Effigy Mounds documents released, group calls for removal of illegal structures


Compiled by Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor


After nearly eight months of waiting, the Friends of Effigy Mounds and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) recently received documents pertaining to Effigy Mounds National Monument’s construction of numerous maintenance and building projects that were funded and completed without proper compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act.


Calls for concern began in 1999, when long-time Effigy Mounds employee Timothy Mason began noticing an emphasis on maintenance projects, like boardwalks and platforms, throughout the park. In March 2010, an Effigy Mounds Park Ranger visited Mason, relating that park officials were not following proper compliance procedures required for the projects. Mason requested documents pertaining to the projects, along with a 2009 operational evaluation, prompting the National Park Service (NPS) to take a look at what was going on at Effigy Mounds.


Effigy Mounds was established in 1949 to protect significant 700- to 2,500-yearold earth mounds, many of which are known to be Native American burial mounds, in northeast Iowa. The park now encompasses over 2,500 acres and contains over 200 mound sites depicting effigy (animal-shaped), linear, conical and compound forms.


The newly released report contains 723 pages, including interviews with Effigy Mounds and NPS staff, investigative memos, information about budget allocations, a damage assessment, operational evaluation and photographs of the non-compliance structures and sites. The investigation was conducted by special agent David Barland-Liles.


According to the report, between 1999-2010, during  the tenure of former Effigy Mounds Superintendent Phyllis Ewing, the park went on a construction binge, building more than 78 structures that intruded on the mounds. 


One structure, a maintenance shed within the Great Bear/Wildcat Mound Group, consisted of 22 round excavations dug to form poured concrete footers for wooden posts that supported a wooden and gravel platform on which the structure was built.


More damage, in the form of 216 round excavations dug to form concrete footers for wooden posts that supported a wooden-decked boardwalk, was also identified at the Nazekaw Terrace Site, above the confluence of the Yellow and Mississippi Rivers.


Construction of these and other projects was not run through the proper channels, with reports to the regional office falsified. Ewing’s chief of maintenance, Thomas Sinclair, was left in charge of compliance procedures, while other qualified employees were excluded from the review process. In interviews, both the chief of maintenance and Ewing said they were ignorant of the proper procedures.


In his interview with Barland-Liles, Sinclair said he never developed a full understanding of how to properly complete the project consultation process, citing poor and conflicting instructions and a lack of feedback from the NPS. Now, he said, he understands that what happened was not right and asked for “mercy” from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.


“It tears at my guts every single day,” he told Barland-Liles. “I feel that I let myself down. I feel that I let the park and the Park Service as a whole down.”


Ewing also said compliance procedures were unclear to her because of the number of other projects heaped on her plate. She was involved in the process of repatriating Native American remains to the park and said she never had any reason to doubt Sinclair.


Now, she said, she takes responsibility for what happened.


“The park service will be better because I failed here,” she said.


Other employees, who had been pushed out of the chain of review, lamented that they had not spoken up when they saw wrongdoings. Some said they had tried to contact the regional office with complaints, but were admonished for going outside the chain of command or told to pick their battles.


“We did not live up to the trust expected of us,” admitted former Midwest Regional Director Ernest Quintera, who said, even after investigating the situation, that he did not consider firing Ewing because she had “no devious design to do something wrong.”


Ewing was eventually removed from her position and transferred to a regional curator position. According to a press release from PEER and Friends of Effigy Mounds, Ewing was finally terminated in Feb. 2014.


To date, only one of the non-compliance structures—the maintenance shed—has been removed, despite complaints from tribal leaders and PEER and Friends of Effigy Mounds. 


“The era of Ewing and Sinclair was devastating to our little park’s cultural and natural resources. 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, with the Friends of Effigy Mounds, in a press release.


He said his group is demanding that the structures be removed and the site rehabilitated. They would also like to draw attention to the repatriation of remains, which was done by breaking into mounds.

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