More Preservation Insanity from the Alabama Historical Commission
Diving Banned in Alabama and Georgia? Alabama Underwater Cultural Resources Act
To: Divers, Relic Hunters, Gold Prospectors, Legislators, and anybody else interested.
Who I am is Steve Phillips. I am 57 years old and I'm semi-retired now. I own and live on a cattle farm in Shelby County. For over 30 years I owned and operated P&S Business Machines in Birmingham. I am the primary stockholder in Southern Skin Divers Supply in Birmingham, which I own with my two sons and Mark Tant. I learned to dive while in the Air Force in 1965.
What I am is an adventurer and explorer. I am a diver and have been for almost 40 years. For fun I go diving. I dive in pretty water all over the world and take other divers with me. I also dive in not as pretty water such as the rivers of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, and Alaska. Black polluted waters with bad currents, trot lines, trees, snags, snakes, and alligators are not every diver's place to be but that's where I want to be. I don't play golf or follow any sports. I study Civil War history and I'm a pretty good amateur historian and a damn good diver. For 30 years I have been diving in the Alabama River at Selma. On October the 20th of this year Perry Massie and myself were arrested after diving in the river at Selma.
Many of you reading this letter have read my newsletters over the years about diving for gold in Alaska, fossil diving in South Carolina, and relic hunting on the land or underwater in most of the Southern states. My sons and I do this every chance we get. We not only teach diving and sell equipment but our hobby is diving for relics, gold, fossils or just taking pictures. We own the oldest scuba diving school in the United States. Southern Skin Divers Supply is 50 years old. We have certified about 10,000 divers. I can usually write a dive journal for the newsletter pretty easily but this time I hate it. I have put off writing about being arrested for two months now and I just figured out today why I haven't written the letter. It's not fun. I didn't hesitate because I'm embarrassed, ashamed, or guilty of anything; none of these apply. It's just that nothing that has happened relating to October 20th has been fun.
Let me tell you the story. Perry Massie is my friend form California; He is also the CEO of Outdoor Channel Holdings. The Outdoor Channel is subscribed to by 30 million people and is available to about 60 million. Perry is the headman of the outdoor channel on TV. He also has his own show on the channel called Prospecting America. His show is about gold prospecting. I have been diving and gold prospecting in Alaska with Perry for the last eleven years. Last year Perry did a special show about one of our trips to dive for fossils in South Carolina. The show was aired many times nationwide and was very popular with viewers. Perry and his wife, and eight year old daughter came to Alabama this year with plans to film a show on diving in Alabama. Perry is also the head of the Gold Prospectors of America Association and publicizes the Gold Prospectors magazine monthly. Perry was a West Point appointee and is well thought of by all who know him.
Perry and I along with our wives and Perry's daughter went to Selma with plans to dive for two days. When we launched my boat at the Selma marina some guy who works for the Water Works in Selma approached us. He said we could not dive in the river anymore. I just figured he was a nut and would go away. I told him I had been diving there for 30 years and that hundreds of divers dive there. He said that there was a new law. He said "two women" from Montgomery told him that no diving was allowed anymore. I told him that divers in Alabama can dive where they please except certain shipwrecks were diving is forbidden.
We went diving. I anchored near the bridge and we made two dives each that day. I found a pre- Civil War musket and a semi- automatic pistol that had been thrown in the river. Perry had never dived in Alabama before and had not used an underwater metal detector before. He found nothing but new trash. We were looking for old trash. When we arrived back at the marina about 10 people accosted us. There were two game wardens, about four Selma police officers, one district attorney, and four people from the Historical Commission in Montgomery.
The "two women" who told the Water Works guy that diving was illegal were part of the Historical Commission squad. The game warden asked me what I had been doing. I told him that I was just diving where I always did and looking for whatever I could find. I knew him and reminded him that he had been to my boat about a dozen times over the years. He said he knew me and didn't know why he was called to arrest divers. He said the whole thing was stupid and he had better things to do with his time. The district attorney told me that the Historical Commission had faxed him a new law and told him to have us arrested. He said we had to have a permit to dive in the rivers now. The state archeologist, Tom Mayer, was the one really having us arrested. He had the "two women" and another archeologist with him. They told the DA and the game wardens to arrest us for stealing cultural resources of Alabama. My boat and trailer were confiscated. My pre-war musket was confiscated. The Selma police looked at the semi-automatic pistol and they took the serial number and checked in their records. It turned out to be a stolen gun from 1993. I've found lots of guns over the years including several murder weapons for the Sheriff's Department in several counties. My sons and I help law enforcement agencies that need help. We have never charged a fee. I found a pistol in Gadsden that was used to kill three people at the Pop-Eye's Chicken several years ago. They had searched for the gun in the river for 10 days with no success. I found it for them because of my experience with metal detectors and black water diving. I also found another murder weapon in Columbiana several years ago. That was in February and the water was awful cold. I must have found 200 beer cans before I found the pistol for the sheriff's department. I am pleased with being able to help law enforcement when they need my sons or me. We do good not bad.
In 1999 the Historical Commission of Alabama somehow managed to slip through the Legislature a new law concerning divers. The reason I say slipped through is because no divers knew about this before it was passed. The law was to protect and control the diving and salvage of shipwrecks. It was to affect shipwrecks and shipwrecks only. Permits were to be required to dive shipwrecks. This is what the legislators who voted for the law have told me. No divers had any input in this law or the regulations. The Historical Commission who has now assumed control of all diving in the waterways of Alabama and have perverted the law to benefit themselves. First, the Commission recently voted themselves a handsome pay raise. Part of the funding such as "expenses" comes from admission fees, donations and of the like. The "new law" has some provisions which are rather lucrative for the commissioners. The Historical Commission of Alabama has over 100 employees. They do not have any historians on their payroll. A few archeologists who are not in any way familiar with history control the commission. They study prehistory and how to get grants and money from the state and federal government. Tom Maher is the main state archeologist. He and Greg Rhinehart wrote the regulations that Mr. Maher used to have Perry and I arrested. The regulations are vague and bad but as bad as they are Perry and I did not violate them. The law states that diving to recover "cultural resources" is a violation. We were not diving on a shipwreck and the definition of a cultural resource in Alabama is:
Cultural Resources- all abandoned shipwrecks or remains of those ships and all underwater archeological treasures, artifacts, treasure troves, or other cultural articles and materials, whether or not associated with any shipwrecks that are contained in or on submerged lands belonging to the state of Alabama and the sea within the jurisdiction of the state, and that have remained unclaimed for more than 50 years, excluding there from sunken logs, cants, and timber resources of any other type not associated as part of a shipping vessel, and are eligible for, or listed in the National Register of Historic Places or the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.
Wowee, what a sentence that is. Over 100 words in one sentence they wrote. No wonder the game warden and district attorney are confused. Who wouldn't be? I've been reading all these rules since 1999 and I'm still confused. The key part of the definition of cultural resources is it has to be a shipwreck or listed on the National Register of Historic Places or the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage. Where I dived at Selma does not qualify as a cultural resource. I also don't like the idea of the water and lands under them being referred to as belonging to the state of Alabama. These are public rivers and creeks not government; Alabama has 77,000 miles of waterway. We have more than any other state in the lower 48 states. Florida has 11,000 miles.
Somewhere between 12 and 20% of all the freshwater in the United States flows through Alabama. Far less than 1% of all these waterways have been explored by divers. Alabama has around 100,000 certified scuba divers. Most of these divers will never dive in the black water rivers but they still don't want to be controlled or bossed around by Tom Maher at the Historical Commission. If he wants to boss divers he should be one. If he wants relics, he should go find them.
The Historical Commission does not have anyone that preserves relics. They don't know how. They carried my gun that was confiscated to the conservator at the Department of Archives and History to have it identified and to clean and start preserving it. The Department of Archives and History is Alabama's real history department. We really don't need the Historical Commission at all. The few functions that they do could be better served by the Department of Archives and History. This would be a great way to save the state some money that is wasted. When I am explaining what happened to Perry and me most people ask why. Why would Tom Maher have us arrested? The answer is money. Whatever can be confiscated under the law such as boats, trailers, equipment, cars or trucks, or collections of relics can be sold by the state and all the money goes to the Cultural Resources Fund. The money goes to the archeologist to pay their wages and expenses. The archeologist and the employees working under Tom Maher want to go to my house and confiscate my collection and my truck. The Historical Commission continues to try to steal my collection so they can sell it.
I have an extensive collection of Civil War relics including the largest collection of artillery projectiles in a private collection. The Historical Commission is very aware of my collection. I have offered to lend on a long-term basis my entire collection to be displayed at Confederate Memorial Park near Clanton. This park is under the control of the Historical Commission. They have spent over a million dollars on a building to display the Steve Phillips collection. I wanted nothing except for them to insure and display the collection. This is where everyone asks why again. It's all about money. They could not sell my collection if it was on long-term loan. It is common for museums to sell collectibles that they are not displaying. This is called deccession. I'm familiar with this practice because most of my collection was purchased by me from museums. The employees at the Historical Commission want money to pay their wages no matter how they get it. A few days before they had us arrested the Historical Commission received a 28% budget cut. This put them into panic mode. They tried to justify their existence by having us arrested. They made a big effort to have this arrest publicized. There were at least four newspaper articles in Alabama, two TV shows and on the radio. The newspaper said that we had a stolen gun on my boat. It did not say I had found a stolen gun.
Please read the regulations that have been written. Notice that this will affect gold prospectors, relic hunters, divers, and even fishermen. They can stop fishing anywhere in our 77,000 miles of waterways. Also note that only a professional archeologist can apply for a permit to dive on cultural resources in Alabama. That means anywhere, since we were not diving on a shipwreck or listed sites. Southern Skin Divers Supply has asked for a permit 3 times in writing and never even been given the courtesy of being told no. No permits have even been issued that any of our divers could find. This interpretation of the rules if allowed to stand will make Alabama the most diver unfriendly state in the world.
We want to change things to make Alabama the most diver friendly state. We need divers and tourists. Our history needs to be found, preserved, and displayed. Relic hunters, divers, and amateur historians are the people who are willing and able to make this happen. Over 95% of all-important historical and archeological finds have been discovered by amateurs who work for free because they want to. They don't do it for money. The collectors and finders are the ones who write the books that tell what something is and where it came from. The rules of AUCRAP forbid divers from writing about or telling anyone about a historical find. The only person the divers are allowed to tell about a find is the state archeologist, Tom Maher. What a bunch of bull this is and what a way to never know about our history. If a diver were to find where DeSoto fought chief Tuscaloosa in the 1500's, that history would be lost to the citizens of Alabama. Every book published about artillery projectiles from the Civil War for the last 20 years has my name in it. My collection has always been available to the authors. I have written about disarmament and preservation and have been used by many museums to preserve their collections.
We are Fighting Back
1. Perry and I will go to court and win our legal fight. We have violated no law or rule. We will pay for this ourselves. Erskine Mathis is a fine criminal lawyer and my friend and dive buddy. He is helping us with our defense.
2. We are contacting the state legislature to have this bad law replaced or fixed. We want divers to have input on any legislation that affects diving. Many legislators have told me that the regulations as being interpreted by the Historical Commission is not what they voted for. They are mad as hell. We have sponsors to have this law changed. You need to write your state legislators in Montgomery and support changing or replacing this law. Write as much as you can and say what you think. Don't just sit back and watch what happens. "Grab a good holt" on this wagon and pull. We need you to write, email, phone, or whatever. Make your existence and opinion known. You are in charge. Take charge.
3. Alabama Divers Legal Defense Fund. We are forming a committee of divers, relic hunters, lawyers, and gold prospectors to protect the wrongfully prosecuted people in the future. This is not for the defense of Perry or me. Our committee opened a bank account for a legal defense fund. I put in the first $5,000 and Southern Skin Divers Supply has donated. This money will be used if needed to give legal defense to wrongfully arrested people. This is not just for divers or just for Alabama. Anyone harassed wrongfully that relates to our interest or to similar bad laws can benefit from our fund. Georgia has also been mistreating divers and arrowhead collectors. We will use our money in Georgia, Alabama, or anywhere needed. We will not use any of our money for expenses other than legal fees and possibly lobbying fees. No money for any volunteer committee person. Please make a contribution to this fund, no matter how small.
Alabama Divers Legal Defense Fund
4515 5th Ave. South
Birmingham, AL 35222
Whatever funds are not used will be refunded to the contributors in four years if our fight is over. The War Between the States only lasted four years and this fight should be a lot smaller than that one. We will not defend trespassers, people who relic hunt on parks, or divers who violate shipwreck laws.
What we want is for the divers, relic hunters, and gold prospectors not to be intimidated or blackmailed into paying a fine when they have done nothing illegal or wrong. Perry and I were the first divers arrested under this law taken to jail and charged with a felony, but we are not the first to be harassed or fined. Other divers have been given a citation and paid a fine because it was cheaper than going to court. The same thing has happened in Georgia. In Georgia the charges have been dropped if a diver would not pay a fine and went to court. Our Legal Defense Fund is hiring a constitutional lawyer to file a court action to have the law removed due to being unconstitutional and infringing on our freedom.
We are American citizens and will insist on being treated as such. We are not subjects and we have no rulers, dictators, or kings. We have representatives in our government who want to do what we wish them to. They can't read our minds, we must tell them what we want.
Some day I will be glad to go back to being an explorer and adventurer, but for now we have a fight on our hands. Remember you do have a dog in this fight. Thanks for your support.
Let us know what you think at or better yet, contact your Alabama state legislators regarding this issue via their Email address which can be found at http://www.legislature.state.al.us/ or, for more details, http://www.ssdsupply.com/aucra.htm