Park Service seeks solutions for Little Bighorn Battlefield

2010-12-03T00:15:00Z 2010-12-03T01:12:27Z Park Service seeks solutions for Little Bighorn Battlefield

By LORNA THACKERAY

Of The Gazette Staff

The Billings Gazette
December 03, 2010 12:15 am  • 

Almost 30 years ago, a management plan was approved for Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

It set some lofty goals — a new visitor center off the historic battlefield site; new boundaries increasing the size of park by more than 11,000 acres; and a new tour road that would take visitors through the park from the place where the battle started to where it ended at Last Stand Hill.

But since that plan was adopted in 1986, virtually none of its principal goals have been accomplished.

The undersized visitor center still intrudes on historic ground; the park remains at its original 765 acres; and park visitors still drive a tour road that takes them chronologically backward from Last Stand Hill to where the battle started in the valley below.

Exhibit space in the museum is marginal; storage for historic documents and artifacts is insufficient; parking is woefully inadequate.

Battlefield Superintendent Kate Hammond has scheduled public meetings this month to open a dialogue about how some of these issues can be resolved. She wants all the stakeholders, from tribal representatives to Custer buffs, to offer their opinions and ideas about fixing some of the problems.

“It's not OK to live another 30 years with these issues,” she said.

For reasons both political and monetary, most of the plan's key provisions have not been implemented, she said. Hammond contends that it is time to open the discussion on whether to keep the plan, modify it or start over.

“We want to do something to move forward,” she said.

Moving forward has never been easy at the 1876 battlefield surrounded both by controversy and the Crow Reservation.

Expanding park boundaries seems always to be the sticking point. In the past the Crow Tribe has resisted efforts to enlarge the park, which Hammond said would require congressional approval. It is unlikely Congress would approve a boundary change without the tribe's support.

The Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee, a nonprofit organization set up with the idea of buying land for the National Park Service, has 3,500 acres of land it would love to donate, said Jim Court. Court is a former Little Bighorn Battlefield superintendent and was chief fundraiser for the Preservation Committee.

It was on land purchased by the Preservation Committee that the management plan envisioned building a new visitor center. The Preservation Committee had offered not only the land, but money for the visitor center many years ago, Court said.

“At one point we had $15 million pledged to build a new visitor center and couldn't even get the Park Service to acknowledge the offer,” he said.

Hammond said there are strict regulations about park facilities being built on Park Service-owned lands.

In 2008, the National Park Service proposed an interim solution to the visitor center problem that would have involved a modest increase in size of the existing building. The plan was scrapped after some of the biggest names in the field of Western history opposed it as a further intrusion onto the historic battlefield. They also argued that the remodel would have the effect of delaying indefinitely the real solution — a new visitor center.

The Preservation Committee is no longer buying land and no recent action has been taken to get its land into Park Service hands. Court says he believes that if the committee, tribe and Park Service could sit down and talk, they could break the stalemate and reach agreements beneficial for all concerned.

“It needs to be something that will benefit the tribe,” he said.

His personal preference would be to trade some of the committee-owned land for tribal lands so the historic ground could be consolidated. Then the tribe and committee could set some boundaries, put up fences and bring in a bison herd.

“Tourists love to see buffalo,” he said. “That's what they would have seen here in 1876.”

Three public meetings are set for next week. The first will be Tuesday from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Parmly Billings Library. On Wednesday, a meeting is set for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Super 8 Motel in Hardin. The final meeting is scheduled for Thursday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the American Mountaineering Center in Golden, Colo.

For those who can't make the meetings, the Park Service has set up webinars on Monday at 6 p.m. MDT and Wednesday at 2 p.m. MDT. To participate, go to http://doilearn.webex.com. Click the “meeting center” tab and search for “Little Bighorn.” Log in with the password “LIBI.” Dial into a conference line to listen to the presentation and discussion.

On Monday, the dial-in number is 800-779-1424. The passcode is 6215319. The dial-in number for Wednesday is 888-790-3288. The passcode is 6215319.

Lorna Thackeray can be reached at 657-1314 or lthackeray@billingsgazette.com

Lorna Thackeray can be reached at 657-1314 or lthackeray@billingsgazette.com

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