MCGREGOR — Six uniformed National Park Service employees filed into St. Mary Catholic Church here Monday to pay their respects to an environmental activist who exposed the agency’s desecration of Native American graves it was commissioned to protect.
Tim Mason, who died Sept. 12 at age 67, would have appreciated the gesture and maybe even considered it as reconciliation with the agency he once served as a seasonal employee for 19 years.
“He deserves a lot of credit for righting all the wrongs at Effigy Mounds National Monument. He helped the Park Service do the right thing,” said Jim Nepstad, superintendent since 2011, when the Park Service assigned him to correct the earlier malfeasance.
Mason was appalled to discover through Freedom of Information Act document requests that the facility had spent more than $3 million over a decade to build more than 78 illegal structures — including buildings, boardwalks and trails — encroaching upon the mounds it was supposed to protect.
When his own pleas for remediation were rebuffed, Mason sought the assistance of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group representing government workers, and together they pressured the Parks Service to acknowledge its mistakes and adopt corrective measures.
“Only because Tim Mason was dogged did the biggest official mass desecrations of Indian prehistoric burial sites in U.S. history come to light,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the group that presented Mason with its eco-hero medal.
Mason made his environmental activist bones in the early 1980s with the Committee to Save Bloody Run, which opposed a proposal to reroute U.S. Highway 18 around Marquette and McGregor. Though the project eventually went through, it did so with concessions to limit damage to the creek, its valley, wetlands and endangered species.
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River and bluff lovers also will remember Mason for his successful effort to halt the costly and contentious River Bluff Resorts project, a $138 million planned complex west of McGregor in the valley of Sny Magill trout stream.
The prospect of taxpayer-funded incentives — initially through a state Vision Iowa grant and later through a county tax increment financing district — encouraged developers to undertake the project. which included a hotel, water park, golf course and housing developments.
Mason and colleagues, fearful of social, cultural and environmental damage, researched the developers and uncovered widespread dissatisfaction with earlier projects in La Crosse and Necedah, Wis.
After years of heated public meetings and lawsuits, prospective investors withdrew, and the project sputtered out in 2006.
Though Mason and colleagues prevailed, they were vilified in some quarters as obstructionists who cost the county future jobs, tourist dollars and tax revenues.
In remarks at her dad’s funeral, Amber Lupkes of Central City said he had “this uncanny way, at his core, to not care what others thought of him.”
Lupkes said that gift — born not of anger or ill intent but of unwavering authenticity and love for family, friends and Mother Earth — enabled him to “fight for what was right and true without derailing due to social constraints.”
Mason, who grew up in and on the Mississippi River and along the bluffs and valleys of the Driftless Region, will long be remembered as a hero by those who share his love of the unique landscape.
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“He radiated natural energy that we all continue to feel,” said Gary Siegwarth of Elkader, a fisheries biologist running for governor on a platform of respecting and protecting natural resources.
“Tim had a deep physical and spiritual affinity for the Driftless Region and the Mississippi River,” said his friend and fellow environmental advocate Jon Stravers, who has spent his adult life studying birds in the same area.
Stravers, of McGregor, said he envied Mason and his wife Sara, who lived much of each year on a shanty boat beached in remote reaches of Pool 10.
“I live close to the wind and the birds, but they lived even closer,” Stravers said.
Robert Vavra, who operates Maiden Voyage Tours on the Mississippi River, said Mason’s knowledge of river lore has enlivened his tours.
“Everybody likes to think they are river rats, but it’s not their choice. The river grabbed Tim a long time ago,” he said.
Larry Stone of Elkader, a fellow environmental advocate, described his friend as a bulldog.
“He never gave up. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. He made people listen,” he said.
Watch this video of Mason discussing events at Effigy Mounds.