Monument superintendent continues efforts to return artifacts to Little Bighorn

Billings Gazette
February 13, 2015
By Mike Ferguson

As National Park Service officials study and develop alternatives for improving the visitor experience at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, at least one objective is at the top of everyone’s list — the return of tens of thousands of artifacts now being stored and protected at a Tucson, Ariz., archaeological facility.

“All alternatives will involve getting back — ideally — all the collection, whether it’s all at once or in pieces,” said Denice Swanke, monument superintendent. “Returning the collection remains the primary objective.”

Since 2011, more than 150,000 Little Bighorn artifacts have been stored for safekeeping at the Western Archaeological and Conservation Center. That move “prompted a strong feeling of anxiety and loss among the tribes whose history is closely tied to Little Bighorn,” according to a summary of public comments taken last fall and published last month.
Swanke spent part of last week in Denver working with her NPS colleagues on an amendment to the monument’s general management plan that could result in a new or expanded visitor center and a new museum storage facility — all of which could be accomplished on-site or off-site.

Now that the public has had the chance to weigh in with its ideas, National Park Service employees developing the environmental assessment as part of the amendment process are crafting and fleshing out preliminary alternatives. In May and June, they’ll share those alternatives with the public, then write the environmental assessment. That assessment will go to the public for formal comment in November, with a formal decision on the NPS’ preferred option scheduled for March 2016.

According to a report, here are the options Swanke heard from the public during last fall’s comment period:

  • Remodel the existing visitor center and museum storage facility, because land ownership issues may preclude or complicate construction of a new facility elsewhere.
  • Build a new visitor center and museum storage facility in the same location, which would allow visitors to view and experience much of the battlefield, including Last Stand Hill, from its location.
  • Build a new visitor center and museum storage facility in a new location, which would protect the monument’s cultural landscape, increase accessibility under the Americans with Disability Act, enable a larger facility to be built and integrate the new facility into the park environs and minimize environmental impact.
  • Build a new visitor center and museum storage facility as part of the proposed Montana Department of Transportation “battlefield rest area” on the north side of Highway 212 near the intersection with Battlefield Road.
  • Build a new visitor center and museum storage facility in the monument’s administrative and housing area or remodel some of the existing infrastructure in that area to include space for these purposes. Another option is to build separate new facilities for the visitor center and museum storage facility.

Commenters also noted the current parking, congestion and traffic flow problems. Some suggested creating a one-way road from the new visitor center location to the Reno-Benteen Battlefield and north to Last Stand Hill, while others preferred paving the tour road to standard width, enlarging the parking area and increasing the number of pullouts.
They also expressed the importance of the monument as an economic driver in the area, both as its own destination and as an important stop between Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Yellowstone National Park. The initial costs of improving facilities would be offset by increased business and tourism tax incomes, they noted.

Swanke said NPS officials haven’t determined the number of alternatives that will be considered. “If we can get it down to two or three, that would be wonderful, because it makes the process less cumbersome,” she said. “But I’d be surprised if we can get it down to that. Most likely it’ll be four to six alternatives.”

She said she has concerns about some of the options, “because we are not in a flush economic environment. What has changed, though, is we have for the first time a common goal of returning the museum collection. I don’t know of anyone who disagrees with that (goal).”

The other factor working in favor of getting the project funded is the possibility of locating it along with the proposed rest area, she said.

The project timetable is fortuitous in one other regard, she said: during May and June — the lead-up to the 139th anniversary of the famous battle — NPS officials, including Swanke, will be updating the public about the various alternatives that have been identified.

“We are months and months away from a preferred alternative,” she said, “but at some point we will make that recommendation, too.”

When the current visitor center was constructed in 1952, about 100,000 people visited the monument annually. Now more than 300,000 people stop by each year, a number that could grow with a new or expanded visitor center with a room large enough to view an orientation film and space large enough for the popular ranger talks that are offered on the visitor center patio.

Officials estimate that at least 10,000 visitors each year can’t see the film because of limited seating and that more than 1,000 visitors each day must endure tough conditions during the outdoor ranger talks, putting up with distractions and impediments ranging from rattlesnakes to traffic noise from the nearby road.

Swanke said she’s eager to share plans to bolster the monument she serves as soon as she’s able.

“Given the high levels of interest in this place and everyone’s position, I want to make that extra effort to share information as soon as we practically can,” she said.