptual modelling framework for documenting, mapping, and analysing cultural resources from a landscape perspective (see [Figure 1], Murtha et al. 2019). Early on, we employed a top-down or expert-driven model (Steinitz 1978). After numerous iterations, working with managers and steering committee members and through surveys, we re-assessed our conceptual framework and classified the definitions of resources in order to develop a bottom-up perspective driven by professional practitioners involved in cultural resource management (CRM) and preservation (Murtha et al. 2019). These perspectives produce diverse definitions of cultural resources. Our results demonstrated that we cannot expect one shared or even many shared definitions (Brown et al. 2022). Sometimes, simply defining cultural resources in an effort to establish priorities can hinder the full integration of cultural resources into preservation planning and design. We suggest here that cultural resource management may be better served by adopting flexible definitions and focusing some effort on shared threats with natural resources.{Figure 1}

Connecting Anthropology and Archaeology

When considering cultural resource management and practice, a disciplinary divide emerged in our primary research and is evident in survey responses. Across North America, state archaeologists have become a central focus and key institution for conserving, managing, and protecting cultural resources, typically centred on specific resources (e.g. archaeological sites and artifacts) while also being stewards for specific processes and procedures (e.g. section 106 review and maintenance of state-wide cultural resource databases). State preservation offices also include architectural historians emphasising buildings as heritage. While this system benefits the preservation of physical resources and sites, the protection of less tangible community resources and information typically derived from ethnographic research (e.g. traditional fishing camps or ritual areas) is secondary. The inclusion of traditional cultural properties/places (TCPs) into the National Register was an attempt to address this issue; however, such resources are still evaluated according to the same criteria as physical heritage (King 2009; Lusignan 2009; Martinez 2006; Stoffle et al. 1997). Agencies like the National Parks have archaeologists and anthropologists overseeing regional resources, but it is not common for anthropologists to serve in preservation roles in state-wide agencies. Moreover, division in representation and tasks creates a structural divide in funding even when anthropologists are included.

This divide manifests in the definitions used by practitioners to identify cultural resources and exposes an important opportunity to reconsider how cultural resources are collectively defined across disciplinary divides. Our research suggests that analysing perceived threats can also clarify definitions. For example, we expected that the types of perceived threats would coalesce around specific definitions and classes of resources, primarily physical and material definitions. We also anticipated a separation (or a disconnect) between physical resources and less tangible resources, especially in management and preservation. All the threats identified in the survey illustrate the tension between two allied but institutionally divided practices and disciplines. Using this analysis of threats, we identify key opportunities not only to integrate landscape-scale conservation design and planning but to expand definitions of cultural resources and build on the advances made by state archaeologists and allied preservationists through the addition of anthropological information. Finally, by focusing on threats, we can move beyond conflicting definitions of cultural resources to address spatial and temporal management practices which may benefit diverse types of resources.

Threats to Conservation

Identifying and classifying threats is a critical step for developing strategies for conservation action (Ervin and Parrish 2006; Salafsky et al. 2002; Master 1991). As different types of threats are defined, they may be included as parameters in spatial conservation planning models along with ecological indicator variables in order to guide regional conservation priorities and decision-making (Ervin and Parish 2006). Understanding the threats facing a region can align stakeholders across a wider geography to handle complex or dispersed threats. As Ervin and Parrish outline: “At an ecoregional level, threat assessments can be integrated into conservation planning processes and used for a variety of purposes, including: 1) to develop ecoregion-wide strategies; 2) to set geographic priorities; 3) to sequence and prioritise conservation areas and strategies; and 4) to measure changes in threat status over time” (Ervin and Parrish 2006: 110). Moreover, clearly defining and measuring threats across a geographic area can help identify shared goals or conservation challenges across diverse stakeholders.

Threats to conservation can be broadly classified into direct and indirect threats (Menge 1997; Moon et al. 2012; Schoener 1993). For example, poaching or habitat destruction directly impact biodiversity levels, while a lack of institutional support or funding might indirectly damage biodiversity by limiting conservation action. The same outcome can be driven by different threats, but the perception of specific threats influences approaches to management. Although individual threats vary across conservation contexts, shared ideas of general threats exist. Reviewing literature on threat assessments, Ervin and Parish (2006) report that studies reference threats concerning protected status designations, development, fragmentation, transportation, and overuse, among others. Salafsky and colleagues (2008) argue that a shared global, “standard lexicon” for classifying threats to biodiversity conservation is essential to successful conservation action. They classify threats into three levels with eleven threats at the broadest level: 1) “residential and commercial development,” 2) “agriculture and aquaculture,” 3) “energy production and mining,” 4) “transportation and service corridors,” 5) “biological resource use,” 6) “human intrusions and disturbance,” 7) “natural system modifications,” 8) “invasive and other problematic species and genes,” 9) “pollution,” 10) “geological events,” and 11) “climate change and severe weather” (Salafsky et al. 2008: 900–903, [Table 1]). These threat categories are also used for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) CMP Unified Classification of Direct Threats (IUCN n.d.b). {Table 1}

Similar to the threats facing natural resource conservation described above, cultural resources are impacted by direct threats such as development and transportation networks, energy production, agriculture, and other anthropogenic disturbances, but these threats have not been inventoried, analysed, or discussed broadly in research and practice. Additionally, both natural and cultural resources face threats from climate change (Hambrecht and Rockman 2017), but the prioritisation of these threats is influenced by regional context. Cultural resources face additional natural hazards such as floods, landslides, plant growth, fires, or earthquakes (Nicu 2017; Hambrecht and Rockman 2017). While these threats are discussed by scholars, no shared lexicon for cultural resource conservation or threats is clearly documented. Some scholars have targeted particular resources such as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), for which Tang and Gavin (2016: 60) propose a standardised lexicon for the classification of threats. They outline six primary threats related to loss or change in: 1) “pathways of TEK transmission,” 2) “traditional livelihood practices,” 3) “traditional religion and beliefs,” 4) “environment and natural resources,” 5) “traditional rights,” and 6) “traditional institutions” (Tang and Gavin 2016: 60, [Table 1]). These threats to traditional ecological knowledge may also apply to other forms of intangible cultural heritage, such as the sense of place, subsistence, or recreation practices in natural areas, or ritual uses of landscapes (Henderson and Seekamp 2018; Lewis 1995), but to link them requires broader discussion of threats and cultural resources. Finally, the scale of threats is particularly significant for cultural resources. Many threats can operate on either the resources themselves, the broader community managing and maintaining them, or even on the visual and experiential context of the resources.

Building a threat model for cultural resources does not just recognise parallel needs for prioritising threats for natural and cultural resource conservation planning but also establishes the tightly coupled systems on which they both depend. For example, resource degradation is linked to social, economic, and political drivers which also damage the health and wellbeing of human communities through inequality, poverty, marginalisation, or other factors (Nayak et al. 2014). Feedback loops of social and environmental challenges can further erode cultural and natural resources: the degradation of one domain is tightly linked to the other. Pretty and colleagues (2009) further argue that biological and cultural diversity share common threats within knowledge systems. For example, they argue that when languages are eroded, biological diversity suffers from the loss of TEK and management strategies embedded in oral traditions, while cultural diversity similarly suffers from loss of cultural heritage rooted in languages (Pretty et al. 2009). Additional examples of common threats include migration, commodification, pollution, infrastructure development, and urbanisation, as well as a suite of threats related to increased central government and market interventions on land ownership, livelihoods, and education (Pretty et al. 2009). Here, we see the role of social, ecological, and political factors as key to shaping conservation outcomes.

Recognising that biological and cultural diversity are highly correlated, protecting one form of diversity can clearly enhance protections for other forms. Moreover, protected conservation areas cannot be successful without a mosaic of connecting landscapes and corridors, which all involve varying degrees of human activity (Perfecto et al. 2009). Even sites protected primarily for their historic or archaeological significance are known to contribute to general regional ecological conservation. The complex historic preservation legacy of Gettysburg offers clear evidence for this relationship (Byrne 2008). Given these observations, why has conserving cultural and natural resources within the same governance initiatives or planning models remained a challenge in North America? Much of the disconnect has to do with the different mandates of federal and state agencies in the United States, who are each governed by diverse priorities, rights, and obligations (Jarvis 2008). Yet, these stakeholders repeatedly come together to develop climate action strategies (e.g. Southeast Climate Adaptation Strategy [SECAS]) or regional conservation partnerships (e.g. The Crown of the Continent Roundtable) for natural resources. Much success has come from the alignment of priorities and values during multi-stakeholder governance initiatives, though integrating conservation remains a challenge. Demonstrating the shared threats facing cultural and natural resource conservation is a step towards building common ground between stakeholders in regional conservation efforts.

Integrating Natural and Cultural Resource Conservation

For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, conservation was based on creating protected wilderness preserves which excluded and displaced human communities (Dowie 2011; Meskell 2012; Nash 2014; Cronon 1996). More recently, diverse ways of managing conservation areas are being expanded, including community-based resource management, co-management, polycentric governance, and multi-use reserves meeting the needs of both extraction and conservation (Margules and Pressey 2000; Gavin et al. 2018). For example, the IUCN defines six types of protected areas with relative degrees of natural resource protection and human activities, while UNESCO describes multi-use biosphere reserves (Dudley 2008; IUCN n.d.a; UNESCO n.d.). In addition, UNESCO world heritage sites often include both cultural and natural components (Luengo and Rössler 2012; Von Droste et al. 1995; Von Droste et al. 1998). These reserves allow humans to hold multiple roles in environments, rather than limiting human activity to negative impacts.

Contemporary conservation challenges often cross jurisdictional, ecological, and social boundaries. Recognising this reality, conservation planning increasingly requires priority-setting, assessments, and landscape conservation design models which operate at the regional or landscape scale (Groves et al. 2002). When conservation planning occurs at this broader scale, the need to include diverse voices in environmental decision-making is clear. Rather than a single agency making decisions for their particular park or management area, decisions may impact many different types of jurisdictions, which themselves may have unique mandates and priorities. In the US, numerous conservation partnerships exist or existed to bring together multiple conservation stakeholders to set environmental goals (e.g. Migratory Bird Joint Ventures, LCCs, SECAS, Crown of the Continent Roundtable). Of these, the LCCs uniquely began the work of addressing the impacts of climate change on both cultural and natural resources, while also creating multilevel partnerships including federal, state, nongovernmental, and private sector members (LCC Network 2020).

Multiple strategies for integrating natural and cultural resource conservation design and planning have been proposed, including database and metric standardisation (Lawres et al. 2019; Murtha 2017; Laumann et al. 2019); incorporating anthropological approaches into planning processes (Brown and Murtha 2019b); and recognising overlapping land uses in protected areas (Hulse et al. 2012; Orland and Murtha 2016). In order to meaningfully integrate social and ecological values, we have asserted that cultural resources must be included in landscape conservation alongside natural resources at every step of the model design and implementation (Murtha 2017). While we recognise the mandate to integrate cultural resources, we also identify important research needs, including: 1) a need to develop more foundational research, similar to this study which identifies specific definitions, threats, gaps in funding, and techniques which can be used across diverse geographic contexts; 2) a need to develop and refine spatial techniques to provide broader access to anthropological and archaeological information; 3) a need to identify shared threats across communities of natural and cultural resources; and 4) a need to leverage this research into conservation designs offering integrated management solutions. Landscape conservation plans and the alternative futures developed to support such work are explicitly designed to address predicted threats through policy or physical design. These models are both spatial and temporal, aligning well with traditional information about cultural resources facing similar threats to natural resources. Conversely, cultural resources are commonly linked to long-term historical and ecological narratives and may offer a platform for quantifying the long-term impacts of threats. Simply, threats may not only be the means through which shared resource management can be conducted, but threats may offer an important long-term perspective for addressing wicked problems facing resource managers, like climate change.

 Materials and Methods

This study draws on two primary datasets for building a model of cultural resource threats. Primary data come from a survey with cultural resource specialists and practitioners working in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States (total N = 59, threat question N = 32) in 2019. This online survey asked respondents to define, classify, and assign functions to cultural resources in the national capital region of the US, as well as to discuss threats to cultural resource conservation. Our sample includes individuals working for the federal and state agencies (including from Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia) as well as from Washington DC and other institutions. The second data set we draw on derives from participant observation and interviews with natural and cultural resource managers (N = 18) involved in the Appalachian LCC (AppLCC) in 2017–2018. These two populations are similar in their focus on conservation in the eastern US and involvement in institutions focused on resource management. Survey data collection and analysis follows cultural domain analysis techniques including successive freelisting and Smith's S salience calculations (Smith and Borgatti 1997; Smith et al. 1995; Quinlan 2005; Bernard 2006). Data analysis was conducted with the AnthroTools R package (Purzycki and Jamieson-Lane 2016; R Core Team).

The survey and ethnographic observations were designed as part of a broader research effort integrating cultural resources and natural resources as part of the previously established LCC program. Beyond political and administrative boundaries, this program sought to integrate cultural resources in the early stages of landscape-scale conservation design and planning (Murtha 2017). The project primarily focused on linking geospatial cultural resource data with natural resource data and analytical models in order to develop large-scale conservation master plans identifying preservation priorities for future decades, while considering the changing dynamics of threats such as migration and climate change (Murtha 2017). Early on in our research, we recognised key gaps in the shared definitions of both cultural resources and the threats they face. The data presented here begin to bridge these gaps and help build a foundation of work defining cultural resources and the key threats impacting those resources. Definitions of cultural resources are discussed in detail elsewhere (Brown et al. 2022), while here we focus on classifying and analysing perceived threats to cultural resources.


Survey respondents were asked to freelist up to 10 threats to cultural resource conservation (What are the main conservation challenges or threats facing cultural resources in the National Capital Region? Feel free to write complete sentences or single words, whichever you prefer). Thirty-two individuals named at least one threat in their freelist. A total of 117 unique responses were given, which were grouped into 102 unique threats after basic text processing. Respondents named an average of 4.56 (SD = 2.24, Median = 4, N = 32) threats. Threats were combined in three rounds of data cleaning, including standardising spelling irregularities, accounting for synonyms, and grouping threat descriptions based on common themes, resulting in 12 broad categories of threats.

Respondents listed 12 primary types of threats [Figure 1], of which 8 are considered salient among these individuals (Smith's S ≥ 0.1). The most salient threats to cultural resources among experts interviewed are: 1) lack of funding, 2) development and urbanisation, 3) environmental, 4) neglect, deterioration, and the large number of resources needing conservation, 5) lack of conservation ethic, importance, and changing or competing values, 6) lack of awareness, community engagement, communication, and interpretation, 7) lack of expertise, education, science tools, or data, and 8) tourism levels and overuse. In addition to these threats, less frequently mentioned threat categories include insufficient staff, political threats (e.g. lack of local government protection, political pressure), security and crime (e.g. theft or vandalism of resources), and other miscellaneous threats (e.g. time, access, and drug abuse). In the following sections, we discuss the results for each of the eight salient threat categories.

Lack of Funding

Funding is by far the most salient threat, mentioned by 75% of survey respondents. This category is the single greatest agreed upon threat facing cultural resources and conservation across jurisdictions and agencies. This broad conceptualisation of funding threats ranges from general concerns about the loss or lack of funding to specific concerns over the types of funding gaps. Threats associated with a lack of funding focus on budget cuts, which require resource specialists to maintain management and restoration efforts despite reduced budgets. Specifically, managers mentioned administrative budget cuts and the lack of government funding for maintenance, conservation, and restoration. Other respondents also mentioned the lack of science communication, humanities, and historical funding as threats to cultural resource conservation. We observe two key categories of funding issues: first, an overall perception of lack of funding to manage and maintain existing resources. This threat amplifies already existing physical threats to cultural resources, such as development. Second, access to important core science funding for agencies to identify, document, and study 'new' resources is lacking. This threat is especially salient when considering non-archaeological or historical resources. While this gap exists for state archaeology, generally no state-wide funding is available for anthropological approaches to cultural resources. This lack of funding creates an institutional gap which influences not only the perceptions of threats, but also the prioritisation of resources for conservation. Simply, communities need funding support for the documentation of these resources so that they can be more closely integrated into conservation design and planning.


The second most common threat named by respondents is development. Similar to concerns about funding, respondents held diverse perspectives on exactly how development threatens cultural resources, including proximal threats like suburban or housing developments and political economic threats like development pressures, gentrification, and real-estate costs. This threat is persistent across cultural resources and has influenced the structure and management of state-wide archaeological databases (Murtha et al. 2019). Proximal threats include general development, suburban sprawl, and urbanisation. Broader political and economic threats include the high cost of land, demand for new construction, and development.

Environmental Issues

Environmental threats are frequently mentioned by survey respondents as most important when considering the physical integrity of cultural resources. Environmental threats generally fit into two categories, climate change and proximal anthropogenic environmental degradation. However, each category requires different responses when considering preservation and management decisions. Threats driven by climate change include frequent storms, sea-level rise, fires, temperature fluctuations, and shifts in species' ranges. A second group of threats is driven by anthropogenic environmental degradation. These threats are related to the development threats described above, but specifically relate to the immediate consequences of human action, such as runoff and erosion, air pollution, acid rain, and natural disasters. These subcategories of environmental threats are related but perceived as requiring separate attention.

Neglect and Abundance

We combined threats related to neglected resource maintenance or restoration with those referencing the 'sheer volume' of resources needing protection, two aspects of the same problem related to the lack of attention paid to all resources which need protection and the high levels of physical deterioration due to age and neglect already faced by many resources. Potentially considered a symptom of other threats such as the lack of funding, neglect and deferred maintenance are recognised by some respondents as a separate threat due to the backlog of resource preservation activities. An additional facet of this threat is encapsulated in the following response—”the large number of resources demanding equal attention”—which emphasises the challenge of conserving multiple resources with equal priority.

Conservation Ethics and Values

Threats related to ethics and values are perhaps the most intangible threat identified by cultural resource specialists who responded to our survey. Some specific threats named by respondents which refer to a lack of consensus in cultural resource values include “division of credo,” “revision of values,” and “competing priorities.” Other responses describe particular cultural ideologies that they believe threaten cultural resources, such as a “'newer is better' mentality,” “the desire to rewrite history,” “lack of a stewardship ethic in policy makers and some property owners,” and “no sense of preservation for the future.” Relatedly, other responses in this category describe a lack of interest in or importance given to resources, or general apathy around cultural resources. Collectively, this category highlights the complex ways in which ideology and values influence resource management.

Community Engagement and Communication

A main category of threats to cultural resources concerns how they are understood, advertised, and discussed. Some respondents identified a lack of communication, interpretation, and public awareness as threats. Others mentioned the “lack of connections to surrounding communities” and “involvement and sense of ownership/stewardship” as threats. A lack of understanding about the value of or awareness about the existence of sites was also described. Finally, a “lack of government official awareness” of cultural resource conservation was cited. In this category of threats, the different audiences who might influence resource management were referenced. Responses included both a general sense of misunderstanding or lack of understanding as a threat, but also specifically a lack of public and government official awareness. In addition, the types of awareness needed were also specified by some respondents. For example, interpretation, communication, “advertising of smaller sites and museums,” connections, and understanding were referenced.

Lack of Expertise, Education, and Science

Threats in this category relate to the lack of scientific management tools and knowledge of proper conservation techniques and missing documentation or thorough inventories of sites and public properties. These threats are characterised by a lack of knowledge or expertise as well as of resources, tools, or abilities to actually implement effective management practices. Some responses in this category include: “for some types (including intangible resources), lack of good documentation,” “adoption of 21st c. data archiving and preservation techniques,” and “not enough understanding of adaptive reuse by developers.” Threats in this category highlight the lack of both theoretical and applied innovations and expertise for cultural resource conservation.

Tourism and Overuse

A surprising category of threats to cultural resources includes challenges related to too many visitors and the idea that sites are “loved to death.” Higher visitation levels to cultural resource sites might seem to be a positive force for recognising their value and prompting conservation, but when overuse is coupled with a lack of adequate funding, staffing, and ability to protect resources, high visitation rates can become a threat. For example, one response cited “overuse or capacity to handle the level of public use” as a threat.

Assessing Types of Threats

Following Salafsky and colleagues (2002; 2008), we divide threats to cultural resources into direct and indirect threats [Table 1]. Direct threats include those which impact particular cultural resources and sites through deterioration or destruction, while indirect threats impair conservation efforts more broadly by limiting funding, staffing, or interest in preservation as a whole. However, certain threat categories challenge this dichotomy; for example, neglect could be considered an indirect threat in the same manner as a lack of funding, conservation ethics, awareness, or expertise in that deterioration is caused by inaction rather than direct action. Such overlap supports the need to address threats as a system alongside the identification of individual categories, recognising that they are dependent variables.

Comparing the threats to cultural resources mentioned by survey respondents to those mentioned by AppLCC steering committee members reveals some important overlaps. When we asked AppLCC steering committee members about the primary threats to conservation in the Appalachian Region, the top four threats mentioned were habitat fragmentation, invasive species or wildlife diseases, climate change, and water-quality issues (Brown and Murtha 2018). In addition, interviewees mentioned the anthropogenic drivers of land use and land cover change resulting from residential development and linear energy and transportation infrastructure (Brown and Murtha 2018). When discussing threats to cultural resource conservation, interviewees similarly mentioned energy infrastructure, development, and climate change, but also mentioned distinct cultural and economic factors (Brown and Murtha 2018). Some of these threats are also mirrored in our surveys with cultural resource specialists. These interviews similarly referred to development and climate change, which seem to similarly threaten both natural and cultural resources. In both cases presented here, thinking about the threats most salient to conservation practitioners can identify clear pathways for future action and strategic planning.


According to the cultural resource specialists surveyed, threats to cultural resources may be direct or indirect, anthropogenic or environmental in origin, and either within or beyond the scope of the traditional CRM work. Funding, environmental issues, and development are the top threats named by at least half of survey respondents. Surprisingly, we also found that factors which promote cultural resource awareness—such as high visitation rates—in fact may threaten the integrity or compromise the conservation of cultural heritage sites, although such an identification is subjective. By defining salient threats to cultural resources, it is possible to rethink how they are incorporated into conservation design and planning. One important next step beyond the scope of this research will be to compare the rankings of these threats to perceptions of threats facing natural resources.

Defining Salient Threats

Viewing cultural resource conservation through the lens of self-identified threats illustrates the complex procedures practitioners confront in their research and work. Until now, most efforts targeted resource classes and definitions to identify priorities, but in practice, identifying threats is also critical. Broadly classifying threats also offers steps towards identifying solutions, as each threat can be targeted by specific land management actions or policies. Relying solely on management by types or classes of resources may limit the efficacy of policy and landscape planning interventions to isolated problems rather than broad solutions. Threats to cultural resources are sometimes glossed as too complex or political and thus not approached as solvable challenges by managers. Moreover, while threats to natural resources are sometimes problematically naturalised into technical challenges or apolitical drivers, this framing does offer a helpful (if incomplete) solution-oriented framing. For example, when forests are cleared to make way for linear energy infrastructure, specific impacts can be predicted. The same is true for cultural resources, as shown through impacts on scenic vistas from linear infrastructure development such as powerlines. These direct threats are critical ways in which both cultural and natural resource managers share common ground. Still, this common ground extends much further than direct threats. Cultural and natural resource conservation both face similar indirect threats such as lack of funding, staff, political or public support, or adequate scientific knowledge, all of which impact the ability to effectively conserve resources and landscapes.

Although both natural and cultural resources face institutional threats in the form of political and funding issues, these threats are not always considered critical for each resource type. For example, as per Salafsky et al.'s (2008) comprehensive framework for labelling threats to natural resources, all the threats included are direct physical threats to populations, rather than threats to conservation as a general practice. Their classification includes factors such as pollution and invasive species, which can directly impact biodiversity, while excluding factors like “lack of conservation ethic” or funding, which could have a similar, though perhaps less directly measurable impacts. To manage this issue, Salafsky and colleagues (2008) differentiate between direct threats and stressors or indirect threats. The specialists surveyed here noted both direct physical threats to cultural resources (e.g. infrastructure development or climate change), but also emphasised broader social, economic, and political threats which limit the field of cultural resource conservation as a whole. Contrary to Salafsky and colleagues (2008), direct threats to cultural resources and indirect threats to the ability to conserve the resources (or stressors) are equally weighted. This correspondence should be factored into conservation design and planning. While identifying and prioritising threats to evaluate trade-offs is one approach to addressing direct threats to cultural resources (Xiao et al. 2021), acknowledging the systemic challenges facing conservation through a landscape approach integrating natural and cultural resource management could have a more profound effect.

Conservation Planning

Discussing biodiversity planning, Margules and Pressey (2000: 243) argue that conservation reserves should be designed to meet two primary goals: 1) the inclusion of “the full variety of biodiversity” and 2) “persistence,” or ensuring species within the reserve “by maintaining natural processes and viable populations and by excluding threats.” They argue that the placement of conservation reserves should be based on scientific assessments of biodiversity or in regions where reserves are likely to make the biggest impact, rather than based on economic concerns (Margules and Pressey 2000). Cultural resource conservation in comparison is focused traditionally and legislatively on specific sites and not the broader context. For cultural resources, Doelle and colleagues (2016) note that oil and gas extraction on private lands are not regulated for potential impacts on cultural resources. Considering threats as only impacting individual sites or species overlooks the broader landscape-scale, political, and institutional threats which impact resources as a whole. As Doelle and colleagues write: “The way in which the NHPA is usually applied has led to an overemphasis on site-by-site evaluation at the expense of more regional approaches to historic preservation” (Doelle et al. 2016: 119), though more recent efforts are being made to emphasise landscape-scale approaches (Campellone et al. 2018; Mazurczyk et al. 2018; Nocca and Girard 2018). Practically, a landscape-scale approach recognises the complexity of management across areas with different types of land ownership. Simply, both cultural and natural resources occur throughout the landscape in both public and private lands.

Natural resource conservation planning may rely on overlaying spatial layers of threats and biodiversity to identify places facing multiple threats and prioritising conservation hotspots (Ervin and Parrish 2006: 108). Creating similar maps linking natural and cultural resources to their shared and distinct threats might similarly reveal priority areas with common threats, for example, threats related to climate change and disasters (Berenfeld 2008; Fatorić and Biesbroek 2020; Fatorić and Seekamp 2017a, 2017b; Harkin et al. 2020; Maio et al. 2018; Stanton-Geddes and Soz 2017). By identifying the multiple overlapping resources within the same locations, a greater number of stakeholders and communities can be engaged for conservation action. Over a decade ago, Ervin and Parrish (2006) observed that: “Only recently have threat assessments begun to identify threat patterns in relation to biodiversity patterns.” Perhaps now it is time to begin relating threat patterns to both cultural and natural resource distributions.


Although specific conservation contexts will face distinct threats, identifying broader types of threats to conservation as a whole is valuable. In the case of cultural resources, developing a shared understanding of threats may help build consensus around strategies for dealing with these challenges. Moreover, researchers have argued for the need to adopt a standard taxonomy or lexicon of threats in order to advance global environmental conservation (e.g. Ervin and Parrish 2006; Salafksy et al. 2008). Expanding this taxonomy to include threats to cultural resources would benefit the conservation of both cultural and ecological heritage. Simply, we advocate for an approach which allows threats to cultural resources to be established independent of natural resources so that they can be integrated into conservation design in three ways: 1) explicitly classified so that they can be operationalised across classes of cultural resources; 2) ranked and compared to specific threats identified when developing natural resource conservation plans; and 3) integrated within landscape-scale conservation design in order to recognise those threats which are tightly coupled to the preservation and conservation of both natural and cultural resources in specifically defined geographic contexts.

In addition to developing a standardised taxonomy, assumptions and beliefs about different types of threats and how they impact diverse resources must be addressed. Threats to natural resources or biodiversity conservation are generally and incorrectly considered only anthropogenic (Salafsky et al. 2002), while threats to cultural resources may be due to either activity from humans, other species, or abiotic factors. Minimally, cultural and natural resource managers can find allies in addressing shared anthropogenic threats. A more holistic approach however would incorporate broader social-ecological systems thinking into conservation planning and design. The link between cultural, linguistic, and biological diversity is widely supported (Maffi 2005; Stepp et al. 2005; Pretty et al. 2009). Further linking the diversity of cultural resources (both tangible and intangible) to biological diversity as part of systems-level conservation efforts is still necessary.

In this study, we identified threats to cultural resource conservation as perceived by resource managers and practitioners. It is a positive step in the right direction that so many organisations and institutions are prioritising cultural resources as part of the natural resource conservation planning and design process; however, significant challenges to integration remain. We identify several processually oriented issues which can be addressed by leveraging anthropological information. Here, understanding threats is a key step in revising and enhancing the process for integrating resources, but threats are not the only challenge that needs to be addressed. New data, techniques, and geographic contexts will only serve to broaden the catchment of this work and serve as interdisciplinary platforms for critical discussions about the intersections between natural and cultural resources. Recognising shared threats can also identify steps and potential stakeholders for more effective management of coupled natural-human systems.

Author Contributions Statement

MB, TM conceived and designed the study; MB, TM collected the data; MB analysed the data; MB led the drafting of the manuscript; MB, TM, WS undertook critical revision of manuscript. All authors contributed critical, intellectual content to the drafts and gave final approval of the version to be published.


We acknowledge support from the National Park Service, National Capital Region, and the Wildlife Management Institute. Thank you also to all the cultural resource specialists who responded to our survey.

Declaration of competing/conflicting interests

The authors declare no competing interests in the conduct of this research.

Financial Disclosures:

Research is funded by the Wildlife Management Institute.

Research Ethics Approval:

This study was reviewed by the University of Florida IRB for ethical human subjects' research.

Data Availability:

Data are not accessible due to privacy restrictions.


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