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Art under fire: tourist attraction closed due to flying bullets

These Parts--Ottawa, IL



To most residents of Ottawa, the strip-mined bluff a few miles west of town was an eyesore. Everyone knew the place. It adjoined Buffalo Rock State Park, the high, wooded sandstone promontory overlooking the Illinois River that has long been a favorite spot for summertime picnics, baseball games, and strolls along the bluff's trails.

Back in the 1930s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps was building picnic shelters and other facilities in the 43-acre park, the 200 bluff-top acres to the west were being strip-mined for coal. A huge shovel called a walking beam ripped off 30 feet of crumbly shale and hauled out the skimpy layer of low-grade coal underneath. The shale was piled in long rows--imagine a plowed field, but with the ridges between furrows 30 feet high--and the place was abandoned.

When it rained the furrows filled up with water that turned highly acidic from the sulfur in the shale. Some of the acid runoff ended up in the Illinois River. The artificial hills remained bare for decades; nothing could grow there. Most Ottawans saw the place as worthless.

Edmund Thornton and Paul Smith were among the few who could imagine something more there. The two have espoused opposing viewpoints on use of the land since the early 1980s, when Thornton came up with a plan for transforming it into one of rural Illinois' most unique tourist attractions. In the last few years that conflict has bubbled into a drawn-out but curiously quiet controversy involving contemporary art, gunfire, toxic waste, and public safety.

"It looked like the moon," Paul Smith recalls of the site. "It was perfect." For dirt biking, that is, which is one of Smith's avocations turned vocation--he's one of the operators of the Buffalo Pit and Range, a shooting range and off-road vehicle playground less than a mile north of Buffalo Rock State Park. The shooting range occupies a stretch of barren hills strip-mined decades ago, separated from the state park and the strip-mined bluff only by a wooded valley through which run a two-lane highway, the muddy ditch that used to be the Illinois and Michigan Canal, the new Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail, and the tracks of the Rock Island Railroad.

That the strip-mined site was private property didn't bother the dirt bikers. Indeed, for several decades the place had been no more affected by governmental regulation than the moon itself. It belonged to the Ottawa Silica Company, a large firm that specialized in mining the local sandstone to produce pure silica sand. The company never did any mining on the site, but the previous owners had nibbled at the bluff's edges with two small sand quarries. Compared to these scars and to those of the coal mining, the off-road vehicle tracks were small potatoes.

Edmund Thornton was the chairman and chief executive officer of the Ottawa Silica Company, the head of the Ottawa Silica Company Foundation, and Ottawa's leading booster of local history, culture, and conservation--the town's number-one philanthropist. Since the mid-1970s he had also been on the advisory council to the Illinois Abandoned Mining Lands Reclamation Council, a state agency formed to oversee the distribution of funds (obtained from a tax on newly mined coal) to clean up old messes like the one adjacent to Buffalo Rock.

Thornton wanted to get the place cleaned up less out of environmental concerns than because of the dramatic setting. "The site posed no danger to the general public," he says. "But it was a site that had great aesthetic potential, overlooking the Illinois River and the whole vista of Starved Rock State Park, which you can see across the river. And it was immediately contiguous to Buffalo Rock State Park, which was a very small property. Basically it was a reclamation for its potential as a public site."

Thornton worked out a deal with the reclamation agency. His company's foundation would pay an artist to design "earth sculptures" for the site. The state would pay for the physical reclamation--the grading and replanting of grass--just like it does on other such projects. When the work was done the Ottawa Silica Company would donate the land to Buffalo Rock State Park and take a tax deduction in the process.

Thornton, who had been getting to know the contemporary art scene for some time, planned to use the talent of Michael Heizer, an artist who split his time between New York City and the Nevada desert. In the late 1960s and early 70s he achieved some renown as the creator of a number of large-scale, abstract designs and structures dug into or built onto the desert landscape. In 1983 Heizer told Thornton that yes, he would be interested in working on the Buffalo Rock site.

Heizer, the son of an archaeologist, designed a number of hard-edged, stylized dirt mounds modeled after animals that could be found in the area. Part of the point of the project was to make use of the natural terrain. "We did not want to just level the whole thing and then have to start over building something," says Thornton. Though Heizer originally wanted to build eight mounds, budget constraints reduced that to five: water strider, frog, catfish, turtle, and snake.

The artist named his work Effigy Tumuli in reference to the hundreds of ancient Native American mounds that can still be found throughout the upper midwest. These earthen effigy mounds were usually built in the shapes of animals; many of them were tumuli, or monuments that contained human graves.

In the summers of 1984 and '85 local contractors used heavy equipment to flatten out the long hills, fill in the ponds, and raise the new mounds. Workers more accustomed to building highway beds rose to the challenge of using bulldozers and earth movers to sculpt slopes and edges according to Heizer's to-the-inch specifications. As the mounds took shape, crushed limestone was plowed into the top few inches of shale to neutralize the acidity.

The scale was huge. The catfish effigy was 770 feet long and up to 18 feet high. The water strider's antennae alone were 215 feet long. The snake--made up of seven disconnected segments--looped over more than 2,000 feet of land. Together the mounds were estimated to weigh more than a quarter of a million tons. The project was said to be the world's largest earth sculpture.

Once the mounds were shaped they were covered with mats of "excelsior"--shredded aspen fiber woven into a plastic netting that was meant to hold the soil in place until grass could take root. Then workers used trucks to blow shredded straw, grass seed, and fertilizer over the site. The area around the mounds, too, was graded, fertilized, and reseeded.

In the fall of 1985 the reclaimed site was dedicated and deeded to the state park. It was not really finished, though, until 1987, when the Department of Conservation completed a lengthy walking trail around the sculptures and put up interpretive signs and an observation deck.

The art world acclaimed the project. ARTnews called it "a creative solution to the environmental problems of a once ruined and poisonous site." Alice Thorson, the magazine's critic, looked north across the valley to the barren gray hills that today house the Buffalo Pit and Range: "As yet unreclaimed cratered mine sites, dotted with sinister-looking pools of contaminated water, offer a sober 'before' picture. It is this contrast, coupled with the evocative associations of the tumuli, that ultimately endows Heizer's piece with power and romance. . . . At once monument, playground and art object, Effigy Tumuli may well turn out to be one of the country's most successful public sculptures," she concluded.

The Ottawa Chamber of Commerce was also pleased. The effigies would be a valuable addition to the area's roster of tourist attractions. But most local citizens, says Thornton, didn't quite get it. "Some thought it was amusing," he says. "Some thought it was a waste of time and money. Others were intrigued by it."

Some criticism stemmed from the fact that it's hard to tell from the ground what the mounds are supposed to represent. Heizer has said this was part of his intent: "It requires a chronological development of perception. It's a diffracted gestalt." But the artistic fine point was lost on much of the public.

"If you were just Joe Q. Pedestrian over there looking at them, you can't tell what they are," says Evelyn Muffler, Paul Smith's sister, who operates the Buffalo Pit and Range with him. "They're piles of dirt," says Smith. "Nobody goes there. It's a joke. The only people who ever went there were dirt bikers."

It's true that few people visit the effigies anymore, but that may be due more to recent events than to artistic inscrutability. In 1987, park staff began hearing complaints from effigy sightseers. The sound of gunfire had long been common in the park, but some visitors now reported that bullets had passed near them. In August of that year two cars were struck in the parking lot--not in the effigy area at all, but in the eastern, wooded part of the park. The bullets seemed to come from the north, the direction of the gunnery range.

The range was at that time called Buffalo Rock Shooters Supply; it was owned and operated by Roger "Sparky" and Elsbeth Fullmer, the parents of Paul Smith and Evelyn Muffler. Patrons fired south into unreclaimed hills heaped with crumbled slate, which was thought to provide a pretty good backstop. Sparky Fullmer collected machine guns, and range patrons could rent them for use there. Other patrons brought their own automatic or semiautomatic weapons, rifles, or handguns.

State park staff began keeping a log of complaints of gunfire or bullets. On July 23, 1988, they closed the effigy area by putting up signs saying it was dangerous to walk there. The Department of Conservation had just approached the Illinois attorney general's office and asked to have an injunction filed against the shooting range when fate intervened. On October 7, 1988, a huge explosion ripped through a building at the range, killing Roger Fullmer, his daughter Patti Smith, and two other employees. Investigators later speculated that a spark at an ammunition reloading machine may have caused the sudden fire.

With the range closed, park staff reopened the effigy area to the public. Only sporadic gunfire was heard, mainly on weekends. The attorney general's office dropped its complaint.

In August of 1989 Paul Smith and Evelyn Muffler opened the Buffalo Pit and Range where Buffalo Rock Shooters Supply had been. They no longer rented weapons or sold ammunition, but patrons could still bring their own weapons and fire them on several ranges. Most patrons, says Muffler, come from the Chicago suburbs; quite a few are law-enforcement officers. The Buffalo Pit and Range is one of the few ranges in the region where the firing of automatic or semiautomatic weapons is allowed.

It's actually made up of several firing zones. There's a 100-yard rifle range, a 25- and 50-yard pistol range, a trap shooting range, and a "plinking" range where patrons can shoot down into a hollow at a variety of debris. Targets at every range are backed up by the clay hills, but the berm that serves as backdrop for the 100-yard range is visibly lower than the others.

On November 11, 1990, University of Chicago geology professor Fred Anderson accompanied an undergraduate field trip to the state park. His group was in a small, steep defile on the north side of the effigy bluff, "doing our usual geology," he recalls, "when the course assistant said that bullets were flying by. We had commonly heard shots because of the shooting range to the north, but I had never experienced bullets there. When we walked a little further there was no mistake. We could hear the bullets and see branches being nipped off and the bullets impacting the cliff.

"We could make a clear association between the frequency of firing and the frequency of bullets hitting the sand. I would say maybe 20 bullets went by. The trees were not very tall--maybe 15 feet above our heads--and their twigs were being nipped off." Anderson says he is sure the bullets came from the north--the direction was clear since he saw the path the bullets took through the trees and then into the ground.

The group left the area and reported the incident to park staff. Anderson wrote to the Department of Conservation. On December 3 of that year the effigies were closed again, and park staff put up two warning signs at the entrance to the trail. The signs do not specify what the danger is.

The gunshot complaint log doesn't stop there, though; in May 1991 a park employee reported shots overhead while he was mowing the lawn near the main shelter. In August two park employees happened to be standing nearby when a bullet hit a metal trash barrel near the center of the park. Conveniently, the bullet stayed in the barrel. It was delivered to the Illinois State Police for testing to determine what sort of gun it had been fired from.

Greg Kile is superintendent of the Illinois and Michigan Canal State Park, the administrative entity that oversees a string of sites along the Illinois River, including Buffalo Rock State Park and the Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail. "Our staff still hears bullets once in a while, going through the trees in the maintenance area," he says. "They hear the whizzing and the branches crickling and crackling."

"There's bullets all over the place," says Mark McConnaughhay, site superintendent at Buffalo Rock. "We're lucky no one's been hit yet, but that's not saying it couldn't happen." McConnaughhay lives with his family on the park site, but his house, he says, is fairly well shielded by a number of big old trees. "Still, we don't like it," he says.

McConnaughhay says most of the bullets he and other park staff have noticed have been either among the effigies or near the maintenance building, an area off-limits to the public that hugs the north side of the bluff east of the effigies. "If we start getting a high incidence of shooting in the park area, we might have to close it," he says. "If the shooting picks up this summer, we're going to have to take a good look at whether to keep [the wooded picnic grounds] open."

Local reaction to closing the effigy area has been almost nonexistent, and the Department of Conservation has kept the problem quiet. ("I don't know if the state's a little embarrassed and doesn't want to say anything, or just what it is," says Thornton.) Larry Bianchi, executive director of the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, still knew nothing of the effigies' closure 16 months after it happened. Brochures distributed by the chamber and other agencies still point to the effigies as a prime regional attraction. "I'm almost in shock that Edmund Thornton [himself on the chamber's advisory council] didn't bring this up at one of our meetings," says Bianchi. "It's not really my responsibility," says Thornton. "It's really the state's problem."

But the DOC did go to the attorney general's office for help again. Last August 28 assistant attorney general Terence Rock filed a complaint against the shooting range in La Salle County circuit court. The complaint, though, named Roger and Elsbeth Fullmer and Buffalo Rock Shooters Supply as defendants. It took almost five months before a properly amended complaint was filed naming Paul Smith, Evelyn Muffler, and Buffalo Pit and Range as defendants.

The complaint charged that the shooting at the range presented a threat to public safety and asked for an injunction against further shooting. At the least, the complaint asked, the defendants should redesign the range so that shots would travel in another direction.

The defendants' reply claimed that the high clay berms "prevent the escape of projectiles from said range." It pointed out that the state's complaint had not established that the shots in fact came from the Buffalo Pit and Range.

"They don't know where it's coming from," says Smith. "They hear 20 guys shoot at once, and they think it's a machine gun. Then if they hear the slightest noise they think it's a bullet." He suggests that park staff were moved to close the effigy area because of low visitation and the difficulty of maintaining the large site. McConnaughhay's response: "If they'd heard the bullets hitting the area, they wouldn't say that."

If bullets have been entering the park, Smith says, they are coming from the woods in the valley between the range and the park. "Nothing but poaching's done out here. Everybody goes trespassing when they're hunting. There's two different places down here where the locals go drinking and shooting."

"They can physically locate us," says Muffler. "They can't find the locals who use the woods below." Both Muffler and Smith say they closely supervise shooters at the range. They both say the clay berms provide plenty of protection. The only way bullets could leave the range, says Smith, is if "someone is doing it on purpose." And that shouldn't happen if there is close supervision.

Edmund Thornton disagrees. "There has been very little effort to make a professional range out of that, where they would have containment walls," he says. "All they've done is just use the backdrop of these clay hills. The hills are placed at various angles and the ricochet is such that bullets just shoot off, even though it's supposed to stop them. The bullets are just flying all over the place."

Thornton suggests that Muffler and Smith could move their firing range two miles west to the abandoned silica quarry the two own and currently operate as an off-road vehicle course. "Then we'd lose our bikes," Muffler says. "And what in the world would we do with all our land up here?"--meaning the shooting range.

At a May 1 meeting between state officials, the shooting range operators, and ballistics experts commissioned by both sides, a number of suggestions were made concerning physical alterations that could make the range safer. The two sides managed to agree on several changes, including lowering the rifle range's target area; replacing metal target holders with wood ones, so that shots striking them won't ricochet up and over the clay berm; and building baffles at the firing stations so that shooters can't aim higher than the targets. Muffler says she and Smith plan to make the changes, and that they've hired two new employees to guarantee full-time supervision of all the ranges. User fees, she says, will certainly rise as a result.

The state's case against the shooting range was scheduled to go to trial May 27, but it has been put off and will be dismissed if the operators can show they have made substantial safety alterations by the end of June.

State officials also suggested building up the clay berm behind the rifle range, but that's one change that almost certainly won't come about--not because Smith and Fullmer oppose it, but, ironically, because they say the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency does.

During the 1970s Roger and Elsbeth Fullmer leased part of their strip-mined land to a landfill operator. Along with municipal refuse, hazardous waste from local industries--possibly including plating sludges and organic solvents--was dumped there. The operator covered some of the wastes with clay scraped from the top of the hill that now serves as backdrop for the rifle range.

The IEPA believed that the landfill, even closed, was unsafe, and in 1985 placed it on the State Remedial Action Priorities List. No state funding is available to clean up SRAPL sites; instead, cleanup costs must be paid by what the IEPA calls "potentially responsible parties," or PRPs--meaning those who sent waste to be dumped there, those who transported the waste, and the landfill operators.

In 1987 the IEPA served notice on the PRPs, who formed a steering committee that agreed to hire a consulting firm to test the site's condition. It also agreed to pay for some preliminary grading work; the IEPA was worried that water in the ponds between the ridges was causing potentially dangerous chemicals to leach out of the landfill.

Some intial groundwater testing was done in the late 1980s. IEPA spokeswoman Virginia Wood says no off-site contamination was found, but no testing has been done nearby for the last several years because of funding cuts. In the meantime, the IEPA won't allow any construction to be done in the affected area--which means no rebuilding the clay berm.

Muffler agrees that the place is contaminated. "You take a bath out here, your skin crawls," she says. "We've had dogs that have been out there one day and died. We don't know just what's out there." But she and Smith also claim that the IEPA's plan to regrade the site is folly, because any toxic chemicals have already leaked far from the original site.

Smith and Muffler have not allowed investigators on the site for the last few years. "We've requested access,"' says assistant attorney general Jack Bailey, representing the IEPA in trying to gain access to the site. "They haven't denied it yet. We haven't come to an agreement on access--let's put it that way."

"We won't give them access unless we get something out of it," says Muffler. The range operators say that the IEPA is really at fault for the contamination, because the Fullmers' agreement with the landfill operator specified municipal waste only. "We shouldn't be closed down for something we didn't incur," says Muffler. Wood says the IEPA did grant the landfill operator additional permits to accept industrial waste, but points out that until 1979 existing guidelines made no distinction between municipal and hazardous waste anyway.

Illinois statutes grant the IEPA the right of access to SRAPL sites. So if the attorney general's office can't come to an access agreement with Buffalo Pit and Range, the case will go to court--since it now appears that the attorney general's case against the range on behalf of the Department of Conservation may be dropped. Gaining access for testing and preliminary cleanup would mean shutting down the range at least temporarily. A full cleanup--if investigation shows it is called for--might shut it down longer. "We cannot have a cleanup out there if people are firing at the workers," says Bailey. Muffler and Smith worry that they could never reopen the range; Wood says the IEPA might not allow a shooting range to operate on a capped landfill.

If isn't clear yet how long it will be before the effigy area reopens. Its maintenance has suffered. Park staff haven't done any work in the area since last spring; McConnaughhay says he isn't willing to subject his staff to the danger.

Aerial photos taken between 1984 and 1987 show mounds wih sharp, distinct edges; they rise from the gently contoured earth as decisively as Mayan stone pyramids. On a recent visit, I noticed those edges have gotten a little rounded. Some grass has taken root--last year's long, unmowed grass was wintry tan and reddish brown, and some new green shoots were just beginning to appear. But there are many bare spots--the ridges atop the snake and the water strider's legs--and some gullies have formed in the area around the effigies. It was hard to make out what three of the mounds represent, though the water strider and catfish were pretty apparent. Nevertheless the site is stunning, a wide-open space with expansive views of the river and the wooded bluffs on the southern shore. It was easy, standing in the wind atop the turtle mound, to envision ancient hilltop prairies that must have looked a little like this.

As we drove and walked, Kile described the difficulties of maintaining the site even if the danger of shooting passes sometime soon. "This is almost a virgin soil, with no nutrients or minerals," he said. In past years park employees have applied heavy loads of fertilizer and lime in an effort to get grass to take root, but the effigies' steep slopes make it difficult to operate mowers and fertilizer spreaders; sometimes the machinery gets entangled in the plastic netting that remains of the excelsior mats. And any erosion exposes previously unweathered shale to the elements; as it weathers, it produces acid that may in turn liberate toxic metals such as aluminum. The combination of acid and toxins makes it very difficult for anything to grow.

"I have told them if they don't do some maintenance fairly soon, it's going to be a major restoration project," says Thornton. "They can't allow it to go indefinitely, because there'll be very severe damage to some of those effigies." He thinks Effigy Tumuli "could be one of the great tourist landmarks of Illinois. If it's properly promoted, it could be an extraordinarily important landmark, particularly for its connections, for the imagery and the spiritual link to the ancient mound builders."

Mark McConnaughhay would like to get on with fertilizing and mowing the mounds. "Our priority is to have grass on all of them," he says, "but it's not an overnight thing."

Evelyn Muffler would like to be left alone, she says, to tend her business in peace. She bemoans the state's double-barreled blast as an attack on property owners, as just the beginning of what could become an unending flood of regulations--all on a piece of land that was considered worthless for so long. "This whole business is an uphill battle," she says. "There comes a point when enough is enough. But I'm not ready to give it up. I still want to do what I need to in order to comply with the state, but just once, and then I want them out of my face."

For information on the Ottawa area, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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