Concerned groups say newly released National Park Service report on Effigy Mounds incidents offers very few solutions

An "After Action Review" report released by the National Park Service earlier this year was being anticipated as a means to begin to bring closure to a series of issues more recently brought to light at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Allamakee County. However, groups such as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and Friends of Effigy Mounds say they find very little in the report that provides hope for change and even less hope for any remedies to previous actions.

The purpose of the "After Action Review" document, as stated within the document itself, was to "determine root causes of the incidents that took place at Effigy Mounds National Monument (monument) between 1999 and 2010 that led to impacts to cultural resources and strained relations with American Indians, and to recommend positive actions to improve National Park Service (NPS) practices going forward."

Among the most noted incidents within the report are construction of a boardwalk through culturally sensitive burial areas within Effigy Mounds in 2009 that prompted an investigation that further revealed as many as 78 projects totaling more than $3.3 million in spent federal funds at Effigy Mounds that did not comply with the National Historic Preservation Act and/or the National Environmental Policy Act under the superintendency of since removed Phyllis Ewing, and the recently closed case of another former superintendent, Thomas Munson, who pled guilty and was sentenced earlier this year for illegally removing ancient skeletal remains from Effigy Mounds and storing them at his residential property for 20 years.

Prompted by an initial “Serious Mismanagement Report” completed in April 2014 by a team of Effigy Mounds employees headed by current superintendent Jim Nepstad and National Park Service Special Investigator David Barland-Liles, the 48-page "After Action Review" identifies such things as weaknesses in cultural resources stewardship, responsibility and authority. It also outlines observations and recommendations in such areas as responsibility and authority; planning, priority setting and decision making; and transparency, communication and accountability.

However, the PEER and Friends of Effigy Mounds groups still feels the report lacks, specifically, "concrete steps to prevent repetition of the decade-long debacle at Iowa’s Effigy Mounds National Monument; nor does it address what should be done to remediate the 78 illegal projects scarring some 200 sacred sites," according to statements released by the groups. The PEER and Friends groups further point out that the “After Action Review” report was completed in April 2016 but not approved until July 27 of this year by National Park Service Deputy Director Peggy O’Dell, who resigned a short time later. The groups also noted that the report tends to lay blame with "former employees" but fails to mention that current NPS Director Jon Jarvis was made fully aware of the boardwalk and other issues at Effigy Mounds yet took no action.

“This new report epitomizes what is wrong with the current Park Service leadership, which never takes direct responsibility for screw-ups no matter how flagrant or preventable,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.  “Tellingly, this report preaches transparency and accountability but illustrates precisely the opposite, gauzing over critical facts and offering not a single meaningful reform.”

In its Summary of Recommendations, the report outlines three "overarching recommendations that will strengthen cultural resources stewardship in the National Park Service," including the following:
• Educate and empower all employees as stewards through courses offered through the Cultural Resources Career Academy;
• Increase the understanding and awareness of the civil, criminal, and administrative penalties and implications in cultural resources laws, regulations, and policies;
• Resolve the confusion of what work cultural resources professionals should be doing and where it should take place along with associated responsibilities, accountabilities and authorities.

Those overall recommendations are expanded upon further within the report, but the PEER and Friends groups say the document still left them expecting more, saying the report does little to specifically address two questions posed within the report itself: “Are similar incidents happening in another park unit?" and "How do we make sure these incidents never happen again?”
Most specifically, the two groups note an obvious absence in the report of three specific areas they feel would go a long way in helping reverse a recent negative trend within the overall National Park Service system, including the following:
• Reforms. While acknowledging “breaks in the system of checks and balances,” the report does not prescribe any fixes. Notably, the Midwest Regional office eliminated all reviews of park construction projects before the illegal building began at Effigy Mounds. Yet, the report does not recommend reinstituting these reviews or any other critical checks;
• Remedies. The report ascribes problems to the lack of training and understanding by the former Effigy Mounds superintendent, even noting that she was promoted into the job despite an evaluation that she had “no critical thinking skills.” Yet, the report does not address weaknesses in the NPS process for selection of superintendents; and
• Repairs. The fate of the 78 illegal structures impinging on the pre-historic burial mounds is never mentioned.
“All the illegally constructed boardwalks, decks and bridges should be removed and the national monument returned to its original condition prior to this crime spree,” said Tim Mason of the Friends of Effigy Mounds organization, who, himself, worked at the national monument for 19 seasons. “We had a saying: ‘Is your heart in the park?’ but this report is not about your heart but about covering another piece of the anatomy.”