Mason’s mark forever felt not just at Effigy Mounds, but entire NPS

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On May 25, Effigy Mounds National Monument honored the life and legacy of local conservation advocate Tim Mason, who, around a decade ago, was instrumental in uncovering violations at the park.

Part of “Tim’s Day on the Land” included a volunteer service project of removing invasive garlic mustard from Effigy Mounds.

Former chief ranger Bob Palmer was one of several Effigy Mounds officials who shared memories of working with Tim Mason. Palmer said Mason, through his efforts, was able to speak not only for the Effigy Mounds employees, but for the park itself.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Effigy Mounds National Monument honored the life and legacy of local conservation advocate Tim Mason on May 25, with a volunteer service day of removing invasive garlic mustard from the park, as well as an evening program that recognized Mason’s work to preserve and protect Effigy Mounds and its resources.

Mason, who passed away in September 2018, worked seasonally at Effigy Mounds for 19 years, beginning in the 1970s. However, it was in 2010, as a private citizen, that he made his biggest mark at the park he loved, alerting the Office of Inspector General to violations of the National Historic Preservation Act and the Archaeological Preservation Act. 

Over the past decade, the facility had spent $3 million constructing more than 70 non-compliant structures, such as boardwalks, trails and buildings, that threatened the mounds it had vowed to protect. Superintendent Phyllis Ewing, who oversaw the projects, was eventually removed from her position and later fired by the National Park Service.

Mason’s pursuit of the truth and accountability will have a lasting impact not just at Effigy Mounds, said former chief ranger Bob Palmer. “Tim has made a mark larger than you’ll ever know,” on the National Park Service (NPS) as a whole.

Forcing action

From 2009 into 2010, “things were not good here at the park,” Palmer acknowledged. “There had been an operations evaluation done here in 2009, and nothing was happening. It was becoming more and more apparent that nothing was going to happen.”

In addition to building the illegal structures, Effigy Mounds had also attempted to repatriate human remains that were returned to the park from a 1950s excavation, explained Jim Nepstad, who took over as Effigy Mounds superintendent in 2011. But instead of having an archaeologist oversee the work with input from tribal partners, a maintenance official at the park dug a hole in a mound.

“Like so much of what happened here, the underlying intentions were good, but the execution was horrible,” he stated. “There would have been a proper way to do what they did, but they took short cuts and put some of the resources of the park at risk.”

Fed up with the National Park Service’s handling of the situation, Palmer reached out to Mason, whom Effigy Mounds Natural Resource Program Manager Rodney Rovang described as a “born activist.”

“He was always out there fighting for the best thing to do, saving his precious northeast Iowa and saving Marquette, his hometown,” Rovang said. That included the “Save Bloody Run” campaign when Highway 18 was being rerouted, as well as opposition to the River Bluffs Resort project. “Over the years, there were many different things, many battles Tim was involved with, and most of them involved disturbing the environment. And he usually came out on top.”

That first conversation wasn’t easy, said Palmer. Mason loved the park, but already had misgivings about previous projects and the management of resources. 

“The first couple times we talked, he would bring up a project he worked on here in the early ‘90s. It was up at Fire Point and they took out a rock wall and put timbers in and he said that should have never happened,” Palmer shared. “As we got deeper into this, he would bring that up frequently. I realized, for him, that was a personal thing because he was involved in doing that and he felt that was desecrating that site. For the whole Effigy Mounds saga, there was personal redemption.”

Mason agreed to help, though, and began submitting Freedom of Information Act requests for documents and reaching out to journalists. 

Palmer visited Mason many times, sharing information he had and poring over documents.

“We’d sit around the table and talk about these things and what they meant,” Palmer said. “Tim was able to ask the right questions. By asking the right questions to the National Park Service, that led to a certain level of discomfort, and that discomfort led to what I would say was forcing the agency’s hand and forcing action.”

Along with Palmer, Mason also corresponded with Ken Block, another former chief ranger at Effigy Mounds. Block first recalled meeting Mason in 2000, during his first year at the park. Mason shook his hand, looked him in the eye and said, “You’re responsible for protecting this resource. That’s your job.”

Block related to Mason because his first position with the NPS was at Valley Forge National Historic Park, near his hometown of Philadelphia, Pa. 

“I learned about what Tim Mason was feeling here—the difference between the resource on the ground and the agency that’s running it,” he said. “When Tim approached me that day, I knew exactly what he was saying.”

Looking back, Block admitted to feeling like he failed in that promise to protect Effigy Mounds. 

“When things started going wrong here, I wanted to save my stupid career,” he said. “We [employees] didn’t have the guts to go to our own inspector general. We didn’t have the guts to believe the whistle blower policy in the Department of the Interior and the federal government was really gonna protect us. That things would be glossed over and people would be forgiven and it would go on the same.”

“It wasn’t worth it,” said Block, “but Tim came through.”

Finding the truth

Mason’s letter to the Office of Inspector General, which opened up the criminal investigation at Effigy Mounds, was sent to NPS Special Agent David Barland-Liles, who’s now the lead ranger at the park. The National Park Service was flippant about the case, he said, assuming the agent would take just a few days to investigate. Barland-Liles felt the claims were valid, though, and he came to Iowa to meet with Mason, building both trust and friendship.

“I told him, ‘I’m serious about this. I’m not messing around,’” Barland-Liles remembered. “I immediately recognized the connection between illegal projects and damaged cultural resources. Whoever does it needs to have that case reported to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

With Mason’s help, Barland-Liles began working with Palmer, Nepstad and an archaeologist  to form a damage assessment. 

“Without that, we wouldn’t have ever found the truth,” he said, “and the truth led to a report called the serious mismanagement report.” 

Although the regional office initially denied the existence of the report, Palmer said pressure from Mason forced the NPS to acknowledge it. This even led to an official NPS report about the events at Effigy Mounds and a series of informational training videos for all NPS employees.

“It’s a 2.5-hour series of videos that walks employees through the issues here and helps them come to a better understanding about what can go wrong in the parks,” said Nepstad, who noted the videos are even spreading to the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and United States Forest Service. “What happened here was bad, but it’s having a really positive impact, I think, across the country. And it’s all because of Tim.” 

Forever remembered

Those who spoke at the May 25 program said Mason’s role cannot be understated.

“The fact that Tim pursued this and got the response he did from the park service was a rare case,” Block said. “It hasn’t happened very often where the agency will just offer up a report like this and admit that they failed the citizens of this country and the resource. It was a tremendous thing he did, and he’ll never be forgotten for it.”

Palmer said Mason was able to speak not only for the Effigy Mounds employees, but for the park itself.

“He was able to speak on behalf of a resource that wasn’t able to speak for itself,” he reflected, “and that was incredibly important.”

The big takeaway, said Rovang, is that there’s nothing more powerful than a concerned citizen.

“We had people in our regional office, people in Washington who knew what had happened, the story had broken loose, and this information was out there for the public, and still things were not happening,” he said. “Tim was able to take that and make it go forward.” 

“I think Tim would be really proud to know that change is happening, and it ain’t happening from the top,” added Barland-Liles. “It’s all coming from the ground up. He’s the one who triggered this revolution in the National Park Service. Tim is the one who showed us what the right road is.”

Other people can have the same effect by simply connecting with a place, stressed Nepstad. For each person, that will be a different place.

“Hopefully everybody connects with a different place around the world and takes on a sense of guardianship and watches over that particular place, like Tim watched over Effigy Mounds National Monument,” he said. “Find a place to donate some of your time and efforts. Once you start working really closely with a place, it connects you more and more. You care at a deeper level.”

“Hopefully you won’t have to do something like Tim had to do,” Nepstad continued. “Tim didn’t want to become the savior of Effigy Mounds National Monument. But once it came to his attention, he had to do it.”

Changes made at Effigy Mounds

At Effigy Mounds, superintendent Jim Nepstad said they’ve taken the approach of being open about the events that happened at the park. Changes have been made over the past decade to help assure the resources remain protected.

“The recommendations we got, even before I left this park, were pretty eye-opening,” noted former chief ranger Ken Block.

One involved HawkWatch, the annual event celebrating the fall raptor migration.

“It was a wonderful event,” he said, “but we had hundreds and hundreds of cars parking and people walking all over the place, not just here in the parking lot, but up on the trails we were at overflow capacity. I thought we were really promoting education here, but we were going overboard.”

 Even little things, like Effigy Mounds’ moonlight hikes, had to change. For example, said Block, one photo depicted a group too large to fit on the trail while the park ranger stood 50 feet away, on the edge of a mound, making the presentation.

“They said, do you realize you shouldn’t leave the trail—the whole place is an archaeological site, a sacred Indian burial ground,” Block said. “You can’t do that, and we weren’t thinking that.”

As for the non-compliant infrastructure built under former superintendent Phyllis Ewing’s reign, Nepstad said some has been removed, but some still remains.

“Some of it could be taken out, and some of it could be redone to make it a little less heavy on the land,” he shared.

The park was beginning the planning process when its septic system, located behind the visitor center, failed. A new system was recently put in between the parking lot and highway.

“Believe me, we minded our Ps and Qs and dotted all of our Is and crossed our Ts and made sure we had extensive conversations with tribes, the state historic preservation office and followed all the laws necessary prior to putting something like that in,” Nepstad assured.

With that project now complete, Nepstad hopes the park can get back to dealing with those structures.

“We’re not going to go in and rashly remove the infrastructure as rashly as it was put in place,” he said. “There are laws that dictate how we do things, whether we’re putting things in or taking things out. The number-one thing is to follow the law.”

 As for the future, he can’t say that no new development will ever occur at Effigy Mounds. As the new septic system shows, “development isn’t impossible here.”

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