Supporters say they haven't given up on making Cahokia Mounds a national park

Jan 20, 2017

Conservationists working to make Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville a unit of the National Park Service say they will continue their efforts under the new administration of President Donald Trump.

Staffers with the nonprofit HeartLands Conservancy had hoped that former President Barack Obama would declare Cahokia Mounds a national monument before leaving office on Friday, but that didn't happen.

Ed Weilbacher, vice president of HeartLands, says an executive order by Obama would have fast-tracked the process, but he said the effort will continue. He noted that local congressional leaders support the possibility of legislative action to bring the site into the national park system.

"This is still a very supported project by everybody in the community. It's valuable to the state and region to make this happen. They've been committed in the past, and I think they're going to continue with their support for this effort,'' Weilbacher said on Friday.

Though preservationists had talked about it for years, the effort to bring Cahokia Mounds into the National Park Service picked up steam in 2014. That’s when a study by HeartLands concluded that a partnership between the National Park Service and the state of Illinois would be both beneficial and feasible. The report is titled “The Mounds – America’s First Cities,” and you can read it here.

Last April, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sent a letter to Obama urging him to use the Antiquities Act to make  Cahokia Mounds a unit of the National Park Service. Durbin noted that HeartLands had gathered “overwhelming support” for a collaborative partnership between the federal agency and the state of Illinois, which owns Cahokia Mounds.

There are basically two ways for a site to enter the National Park Service:

* Most are established by an act of Congress and signed by the president into law.

* The president can invoke the Antiquities Act to designate areas as national monuments.

Monks Mound is the largest of the ancient mounds built by the Mississippians.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

Both approaches were covered by a joint resolution approved by the Illinois General Assembly in May 2015. The resolution urged Congress to elevate the national status of Cahokia Mounds and nearby "thematically-connected mound complexes" as a noncontiguous National Historical Park. Or, alternatively, the resolution calls upon the president to grant national monument status to Cahokia Mounds.

HeartLands has collected letters of support from local elected officials, civic groups and Native American groups supporting the notion of making Cahokia Mounds a national park unit.  Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner endorsed the plan. So has the St. Louis Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America.

Durbin asked the National Park Service in 2014 to conduct its own study of Cahokia Mounds. 

That study is nearly complete, according to Michael T. Reynolds, the acting director of the National Park Service. He sent Durbin a letter on Jan. 11 informing him that NPS has nearly completed its reconnaissance survey report, a first step for potential inclusion in the national park system. Reynolds said the report will be shared in the coming months.

Like other historic sites in Illinois, Cahokia Mounds has suffered from the state’s budget problems. Though the grounds are still open seven days a week, the site’s interpretive center has been closed on Mondays and Tuesdays to save money, even during the busy summer months.

The 2,200-acre site includes 80 mounds built between 1000 and 1400 A.D. by the Mississippians, North America’s greatest ancient culture. A quarter of a million people visit Cahokia Mounds every year, which is such a remarkable archaeological site that in 1982 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named it a World Heritage Site. It is one of just 21 such sites in the U.S. and the only one in the Midwest. In addition to being a state historic site, Cahokia Mounds is a U.S. National Historic Landmark and is included on the National Register of Historic Places.

The state of Illinois started the efforts to preserve the mounds in 1925 when it purchased 144 acres, including Monks Mound, to create a state park. The site now includes about half of the 4,000-acre urban center developed by the Mississippians.

Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @MaryDLeonard