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Little Bighorn Battlefield Update Winter 2015

By Denice Swanke, Superintendent





As you may recall, the period for public comments on Little Bighorn Battlefield’s General Management Plan Amendment initiative closed in mid-December and a summary report was finalized in January.


To read what we heard from the public, you can view/download the report at the National Park Service website from a link at the bottom of the “Document List” page at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/libi/.


In February I reviewed the report with the Denver regional office staff so as to develop a range of draft alternatives that will be published in the spring for further public review and comment.


The report notes several options recommended by commenters in response to the effort of the Park Service “to provide clear guidance for the most appropriate location and future management of the visitor center.” They are:


1.     Remodel the existing visitor center and museum storage facility.

2.     Build a new visitor center and museum storage facility in the same location.

3.     Build a new visitor center and museum storage facility in the Garryowen area or near Reno Creek Road.

4.     Build a new visitor center and museum storage facility as part of the proposed Montana Department of Transportation rest area.

5.     Build separate new facilities for the visitor center and museum storage facility.


Comments also expressed concerns about limited parking space and traffic congestion and noted the vital economic impact of the Battlefield Monument to southeastern Montana.



The Interpretive Division looks forward to another successful and rewarding year. In the spring and fall we will host a few schools through the “Expedition Little Bighorn” program where students can experience the lives of both Indians and soldiers by handling regalia, horse gear and equipment, among other things. This project is funded in part by a grant from the Western National Parks Association.


We plan to discontinue the “Ranger Walk to Last Stand Hill” as a regular daily talk, adding in its place a new interpretive theme that will complement our most popular presentation, the true and tested “Battle Talk.”


Because the 139th Battle Anniversary will occur on a weekday, visitation will most likely be less than the highly visited anniversary weekends. The park will not host an Anniversary luncheon for visitors this year but will schedule this event again in 2016 during observance of the 140th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and celebration of the 100th birthday of the National Park Service.


Irrigation Projects

A new main water line for the National Cemetery irrigation system will be installed this spring. The current asbestos cement pipe line has failed three times in the last two seasons. Regional funds will be used for this much needed replacement. In addition, a project funded by entrance fee revenue is scheduled for this summer. This second project will redesign and improve the National Cemetery irrigation system to better protect the headstones.


Snow Plow

Our much-needed new snow plow is scheduled to arrive in the middle of March. The new vehicle will replace our 25 year old unit that breaks down more often than it runs causing frequent closures of the tour road during the last two winters.


Resource Management

The Resource Management Division is preparing for a very active, exciting summer. The 2014 season ended with great progress and 2015 expects to build upon those successes.


Since our last update the division has employed six interns to work on various tasks such as paleontological research, the development of a native plant garden, creation of new maps using GIS and more. The park has produced five new interpretive bulletins (prairie dogs, Indian Memorial, a bird identification list, biodiversity of small parks and native plants). They will go to press just in time for the peak visitor season.


To address other needs a permanent biological technician has helped to reestablish and sustain an exotic plant remediation program. Other natural resource needs include water sampling, wildlife monitoring, integrated pest management and more.


An archives technician has researched records that relate directly to the effort to document and map Custer National Cemetery. When this collaborative project with the Historic American Landscape Survey is completed later this year, we will have a locator map for all interments in the cemetery. This resource will become publicly searchable on the park’s web page.


The exciting work to document the cemetery is a component of a much larger comprehensive effort to document the park’s entire cultural landscape. This work started two years ago when the Historic American Landscape Survey provided the first detailed inventory of all Battlefield markers. The LiDAR data collected this past summer will be processed to develop new 3D interpretive maps of the area. These efforts will not only create new interpretive products for the park but also provide a detailed inventory and condition assessment of irreplaceable park resources to improve future care.


One of our biggest successes last year was completion of a four week preservation project in partnership with the Historic Preservation Training Center and National Trust for Historic Preservation via the Hands On Preservation Experience (HOPE) program. Nationally significant monuments such as Bear Paw Mountain, Fort C.F. Smith, Reno-Benteen and the 7th Cavalry memorial were preserved and cleaned to correct years of exposure to the harsh Montana weather. In the National Cemetery 275 headstones were aligned and straightened to comply with VA standards and cleaned to improve their appearance.


Superintendent’s Lodge

A major project is scheduled at the lodge this summer. A new mini-split air conditioning system will replace existing window units. Replacements also include an energy efficient boiler and “on-demand” water heater.


In the early fall window sashes will be forwarded to the Historic Preservation Training Center, Frederick, Maryland for lead abatement, glass replacement and installation of time period weather stripping. As the sashes are being restored, window frames will be stripped, repaired and repainted.


Remaining funds will be used to repair and repoint basement wall and chimney mortar joints. In addition Portland cement based mortar on the stonework interior and exterior joints will be removed to be replaced by lime based mortar that more closely matches historic mortar.


These different tasks will provide a training opportunity for park maintenance staff and other NPS employees throughout the country to experience historic preservation techniques.


The Historic Preservation Training Center will also furnish the park with an estimate for removing the concrete portion of the front porch, repairing and preserving the roof portion and installing a wooden porch and railing to match historic photos. Funding for this construction does not exist at this time but a project will be developed and funding sought.


This project is not only desirable for aesthetic reasons but also to eliminate deterioration of the basement’s stone walls from moisture damage.


The Superintendent’s Lodge (or the “Old Stone House”) was the original residence of the park superintendent. White Swan Memorial Library is located in the building. We wish to thank Supt. Swanke and her staff for this comprehensive report.


Stone House Photo courtesy Lee Noyes






Battlefield Links




As is clear from the summaries below, the National Monument staff is plenty busy every day keeping this place wonderful.


Preparations are underway for this year’s special events honoring veterans on Memorial Day. We are also beginning to prepare for the Anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. One change that we hope will alleviate congestion on June 25 is a shuttle system operating from a nearby off-site parking area to and from the Battlefield. This system would be in place for the one day only.


Finally, I am excited to tell you that the contract for the permanent engraving of the Indian Memorial is out for bid. We expect it to be awarded early this spring with on-site work completed prior to the Anniversary. Since the consulting tribes and descendent families provided the overall design and content of the Memorial, we are inviting them to share their vision for a re-dedication celebration, which may occur during the Anniversary. I will update as more information develops.


I greatly look forward to meeting the CBHMA members this summer. Whether or not you are able to make it to “LIBI” this year, I want to thank you all for your passion and dedication to the Battlefield!

With kind regards,



Maintenance Division Chief: René Laya

2012 was a challenge for the park’s Maintenance Division. Les Frickle, who had been with the division for over 34 years, retired leaving a large hole in the knowledge base of the park and the division.


In mid-summer our two main water pumps failed about a month apart, leaving us unable to irrigate the cemetery and most of the grounds during the majority of the season, which saw record low rainfall. The result was a very dry (and brown) landscape with many visitor complaints. Once the pumps were repaired, the lawns recovered for the fall season.


The Stone House was repaired with funds remaining from the previous year’s storm damage account. Masonry specialists from the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Training Center in Frederick, Maryland, came to the Battlefield to assist with sub-soil drainage repairs to the basement walls. Drain pipes were reattached, the exterior of the basement wall was re-pointed and a new drain board installed to prevent water from entering the basement. The crew also removed the cast concrete steps on the front porch, poured new footings and re-set the steps. Failing porch mortar joints were removed and re-pointed using the historically correct raised bead joint.


Headstone realignment continued in Section E of the National Cemetery. The staff replaced numerous sprinkler heads, many of which are so old that repair parts are no longer available! New granite section markers will be in place before the Memorial Day weekend.


A new roof was installed on the Visitor Center, two-thirds of which has been repainted to date. Interior storm damage to the walls and floors was repaired and failing concrete replaced. The information kiosk was relocated to a more prominent location. Overgrown juniper bushes that were removed were replaced by a native plant garden.


Visitor and Resource Protection Division Chief: Michael Stops

2012 posed some unique challenges when the wild land fire season started early and fast in late June. The park was never in any real danger but several fires six to twenty miles from the site affected operations because of area road closures. We remained on high alert for the remainder of the summer.


In late fall, additional surveillance cameras were installed at the park’s entrance station and Visitor Center to provide a safer and more secure facility. Security cameras were also installed at the Stone House.


2012 visitation was up 11% with approximately 349,369 visitors compared to 314,870 the previous year. Possible reasons were the improvement of the national economy and lower gas prices.


No major accidents occurred, which might be partly attributed to the fact that we upgraded our alarm monitoring system by installing better detection devices and improved smoke alarms. The park has a very active safety program with monthly safety committee and staff and meetings. Chief Ranger Michael Stops continues to serve as our collateral duty safety officer.


Interpretation Division Chief: Ken Woody

Projects completed over the past year included a new Visitor Center information counter that established a sales station for Western National Parks Association and a dedicated area for “questions and answers” by park staff. The latter doubles as a fee collection station in the off season.


Six podcasts have been added to the park’s website. Developed from our orientation video, Triumph and Tragedy Along the Little Bighorn, these short films create additional educational opportunities for our website visitors. (This well received new film has been shown 3000 times to nearly 46,000 persons.) In addition biographies of important characters associated with the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn are routinely being added to the website.


The interpretive staff presented two talks during 2012: 641 “Battle Talks” and 174 ranger-led “Last Stand Hill Walks” to 48,272 and 5562 visitors, respectively. Junior Ranger programs were completed by 840 children at the park. Nearly 500 students from 17 local schools and three military staff rides (over 50 soldiers) participated in ranger-led tours. Survey data indicated a 96% visitor satisfaction rate with the facilities, recreational opportunities and services.


Cultural and Natural Resources Division Chief: Chris Ziegler

This new management division of cultural and natural resources staff will pool its collective energies to preserve the valuable assets of Little Bighorn Battlefield for posterity. It will play a critical role in plans to return the park’s 150,000 piece curatorial collection, displaced since the 2011 floods.


Documentation is being drafted to help management of the park, including a National Register nomination, Cultural Landscape report, Environmental History and Fire Management plan. Future projects will streamline program compliance, develop exotic vegetation removal plans and improve research of the National Cemetery.


Ties with the affiliated tribes have been strengthened through improved communication that includes a partnership with Little Bighorn College. Resource management staff provides other divisions with the information necessary to perform their duties. It continues to make research materials more accessible to the public, work with White Swan Memorial Library and administer the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).


Exciting information about the progress of efforts to conserve the museum collection temporarily located in Tucson, Arizona, will be forthcoming this summer.


Administrative Division Chief: Dave Marshall

Funding of the administrative staff is shared between Little Bighorn Battlefield and Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. The year has been tremendously challenging in the administrative realm as the NPS and Department of Interior continue the transition to new email and fiscal systems. Many of our software programs are obsolete and daily we learn something about how the new system is supposed to work.


We thank Supt. Swanke and her staff for this comprehensive update that appeared in the Spring 2013 Battlefield Dispatch.