By Alan Sorensen
Plans to erect a permanent visitor center at the Bear Paw Battlefield of the Nez Perce National Historic Park remain in the earliest stage, according a National Park Service official.
Jon James, manager of the Montana units of the Nez Perce National Historic Park, said the agency is nearing the end of its feasibility study phase. James said then Rep. Rick Hill, R-Mont., and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., requested the feasibility study in 1999.
"They wanted us to explore if it was feasible," James said. "We found that the opinion is pretty divided what it should look like, where it should be."
Bear Paw Battlefield of the Nez Perce National Historic Park was the scene of one of the most famous battlefield speeches in American history. Nestled in the foothills of the Bear Paw Mountains about 16 miles south of Chinook, the battlefield is one of 38 sites in the park, which is spread over the Pacific Northwest.
The 38 sites were combined into a single park in 1995 to commemorate the 1877 Nez Perce war with the U.S. Army that led to the tribe's retreat across five states.
The retreat ended at Bear Paw Battlefield, just 40 miles or so short of the Nez Perce's goal of reaching Canada and joining up with the Sioux, who had dealt the U.S. Army a blow with the annihilation of Custer the year before at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
It was here that Chief Joseph uttered his immortal words of surrender that contain the powerful phrase: "From where the sun now stands, I shall fight no more forever."
"It's so preliminary," James said about visitor center plans. "This is the end of the feasibility study. It is the end without further congressional action."
James said the choices of location have been narrowed from nine to two and that participants have reached no clear consensus.
"People are in agreement that what is out there should not impact the battlefield," he said. "They want to make sure that it's not obtrusive."
James said a Billings firm, CTA, produced about four different schemes from which to choose. The requirements were that the center be unobtrusive, blend in with the landscape, provide visitor convenience, including indoor plumbing, and provide a certain level of interpretative information.
"The greatest thing you have out there is the battlefield to tell the story," James said.
He said park staffers have looked at the preliminary drawings and are concerned that the center have windows that focus on the battlefield. He said a trail leading from the center to the battlefield trails is preferred.
James said the National Park Service has placed limits on visitor centers primarily due to cost. New centers, he said, must be kept "reasonable and affordable."
The two sites being considered are both on private land, he said, and one is across Montana Secondary Highway 240 from the battlefield and monuments.
James stressed that the National Park Service wants to include all interested people and parties, particularly the Nez Perce and the people of Chinook, in the process of designing a visitor center.
"We want them to work together so they can have something everyone can agree on," James said.
What the National Park Service has is just something people can look at, James said. The preliminary concept drawings show people what the facilities could look like.
"This is not the final form," he said. "It's something to stimulate thought."