By Tim Leeds
For the first time since it was made a national park, Bear Paw Battlefield will soon have its own budget.
"This is obviously a permanent boost," said Jon James, superintendent of Big Hole National Battlefield. "It's a milestone, you know. It's one big step."
The money from the National Park Service will be used for the yearly operation of Bear Paw Battlefield, which was added to the Nez Perce National Historic Park in 1992. James is the Montana unit manager for the Nez Perce park. Big Hole National Battlefield, at Wisdom, has the supervisory office for Bear Paw Battlefield.
James said that until now the operations budget for Bear Paw had to be scraped together from Big Hole's budget, about $50,000 a year.
"That was money that had to be begged or borrowed from something else," he said.
James said he first submitted the request for separate funding for Bear Paw about five years ago. He expects the battlefield will receive about $150,000 a year.
The money will provide the salary for the park's ranger. Starting next year, Bear Paw Battlefield will be staffed year-round for the first time since it was made a national park. The budget will also provide for maintenance, visitor services and resource protection for the battlefield.
"To be sure to protect and preserve the battlefield for future generations," James said, "that's what the Park Service is all about."
James said the next step will be to work on improvements, including a visitors center, at the battlefield. Feasibility studies and preliminary designs for a center, commissioned by Congress a few years ago, have been completed.
"That's about as far as we can go," James said.
He said the next step will be for the state to transfer most of the land the park is on from state ownership to the federal government. Citizens and interest groups can lobby Congress for appropriations to build the center.
Especially in light of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, James said, it might take some time before money is appropriated for the center.
James said U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns' office was a key supporter of the studies to improve the battlefield, and former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill was a prime mover for the appropriations for the studies.