COLUMBUS, Ohio – A debate over public access to a set of ancient ceremonial and burial earthworks is before the Ohio Supreme Court in a case pitting the state historical society against a country club within whose grounds the earthworks are located.
At issue before the court are the 2,000-year-old Octagon Earthworks in Newark in central Ohio. The Ohio History Connection, which owns the earthworks, has proposed the site along with other ancient sites in Ohio for nomination to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The historical society, which is a nonprofit that contracts with the state, argues it must control access to the earthworks for that nomination to proceed.
American Indians constructed the site nearly 2,000 years ago. The layout of the earthworks, including eight long earthen walls, corresponds to lunar movements and aligns with points at which the moon rises and sets over the course of the 18.6-year lunar cycle.
The Ohio History Connection calls them “part cathedral, part cemetery and part astronomical observatory.”
The people who built the earthworks preceded later American Indians in Ohio sometimes by centuries, but numerous tribes, some with historical ties to Ohio, want the earthworks preserved as examples of indigenous peoples' accomplishments. The National Congress of American Indians, the Inter-Tribal Council representing tribes living in Northeast Oklahoma and the Seneca Nation of New York State are among those endorsing the historical society’s application to the heritage list.
Designating the Ohio earthworks as World Heritage Sites "would protect the earthworks from further development and destruction and be places to honor indigenous achievement,” the National Congress of American Indians said in its letter of support.
Such a placement would be a first in Ohio and only the 25th nationally. Designation as a World Heritage site comes with with prestige and international recognition but no financial benefit.
UNESCO says it can help provide emergency assistance for sites in immediate danger and provide technical assistance and professional training to help safeguard designated places.
The organization describes its goals as encouraging “international cooperation in the conservation of our world’s cultural and natural heritage.”
Two other examples of pre-Columbian earthwork construction on the heritage list are Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Missouri and Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point in Louisiana.
In 1892, voters in surrounding Licking County enacted a tax increase to preserve what was left of the earthworks. The area was developed as a golf course in 1911, and the state first leased the 134-acre property to Moundbuilders Country Club in the 1930s.
The historical society now wants to buy back the lease, convert the property to a park to improve public access to Octagon Earthworks and open a visitors center. The country club's lease doesn't expire until 2078.
A Licking County judge ruled in May 2019 that the historical society can reclaim the lease via eminent domain. That ruling was upheld last year by the Ohio Fifth District Court of Appeals.
The club is challenging the attempt to take the property, saying the Ohio History Connection did not make a good faith offer to purchase the property as required by state law. The country club says it has provided proper upkeep of the mound and allowed public access over the years.
A 2003 agreement between the historical society and the country club allows full, unfettered access to the site four days a year. The agreement also allows public access during daylight hours from November through March and Monday mornings the rest of the year, as long as the club hasn't scheduled golf activities those days.
The historical society argues that public access to the site has actually been restricted since the 2003 agreement, with individuals and groups finding it increasingly difficult to schedule visits around golfers’ playing times and course maintenance, including pesticide and herbicide spraying.
Attorneys for the country club – referred to as MCC in court documents – argue the historical society's true intent for acquiring the country club’s property is in hopes of securing the World Heritage listing, which is a highly competitive process with low success rates, country club attorneys said in a September 2020 court filing.
“Is it in the public’s best interest to risk losing all the benefits MCC provides for the chance that the property will be inscribed to the World Heritage list?” the attorneys argued.
They also contend the historical society has neglected another nearby ancient earthwork known as the Great Circle, despite operating it as a park for nearly 80 years.
The historical society argues its proposal in 2020 to buy out the lease for $1.66 million was a good faith offer based on an independent appraisal, and its primary goal is public access. The historical society denies the country club’s allegations that its plans for the site are contingent on a World Heritage list placement.
Creating a park at the Octagon Earthworks would “enable the History Connection and others to conduct research on the site on their own schedule, which would, in turn, allow the History Connection to better educate Ohioans (and the world) about the Earthworks and their historical importance,” Benjamin Flowers, the state Solicitor General, said in an October court filing.
The state Supreme Court held oral arguments Tuesday. A decision isn’t expected for weeks.