Where mobility and history intersect

14 BisonAlthough many people don’t think of a department of transportation in this way, we are really a mobility company. Our jobs revolve around providing safe and reliable ways for people to get where they want to go. But there are a lot of facets to transportation that most people don’t even consider. Finding interesting ways to let people in on what we do and why we do it can be challenging.

Recently, a video telling one story of why we do what we do was brought to national attention as the Federal Highway Administration selected “Landscapes that Shape Us: Cultural Resources Mitigation for Highway U.S. 20 Project” as the recipient of the 2019 Environmental Excellence Award.  According to the FHWA’s website, the award recognizes projects that have used federal funding sources to “make a contribution that goes beyond the traditional transportation project and encourages environmental stewardship and partnerships to achieve multi-faceted, environmentally sensitive transportation solution.”


FHWA Awards
From left, Iowa DOTers Brad Hofer, Madeline LaPage, Brennan Dolan, Tammy Nicholson, and Ken Brink were on the team that produced the award-winning video.

Here’s how the video came to be. Back in 2013, we were working on the U.S. 20 project in Northwest Iowa. As this project was being developed prior to construction, several cultural resources were identified that needed to be addressed.  During this process, we found several resources that we are required to take steps to avoid or mitigate.  During mitigation we found that some of these resources contained never before documented archaeological features. 

Dig on U.S. 20
Archeological excavations are not unusual on Iowa DOT projects when cultural resources are discovered during the project development process, but finds as significant as the one on U.S. 20 are rare.


“The sites that were found in the course of the U.S. 20 project are profound,” said Brennan Dolan, our lead archeologist on this project. “This archeology had never before been found in Iowa. The significance was on the level of a national landmark.”

14 Bison
One of the geoglyphs found during the U.S. 20 project

These profound discoveries include “geoglyphs” or symbols cut into the soil. According to Brennan’s research with tribal leaders, the bison geoglyph that was found would have been a place of prayer for good hunting.

At the Iowa DOT, we have a long history of working with the tribes that once lived here, as well as those who continue to call Iowa home. As part of our process, these tribes were brought in to help us determine a course of action related to these sites that were sacred to them.

Following federal environmental laws, Iowa DOT engineers, Paul Flattery and Angela Johnson, got to work to balance the needs of the project and preserving the cultural resources. Dolan said, “I don’t think our engineers get enough credit. Some environmental laws are very prescriptive, but others are not. That allows a lot of creativity in finding solutions. Paul and Angela were all in to find a solution that worked.”

With Flattery and Johnson handling the engineering solution, Dolan turned his attention to the next phase of federal regulations, providing public education about what was found. “The public education piece was a little intimidating at first,” said Dolan. “There were many different groups to bring together with the goal of helping the public understand what was found and its importance.  This isn’t a scenario we’re in every day. We do work with them all the time, but not in this capacity.   Everyone had ideas and suggestions, so bringing everyone together was a challenge.”

Working with a consultant, the group of Iowa DOT folks, community leaders, and tribal officials produced the video, “Landscapes that Shape Us: Cultural Resources Mitigation for Highway U.S. 20 Project,” to tell the story of those sacred tribal artifacts uncovered during the project.

In the introduction to the video, Randy Teboe, Director of Cultural Affairs, Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, says, “Oral tradition tells us that we came across Iowa and the landscape tells us how we would have done things spiritually, where occupations would have taken place. I believe our history, our lives, our ancestors and the hills, the animals are in the landscape. This tells the history of our people.”

He continued, “This is very important because we need to pass this down to our younger generations. Those things are tied to our identity.”

The intersection of current transportation needs, and honoring historically significant archeology can be extremely tough to navigate. “We are very proud of the partnerships we have with the tribal communities and local residents, especially as it related to this project,” said Dolan. “The video that was produced provides that link between the younger generations and their ancestors, all in the context of balancing the needs of the public and remarkable history.”

Congratulations to Iowa DOT staff and their partners for their hard work and recognition through their Environmental Excellence Award.




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