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Published December 11, 2010, 02:13 PM

Park Service: Problems abound at Little Bighorn

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Participants in a National Park Service webinar this week got an overview of just how bad facilities are at Montana's Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Participants in a National Park Service webinar this week got an overview of just how bad facilities are at Montana's Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

The tour road is crumbling, parking lots are too small, 119,000 historic documents have no fire protection, and the list of critical shortcomings in the visitor center only starts with the fact that it was built 60 years ago for crowds a fourth to a third as large as they are now.

"It's not OK to go another 25 years with these issues," said battlefield Superintendent Kate Hammond, who conducted the virtual public meeting Wednesday with interested parties from all over the country.

The Park Service is experimenting with webinar formats to improve dialogue between parks and their often widespread constituency. Two webinars on Little Bighorn were scheduled to augment public meetings held this week in Billings, Hardin and Golden, Colo.

Hammond's objective in the series of public forums was to establish a common understanding of four major issues and open a discussion on how to resolve them. Solutions outlined in the park's general management plan in 1986 have been stalled in controversy and politics, she said, and she wanted to hear ideas on how to break the impasse.

Tim Stevens, a webinar participant, suggested "a two or three-day Middle East-type peace talk session. Get all the stakeholders face-to-face in the same room to see if we can find breathing room to move forward."

No one participating disagreed that a new visitor center needs to be built, and Hammond said everyone, including the Crow Tribe and other tribes that participated in the battle, wants to preserve the historic landscape.

But it has never been that easy. The management plan calls for the demolition of the existing visitor center, which sits in the middle of an area that was an important Indian position during the battle. It proposed erecting a new visitor center in the Little Bighorn Valley where the Sioux and Cheyenne were camped on June 25, 1876, when the 7th Cavalry attacked.

As part of the renovation, a tour road loop that would begin at the visitor center, cross the river and chronologically follow the battle to its conclusion on Last Stand Hill was included in the management plan.

Implementing the plan, however, would require expanding park boundaries from 765 acres to more than 11,000 acres. The Park Service does not own land for the road right of way or most of the land where the sprawling battle took place. Hammond said the Park Service owns just the main cavalry position, but not areas key to interpreting the battle from the Indian viewpoint.

A nonprofit organization, the Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee, has raised money and purchased critical pieces of the battleground with the intent of giving the land to the Park Service.

At the time the committee was raising money and buying land in the 1980s, the Park Service had authority to accept the donated land, Hammond said. But in the 1990s, Congress rescinded that authority. Now accepting the land would require either an act of Congress or a presidential declaration under the Antiquities Act. Neither is likely to happen without the support of the Crow Tribe.

The Crow Tribe has always opposed expanding the park boundaries, fearing erosion of its own land base.

Hammond posed the question whether the 1986 management plan — no major part of which has been implemented — should remain in place, or whether it should it be modified or scrapped altogether.

Almost no one believes it's feasible to expand the park boundaries by 11,000 acres. Jim Court of the Preservation Committee, a former battlefield superintendent, has suggested that by working with the Crow Tribe, a way could be found to add 3,500 acres the committee already owns, including critical historic sites such as Sitting Bull's camp.

Hammond said she could see pros and cons to starting over with a new management plan. One advantage would be getting the Crow Tribe and other battle participants involved from the beginning.

On the other hand, she said, the battlefield is not in line for funding of a new management plan, and, if the consensus of the stakeholders is that a new one is needed, Little Bighorn would have to start at the end of the line. Management plans can take two to five years to complete, Hammond said, and as complex as the issues are at Little Bighorn, it would likely be closer to five years than two.

"The problem seems a little overwhelming," participant Lee Noyes said. "It's something the Park Service can't do on its own. We all need to consider what's best for the park and work together in a very constructive way."