Concern over lack of progress for a visitors center at the Nez Perce National Historic Trail led a meeting between Chinook’s Friends of the Bear Paw Battlefield and representatives of the National Park Service Friday afternoon.
The meeting began with an overview of the long history of the Bear Paw Battlefield and the led into a lengthy discussion of the site’s future.
Many Chinook residents have, for about 20 years, wanted a visitors center built near the battlefield. A report in 2001 led to no action. Hope was renewed in 2009, when a second report was commissioned. It outlined four possible plans for the site. But residents said progress was at a standstill.
Many of the Chinook residents felt Friday's meeting was overdue and that their concerns were unheard.
Tom McClean, a Chinook insurance agent, thought the options offered in 2001, were good, but were being ignored in the current conversation. He thought the park service didn’t care.
“To put it bluntly, the feeling we get is that you just don’t want to hassle with it,” McClean said.
Blaine County Commissioner Dolores Plumage put it even more bluntly.
“The community has viewed the park service as, simply put, the enemy,” Plumage said.
Steve Black, the Montana unit director for the park service, said that it was unfortunate that it had taken this long, it’s just been a difficult process.
“We’re not the enemy. It may seem that way,” Black said. “It takes staff, which takes money, which is hard in a time of deficit.”
Black said it was unfortunate that the plans in 2001 were halted because of an oversight in conducting the study, but it’s policy. Policy also prevented the park service from discussing its current plans with rancher Henry “Skoof” Gordon, but no such thing stopped Gordon. Gordon wants to sell his land adjacent to the battlefield for the visitors center, which residents feel would attract more tourists to the area.
Gordon told the room about working with the park service eight months ago to provide land to build the visitors center.
When he was ready to sign the deal, the person he had been dealing with "disappeared for several months" and only resurfaced recently.
Now Gordon is preparing to sign an easement on Oct. 12, granting the park service access to nearly 700 acres of his land.
If they can’t build a center on the land, Gordon said he is willing to build the center himself and lease it to the government.
Black said he couldn’t make any comment on the negotiations until it was over on Oct. 12, but he said it is encouraging to see so much community support, which would be necessary to keep any center running.
Heather DePriest, executive secretary of the Chinook Chamber of Commerce, told the park service that the Friends of the Bear Paw Battlefield had established an ultimatum.
“If we don’t see any progress from the state in the next three to five years, we will pursue this ourselves,” DePriest said.