The National Park Service has acknowledged that it failed “to uphold the public trust in resource protection” at Effigy Mounds National Monument, near McGregor in northeast Iowa.
The admission came after two National Park Service critics — Friends of Effigy Mounds and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility — obtained documents relating to what the groups call “one of the biggest and most embarrassing official mass desecrations of Indian prehistoric burial sites.”
Those documents, a lightly redacted 723-page transcript of the Park Service’s internal investigation of the matter, will be released to the public on Monday.
The Park Service said the investigation, by NPS Special Agent David Barland-Liles, documented numerous failures on the part of former Effigy Mounds National Monument staff to comply with resource protection laws between 1999 and 2009.
The investigation identified at least 78 structures, including elevated boardwalks, decks and a machine storage shed, built without first securing clearances under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires federal agencies to consider the effect of projects on “significant historic properties.”
‘An indelible stain’
Effigy Mounds National Monument was established in 1949 specifically to protect the more than 200 prehistoric native American mounds, each in the shape of stylized animals or symbols, considered sacred by the monument’s 12 affiliated tribes, as well as by many non-native Americans.
“Our failure to uphold the public trust in resource protection has weakened our relationship with the State Historic Preservation Office, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the American Indian tribes culturally affiliated with the monument, as well as with the general public,” the National Park Service said in a statement.
Tim Mason, a spokesman for Friends of Effigy Mounds, said a few out-of-control public employees, trained and sworn to protect sacred places, have defaced a pristine area that was never to have been disturbed.
“Their actions left an indelible stain on the history of the National Park Service. The spirits buried in these wooded hills are spinning with indignation in their graves,” said Mason, whose 2010 complaint to the Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General was referred back to the Park Service to investigate itself.
Mason of rural McGregor, an Effigy Mounds employee for 19 years, said he will not rest until the 2,500-acre complex is restored to its predevelopment condition.
“What happened, happened. Nobody intentionally did anything wrong. No one involved would have intentionally hurt a blade of grass,” Phyllis Ewing of Waukon, who was superintendent at Effigy Mounds when the serial violations occurred, said Friday.
The three staff members most responsible for the failures — Ewing, former facilities manager Tom Sinclair and former administrative assistant Sharon Greener — no longer work for the Park Service, which, citing the privacy of personnel matters, would divulge no additional details about the manner of their separations.
‘A tricky issue’
“We can’t change what happened, but we can use it as a lesson to improve our procedures going forward,” said Patty Rooney, public affairs specialist with the Park Service’s Midwest Regional Office.
“The whole case history will be studied to determine root causes and prescribe corrective measures,” said Jim Nepstad, who succeeded Ewing as Effigy Mounds superintendent.
“We are a preservation agency first and foremost. This is not something we like to see, and we take seriously the need to improve.”
The documents, obtained by those groups eight months after filing a Freedom of Information Act request, show that the desecrations have gone largely unpunished and unmitigated.
Nepstad said remediation is “a tricky issue” that has to be handled thoughtfully on a case-by-case basis.
In the case of one improper project, the installation of a water line to the headquarters area, he said, “Do we rip it out only to have to replace it?”
An unauthorized maintenance shed in the north unit and an elevated boardwalk trail on the Nazekaw Terrace directly across Highway 76 from the visitor center have both been removed.
A much larger Yellow River boardwalk and bridge remain in place.
Though Effigy Mounds has not received a base funding increase since the discovery of the Section 106 compliance violations, the monument has performed necessary remediation with its base funding, according to Rooney.
A staff reorganization enabled the hiring of a dedicated cultural resources manager, she said.
As remediation needs are identified, funding options will be addressed, Rooney said.
‘Back in the loop’
The NPS internal investigation found that Ewing oversaw more than $3 million in illegal construction of boardwalks, trails and other structures that damaged irreplaceable archaeological artifacts.
Commenting on the boardwalks, one tribal leader was quoted in the investigation as saying they imply that “ancient cemeteries should be treated as places to walk your dog.”
Meskwaki tribal historian Johnathan Buffalo said he thinks most of the 12 affiliated tribes “are satisfied that it was caught and is being corrected.”
Buffalo said the National Park Service has increased its efforts to keep the tribes apprised of developments that could affect the burial sites and other sacred areas at Effigy Mounds.
“We feel like we are back in the loop,” he said.
When Ewing was relieved of her duties in May 2010, she acknowledged hat she and her staff had failed to maintain the proper balance between the Park Service’s dual missions to preserve natural and cultural resources and to make them available for the education and enjoyment of the public.
When interviewed by Special Agent Barland-Liles, Ernest Quintana, the Park Service’s former Midwest director, said Ewing told him in 2004 of her vision to provide disability access to some of the cultural resources using raised boardwalks.
Quintana said he reminded her of the “the inherent conflict the boardwalks would have” with the park’s responsibility to preserve cultural and natural resources and landscapes.
When notified in 2009 of projects completed without proper compliance, Quintana said he mobilized an Operations Evaluation that found numerous violations and “disregard for the compliance process.”
Quintana said he gave Ewing a year to launch a recovery and prove herself as a manager. After that year, he said he gave her the choice to resign or be reassigned to a non-leadership position at the regional office.
She took the second option.
Quintana said he did not consider firing Ewing “because she had no devious design to do something wrong.”
Ewing, when interviewed by Barland-Liles, said she had delegated compliance to facilities manager Sinclair and had been unaware compliance had been mishandled until the 2009 evaluation.
Ewing told Barland-Liles she did not understand the compliance process. She said she had not read either the Park Services reference manual on the Americans with Disabilities Act nor a directive describing the role of park managers in assuring compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act.
Sinclair told the investigator that, despite having received two installments of compliance coordinator training, he never fully understood the process.
“I feel that I let the park and the Park Service as a whole down,” he said.
Asked what advice he would give to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Sinclair replied: “Have mercy.”
Ken Block, the Effigy Mounds’s chief ranger from 2000 to 2010, told the investigator that Ewing led an insular group of decision-makers, including Sinclair and Greener, that created a hostile work environment for him and several other “outsiders.”
Block said he and colleagues were ignored whenever they tried to call attention to what they considered breaches in the Effigy Mounds’s cultural and historical preservation mission.
His biggest regret, he said Thursday, was not becoming an aggressive whistle-blower.
The Park Service’s associate regional director of cultural resources told Barland-Liles that many of the 78 illegally completed projects during Ewing’s tenure were done despite contrary directions from senior officials.
Ewing either failed to understand compliance and consultation policies or chose to ignore them, the cultural resources official said.
“We’ve tried to understand how a park can behave so badly … . Whenever they had a chance to screw up, they did,” the official said.
The cumulative effect of Ewing’s actions “destroyed the park,” and it will take decades of hard work to begin to repair the damage to the cultural resources and the National Park Service’s reputation, the cultural resources official said.
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