HARPERS FERRY, Iowa (AP) — On 2,500 acres of towering bluffs near the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa, something sacred has been disturbed.
It was more than 60 years ago when this land — filled with 206 sacred Indian mounds, some of them 2,000 or more years old, some containing burial remains — became Effigy Mounds National Monument. The goal of putting the land under federal stewardship was twofold: Make the land accessible for tourists of today and ensure the land is preserved for visitors of tomorrow.
Somewhere along the line, officials admit they lost their way. Without following required review processes, the U.S. National Park Service built three boardwalks and a maintenance shed that may have interrupted the historical integrity of the park.
The park service has offered a mea culpa, emphasizing its belief that no structures were built on top of the mounds and saying that adhering to its own protocol will ensure something like this will never happen again. Yet outrage lingers among those attached to this piece of land.
What happened here has angered naturalists who want one of the most picturesque parts of Iowa sheltered from development, upset historic preservationists who thought land under federal protection would be safe from disruption, and dismayed Indian tribes who believe these actions dishonored sacred ground.
"The buck stopped at my desk — it was my responsibility," former park superintendent Phyllis Ewing says now.
She lost her post after the park service found she and her staff had not consistently followed review processes for at least a decade. "My era's past, and it's into a new era ... But there was absolutely, positively no intent by anybody on that staff to hurt a blade of grass."
The park service has moved to remedy the mistakes. But some critics say apologies aren't enough, that supervisors' actions violated federal law.
"In a national monument, I see no reason, no possible excuse, for that to have happened," said Mark Edwards, a retired trails coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "Effigy Mounds was set aside as a nondeveloped area. How could people in those positions, working at the most incredible spot in the whole state, dedicated to those purposes of historic preservation, go and do what they did?"
The Park Service discovered the problems itself, through a standard internal review process called an operations evaluation, begun last year. During the review, park service officials saw a pattern: Ewing wasn't consistently following Section 106 compliance checks.
Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act requires federal agencies to consider the impact any federal undertaking has on "significant historic properties." The requirement applies to all of the nearly 400 national parks. The regulation is similar to checking for gas lines before digging a hole in your yard, a standard preventative measure.
At Effigy Mounds, staffers often completed the archaeology portion of the process, but they rarely consulted the State Historic Preservation Office or all of the 12 present-day tribes affiliated with the site. Federal officials looked over dozens of recent projects at the site to figure out where the process went wrong. They put all current projects on hold, including the third boardwalk, which was in the midst of being built.
The projected cost of the third boardwalk was about $275,000, according to records released recently in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from a local naturalist.
After the park service flagged the errors, the third boardwalk was torn down — by hand, to ensure no further disruption of the land — in one week in September. The offending maintenance shed, which is more like a hoop house, will also be taken down, with the goal of minimal further impact to the land.
The first two boardwalks remain; they cost nearly $800,000.
Ewing was transferred to the park service's regional office in Omaha.
Hearing Ewing speak of her mistakes sounds like someone speaking of a death in the family.
"The last thing you'd ever want to do is make a mistake that hurts something that's your dream job of your whole lifetime, from the time I was child," said Ewing, who grew up near Effigy Mounds. "But ... it's not about me. It's about the landscape. It's about people who that land belongs to."
Ewing is thankful her mistakes did not damage any mounds. But the fact remains that the agency under her watch failed to follow requirements for years.
"It wasn't just a one-time thing: 'Oh, we forgot,' " said Mike Evans, Effigy Mounds' interim superintendent until January. That's when a replacement, now at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, takes over. "We want to make sure what we see today is what people 50 years from now also see, and that we don't change anything that hurts efforts to preserve and protect this park."
On a recent November afternoon, Evans walked down a boardwalk near the confluence of the meandering Yellow River and the mighty Mississippi. The fall colors were nearly all gone, leaving a sea of bare branches blanketing the hills. A bald eagle flew overhead. Ignore the trucks on the nearby National Scenic Byway, and the place epitomizes serenity.
Evans' black cowboy boots stopped near a lighter shade of wood on the boardwalk. Evans pointed up the hill, which leads to some mounds. This was where the third boardwalk was built, and then, in September, meticulously taken down.
What happened here doesn't look like much to the untrained eye. The boardwalks seem innocuous, offering access to parts of the park that are otherwise difficult to reach. But at a federally protected area — one of two National Park Service sites in Iowa, along with Herbert Hoover National Historic Site — a small disturbance to the land takes on greater importance.
The Park Service continuously struggles to balance public accessibility and preservation, Evans said.
"That's the inner conflict we deal with all the time," he said. "Where the balancing point is is different in every park. Technically, you could call this a visual intrusion."
In this case, by swaying too far toward accessibility, the agency neglected its central mission of preserving the historical integrity of Effigy Mounds, critics say.
Managers "got half the equation right," said Iowa state archaeologist John Doershuk.
Evans calls the mistakes a breach of protocol, nothing more. But some preservationists say that spending federal money on projects that weren't properly reviewed isn't mere incompetence; it breaks the law.
"I'm not a lawyer," Evans shrugged.
The mistakes have been acknowledged, the disturbances mitigated, Evans said. And with a new superintendent starting in January, it's time to move forward.
"Helping to restore trust in the National Park Service is really, really important to me," said new superintendent Jim Nepstad, who is now stationed 300 miles to the north at the national park on Lake Superior. "To a large degree, it'll involve lots of face-to-face time with people, folks who feel like they may have been let down by what happened."
Nearly everyone involved in this controversy told the Register they believed the mistakes were not intentional, but they remain bewildered. Some want to put the past in the past. Others insist the agency hasn't been held fully accountable.
"They're supposed to be a leader in this," said Doershuk, the state archaeologist. "It's a matter of respect. We in modern society set aside areas for cemeteries, where we bury ancestors. We expect people to respect that. People are outraged when vandals tip over headstones, or spray them with graffiti. Burial mounds are the same sort of monument, just much, much older."
Patt Murphy, a member of the Ioway tribe who lives in Kansas, monitored the boardwalk removal. Like Evans and Doershuk, Murphy doesn't think there was intent to disrespect the land.
"The blame can be spread over a whole bunch of people," Murphy said.
Still, "I wouldn't say it's been corrected," he said. "The boardwalk was basically eliminated, but the concrete piers below the ground, nothing was done to that."
Another Ioway Indian, Lance Foster, who wrote a book, "The Indians of Iowa," and is a professor in Montana, is far angrier.
"They just fell down in every way," Foster said. "It damaged a sacred place. If you put a shovel full of dirt back into it, you can't fix it. There's a spiritual part of it that you damaged."
"There's a lot of wagon circling that goes on in a bureaucracy when they do wrong things," Foster continued. "They don't want to face up to their responsibilities. They need to do that if any trust is to be built back again."
A few miles south on the Mississippi, in a rented farmhouse near Pikes Peak State Park, lives a man who has been the biggest thorn in the side of Effigy Mounds officials since this controversy sprang up.
Look around Tim Mason's home, and you'll see why he cares. Native American art dots his home, as well as various naturalist credentials: a Sierra Club award, an award from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for his research on raptors, a certificate honoring his 19 years of work at Effigy Mounds. A bumper sticker is pasted to his refrigerator: "Bad Guys Abuse Public Land. Good Guys Save It."
Mason isn't an Indian. He's Irish. Yet he's repeatedly sent Freedom of Information Act requests to the park service to figure out what happened here, how much money was spent on building and then tearing down the boardwalk, how a system went so awry. He has contacted senators and congressmen to investigate, as well as the Department of the Interior.
"I love that place," he said. "That place is sacred, not only to past Indian cultures but to the present day. It represents just a molecule of what natural Iowa was."
Mason was born and raised here, and his father before him. Mason camped on river islands, hunted squirrel in the woods, caught frogs at night.
"I'm not going to lay down, give up and roll over on this one," Mason said. "We entrusted it to them. This is not incompetence. This is arrogance. It destroyed and damaged this holy land, and no one is being held accountable."
Back at Effigy Mounds, Paul and Sue Schramm, both retired teachers from Dyersville, hiked up the hill toward the Great Bear Mound Group.
They frequently come here for a 7-mile hike. They're not happy with what happened.
"The mounds are amazing," Paul Schramm said. "When you see them, you see the shapes, you think of hundreds or thousands of years ago, that you feel that sacredness to this place. You want to see the history preserved. I don't think it was done with intent. But you wish things like this were thought through before they do it."