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HELENA - For a small investment, the state can preserve a key historical site on Lewis and Clark's route at Lolo, including the acquisition of a valuable collection of Native American artifacts, a dozen witnesses told a legislative panel Tuesday.

"I would be very disappointed in my native state if we couldn't find some way of bringing this into operation," said Missoula City Council member Dick Haines. "It would be a shame to see us miss this opportunity."

Haines joined a long line of Missoula-area residents testifying in favor of House Bill 167, which would appropriate $280,000 of state funds to operate Travelers' Rest State Park.

Since 2001, the park on the west side of Lolo near the junction of U.S. highways 12 and 93 has been managed by the nonprofit Travelers' Rest Preservation and Heritage Association, whose volunteers provide interpretive programs for visiting schoolchildren and tourists.

But the state has a tentative agreement with local landowners William and Ramona Holt, who want to donate a 10,000-acre structure, which will serve as a museum, their substantial collection of Native American artifacts and some land to enhance the park.

Loren Flynn, director of the nonprofit association, said if the Holts' substantial donations are accepted, the state will need to operate and maintain the expanded site. The association can continue with its interpretive programs, but doesn't have the money to operate the expanded park, he said.

The money in HB167 would finance these operations for the next two years.

Travelers' Rest is considered the only site along the Lewis and Clark trail other than Pompey's Pillar with physical evidence of the explorers' presence, from when they camped there in 1805 and 1806.

Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, who is co-sponsoring House Bill 167 with Rep. Bill Nooney, R-Missoula, said Travelers' Rest is "not just another state park."

In addition to its historical value, it has great local support from many volunteers and, with the Holts' offer, has a chance to become a destination tourism site in Western Montana, she said.

"That's a really remarkable gift (from the Holts) and a really remarkable potential for Montana to really expand on our tourism," she said.

Kim Kaufman of Lolo also said the park is a valuable asset to the crossroads community south of Missoula.

"Lolo doesn't really have much going for it," she said. "We've got a pretty good steak house and we have the park. It's really important to the community of Lolo that we keep this park going."

The House Appropriations Committee took no immediate action on the bill. Miscellaneous spending bills such as HB167 often languish before the

committee until mid-March, when it decides how much additional state money might be available.

Sands said she hoped the panel might act on the bill sooner, if it could be shown that it has substantial support and could be coordinated with other parts of the state budget.