A scathing, 15-page "Serious Mismanagement Report" that examined how National Park Service staff at Effigy Mounds National Monument came to desecrate the site doesn't officially exist, according to Park Service officials.
At the agency's Midwest Regional Office, Deputy Regional Director Patty Trap told Tim Mason of Friends of Effigy Mounds when he asked for the report that, "Simply put, there is no such agency report."
At the Park Service's Washington, D.C., office, officials didn't deny existence of the report, Serious Mismanagement Report Effigy Mounds National Monument, but did say it was "not an official NPS document." Rather, a team of "senior managers from outside the region was assembled to conduct an impartial and extensive review" and would release its report when ready, the Traveler was told. No timetable was given for when that report might be ready.
The 15-page Serious Mismanagement Report that just recently came to light is, in essence, a distillation of a 703-page investigative report produced by Park Service Special Agent David Barland-Liles and adds very little to the public record on what transpired at Effigy Mounds in Iowa. Since at least 2010 it has been publicly known that a former superintendent of the site allowed construction projects and boardwalks to be built without first doing the proper, and required, archaeological studies.
The 703-page report sat unnoticed, publicly at least, until Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility obtained it early in 2014 via a Freedom of Information Act request filed in behalf of Friends of Effigy Mounds. In that report, the special agent, who also oversaw completion of the 15-page report, wrote that ancestral burial grounds and ceremonial mounds considered sacred by a dozen Native American tribes were desecrated by Park Service managers who "clearly knew what they were doing was against the law" during a decade-long campaign of building boardwalks and trails across the monument grounds.
The agent's investigation, built on interviews with monument and regional office staff, memorandums, personnel documents, and budget documents, provided a paper trail leading to former monument Superintendent Phyllis Ewing and Tom Sinclair, the monument's maintenance chief who doubled as its cultural resources compliance officer. That paper trail indicated that park staff failed to conduct the required archaeological assessments and consultations with state and tribal officials before proceeding with the projects. In some cases, the documents show, compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act was done after the fact.
In one interview, the associate regional director for cultural resources in the Park Service's Midwest Region Office told the special agent that, "We've tried to understand how a park could behave so badly...Wherever they had a chance to screw up, they did." The official, whose name was redacted from the document, added that the various projects "destroyed" the park and that it would take decades to repair the actual damage as well as the Park Service's reputation.
That 703-page report, once available on a National Park Service website, since has been removed.
Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, said Tuesday that Special Agent Barland-Liles probably felt it was his responsibility to write the shorter report. After he apparently failed to receive permission to release the report, it was "released in underground fashion," said Mr. Ruch during a phone call from his Washington, D.C., office.
PEER, in bringing the 15-page report to light this week, questioned the Park Service's integrity in disavowig it.
“This entire affair is a case study of a Park Service leadership that is rotten to its core,” Mr. Ruch said in a release Monday. “By suppressing this report, the Park Service both seeks to avoid any serious self-examination of this epic leadership failure but also, like those who forget the past, is doomed to repeat it.”
Cam Sholly, director of the Park Service's Midwest office, said Tuesday afternoon that the agency wasn't trying to hide anything. The 15-page report, which had the input of Effigy Mound's new superintendent, will be considered as the official incident report is compiled, he said during a phone call. Mr. Sholly also noted that ongoing litigation between the former superindent of the monument and the Park Service has limited what could be publicly released.
"It wasn't an official report. It was well-intentioned," he said. "It's very valuable from the standpoint of the special agent who did the criminal investigation and the chief ranger on the ground there and the superintendent, the new superintendent, and their observations to try to put that into some type of format that would be useful for the agency to use for lessons learned and to point out areas that we can improve."
The official report on what transpired at Effigy Mounds should be forthcoming in the next few months, said Mr. Sholly.
"I'll use all available information for my decision-making as the regional director to ensure that nothing like this happens in the future," he said. "That includes, obviously, the review team's report, the draft (Serious Mismanagement Report) document that was generated by the current superintendent and staff. Like I said, there's good information in there that I'm now aware of."
As to PEER's claim that the Park Service intentionally suppressed the 15-page report, Mr. Sholly said that was not the case.
"In my short time here, four months, I've seen no indication, nor would I condone, or tolerate any coverup of a report," he said. "In the deputy regional director's mind, a lot of the focus of what's in this mismanagement report would be included in the larger report, but at no time would we ever look to cover something up. To the contrary, I actually want as many of the details of this exposed as possible so we can do better. Whether that's in regards to how we train our superintendents, what level of oversight that we provide from the regional office, how we can share lessons learned among 60-plus parks in this region ... none of us benefit by hiding details or information."
The 15-page report, though it didn't name the responsible parties at Effigy Mounds, noted that "the Principal" person responsible "approved projects that damaged and/or destroyed cultural resources without taking those resources into consideration. In 2003, (Effigy Mounds's) Senior Law Enforcement Officer carefully outlined his concerns about non-compliant projects in a detailed 5-page memo, which the Principal chose to ignore. Remaining 'blind' to the requirements of the law, despite repeated training and repeated warnings from staff, can lead to behavior that results in criminal recklessness and negligence."
Additionally, when the "Principal" individual arrived at Effigy Mounds, she/he reduced the responsibilities, or "devalued" the input, of the monument's cultural resource specialist/archaeologist, chief of natural resources, chief ranger, senior law enforcement ranger, and administrative officer.
The report paints a poor picture of the Midwest Region Office, crafting an image of an office out of touch with what was transpiring in its parks and uncaring.
At the regional office there was "no meaningful mechanism to detect violations of policy or law. In this instance regional program managers were routinely misinformed by (Effigy Mounds) with cavalier confidence. Sometimes the regional office was even informed of non-compliance, as occurred when the Principal wrote in a 2005 Operations Formulation System request that the park needed a base increase for cultural resource management purposes because Section 106 compliance '…has been ignored at (Effigy Mounds) due to lack of staff,'" the report noted. "When oversight was finally provided, a decade of dysfunction was uncovered."
Furthermore, "Numerous (Effigy Mounds) employees on multiple occasions, both formally and informally, attempted to find a sympathetic reception from regional officials to evidence of mismanagement by the Principal – all without success. When efforts with immediate supervisors failed, employees resorted to parallel chains of command without success. Blatant clues of mismanagement presented to regional officials by the Principal and (Effigy Mounds) employees were not noticed, misinterpreted, or inappropriately reacted to."
While the case was presented to the U.S. Attorney's Office for possible criminal charges, the office "reluctantly declined to prosecute, primarily due to a belief that it would be difficult to overcome potential jury sympathy for the defendants. Prosecutors perceived an inability on the part of senior NPS officials to recognize that violations of (National Historic Preservation Act) may in fact be violations of (Archaeological Resources Protection Act) in a park such as (Effigy Mounds)," the report notes.
"In the opinion of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, this led to a weak and inappropriate initial response by the Agency, which treated it as an administrative matter rather than a criminal matter. Prosecutors felt the Agency’s failure to take swift, appropriate action fatally encumbered the criminal case, creating a threshold of doubt that the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not believe could be overcome in a jury trial."