The Marching Bear Mounds at the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. (National Park Service)

Years of sacred- and ceremonial-ground desecration at the Effigy Mounds National Monument in northeast Iowa disgraced the National Park Service, as did a recently sentenced former park manager who stole ancient human remains and hid them in his garage for more than two decades.

A review team of Park Service officials from outside the monument’s region examined the defilement and pronounced themselves “astonished” in an “after action” report released last week.

Its piercing conclusions go well beyond the Effigy Mounds scandals and cut right to the Park Service’s culture.

Given the critical issues the report found throughout the NPS, which celebrates its centennial next week, perhaps it is more surprising that shameful stories like Effigy Mounds aren’t more common.

In addition to the bone thefts, at least 78 projects on the grounds — costing almost $3.4 million from 1999 to 2010 — did not follow National Historic Preservation Act or National Environmental Policy Act provisions. A former superintendent, Phyllis Ewing, lost her job because of that. The projects included “an extensive system of boardwalks throughout the more than 200 American Indian sacred mounds,” according to the report. The mounds are over 1,200 years old.

NPS Midwest Regional Director Cam Sholly said the wrongdoing not only “violated the law and damaged resources” but also compromised “our valuable tribal relationships and the public trust.”

The report describes a confused agency beset with weak management of the nation’s cultural resources that it is charged with safeguarding.

“As the National Park Service is responsible for resources stewardship, we are also responsible for the damage and destruction of the resources entrusted to us,” the report says. “Sometimes it seems as if we hold visitors, concessioners, and contractors to a higher standard than we do ourselves when it comes to resources stewardship.”

Among the problems outlined in the report:

  • “Lack of staff knowledgeable and skilled in cultural resources management results in inappropriate collateral duties assigned to staff not qualified to complete the task.”
  • Employees “consistently reported that they had no authority to report concerns or to follow up on concerns reported in their chain of command.”
  • “Law enforcement rangers and solicitors are not well enough versed in cultural resources laws and policies.”

The problems infect the agency from top to bottom, from Washington to the local parks.

“The internal role of the park, regional office, and Washington Support Office in cultural resources management is neither well defined nor consistent. What work we should be doing and where it should take place to be most effective is not clear,” the report said. “… There is confusion at every level, uncertainty as to span of responsibility, authority, and accountability. While this confusion has to do with who does what at each level of the agency, there is no understanding as to roles, responsibilities, and authorities regarding risk, mismanagement of or impacts to cultural resources.”

Three “overarching recommendations” were offered: “educate and empower all employees as stewards” of cultural resources; increase awareness of cultural-resource laws, regulations and penalties; and “resolve the confusion of what work cultural resources professionals should be doing.”

Although the report provides a sharp agency critique and specific recommendations, the document amounts to “a bucket of mush” on the Effigy Mounds scandal, says Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

“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,” said 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.”

Thomas A. Munson is a former Effigy Mounds superintendent who has been held accountable, albeit long after his criminal deeds. In 1990, he stole remains of 41 Native Americans, more than 2,100 individual pieces, then concealed them in garbage bags in cardboard boxes in his garage. He was sentenced last month to 10 weekends in jail, 12 months of home confinement, plus probation and more than $100,000 in restitution.

Munson’s sentencing, reliving the Effigy Mounds lawlessness, and the frank after-action report are just the latest in a string of bad news that has muddied the agency’s 100th-anniversary year. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has complained about a Park Service culture that “allows” sexual harassment. The NPS has been criticized for confusing park promotion with corporate commercialism. And NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis had to apologize for his ethical lapses.

The after-action report into Effigy Mounds said it was done because of a “deep concern” by agency officials that “this never happen again.”

That should apply to a range of National Park Service problems.

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