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National Park Service nears agreement to acquire Bear Paw Battlefield


The National Park Service is planning ahead for when it takes ownership of Bear Paw Battlefield south of Chinook.

Jon James, superintendent of Bear Paw Battlefield and Big Hole Battlefield, said Tuesday the National Park Service and the state Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks reached an agreement in July to find a way for the Park Service to take possession of the battlefield, now owned by the state.

"We have some hoops to jump through," he added. "By the end of 2004 we'll probably have something worked out."

The site, part of the Nez Perce National Historic Park since 1992, was the end of the 1877 flight of 700 Nez Perce Indians toward Canada. Chief Joseph surrendered there after a five-day battle.

Owning the battlefield is the next step before the Park Service can build permanent structures for visitors and staff at the battlefield. Once the Park Service takes ownership of the battlefield and nearby land, James said, the Park Service will design the facilities and ask Congress for money to build them.

The offices of the battlefield are in Chinook, and the interpretive center is in the Blaine County Museum, also in Chinook.

Chinook Chamber of Commerce president Mike Schuldt said people in Chinook support building the center, which could help the economy.

"It is what is needed to make that battlefield a destination for tourism," he said.

The Chinook Chamber and other organizations have worked to help plan the improvements at the battlefield, Schuldt said.

James said he mailed 81 letters asking people interested in the visitor center construction if they would attend a meeting in September or October. The purpose is to come to a consensus about what should be done at the battlefield, he said.

James said he wants interested parties, including three Nez Perce tribes, local organizations and residents, and representatives of the state and federal departments involved to agree in principle about what sort of a center should be built to preserve the battlefield and educate visitors.

"The first part is doing the summit meeting to get everybody on the same wavelength," he said.

Common support for a design will help groups lobby Congress for money to build the center, James said.

Anyone interested in the summit is welcome to attend, he said. People attending will have to pay for their own lodging and travel costs.

The meeting will be in late October or early November, either in Missoula or Spokane, Wash.

The concept of the center is to provide parking for visitors, an interpretive center to complement the center at the Blaine County Museum, plus restrooms and office space, James said.

One of the next steps is finding an equitable exchange for the land, as required by the state constitution, he said.

Another will be negotiating for some land near the battlefield for the center and parking lot. James said he won't say what land is being considered, but the Park Service has found a spot that seems suitable. Alternate locations have also been selected, he said.

The Park Service wants to avoid building offices and a visitor center on the battlefield or right next to it, James said.

"That's a commitment to us, that we'll have to find somewhere else to build," he said.

James can be reached at (406) 689-3151 or [email protected] for more information.


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