Fighting for the battlefield
April 1, 2009
Tim Leeds Havre Daily News [email protected]
Representatives of the National Park Service said Tuesday that they are willing to listen to comments by supporters of building a visitors center at Bear Paw Battlefield south of Chinook, although that is not the preferred alternative in an environmental assessment recently completed by the agency. Gary Somers, superintendent of the Nez Perce National Historical Park, told a crowd of more than 60 people at a meeting in Chinook Tuesday that he wants to hear their comments, but the comments must be submitted in writing, either mailed or e-mailed to him. Somers said the environmental assessment released in March is subject to revision. “It is just a draft,” Somers said. “It does have our preferred alternative in it, but it is not set in stone.” The park service held the meeting to collect comments on an environmental assessment done on improving the battlefield. In the assessment, the preferred alternative listed is building a small visitor contact station for National Park Service personnel to use at the battlefield and developing a visitor information center and administrative headquarters in Chinook. That alternative would lead to the park service withdrawing the financial support it now provides the Blaine County Museum, which has a display about the battlefield. A previous study by the National Park Service completed in 2001 listed building a visitors center near the battlefield as the preFerred alternative. Jason Lyon, resource manager for the Nez Perce National Historic Park, said the main reason building a center was not selected as the preferred alternative was because the tribes associated with the battlefield oppose building major structures at the site due to its cultural and religious significance to the tribes. Supporters of building a center at the battlefield said a private site is available for building such a center, which would be off of the actual site and out of view, with a short walk from the center leading to the main site overlooking the battle site. Stuart MacKenzie, president of the board of the Blaine County Museum, said building a visitors center at the battlefield is crucial to the success of the site. As well as potentially bringing more visitors to the site, the visitors center would help tell the story of the battlefield and of the Nez Perce's 1,400-mile trek toward Canada in 1877, he said. Donald Ranstrom of Chinook agreed. “They made just an amazing journey, and this is the end of that journey,” he said. “It is a crying shame, it is a sin, that this is the only thing not being told (on the trail),” he said. Ranstrom also read a letter signed by the three Blaine County commissioners, who could not attend the meeting, written in support of building a visitors center near the battlefield. Bear Paw Battlefield, 16 miles south of Chinook and about 40 miles south of Canada, was the end of the journey for the Nez Perce and their Cayuse and Paluse allies. The journey of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce began nearly 15 years after the U.S. government in 1863 ordered the reservation reduced to one-tenth its previous size. After years of refusing to leave their native land, the band began in 1877 to travel to the smaller reservation. While en route, a group of Nez Perce raided a white settlement and the U.S. Army began pursuing Chief Joseph's band. The Nez Perce fled, beginning a 1,400-mile journey through Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. The three-month journey included the band of about 700, including 200 warriors, fighting some 2,000 U.S. soldiers and Indian auxiliaries in four major battles and numerous skirmishes. On Sept. 29, 1877, the Nez Perce camped about 40 miles south of Canada in the Bears Paw Mountains. The next day, the U.S. soldiers attacked the camp, beginning a five-day battle that ended with Joseph's surrender to the Army in the last major battle in the Plains Indian wars. Supporters of building a visitors center at the battlefield none of the people attending Tuesday's meeting spoke against it said a site of the significance of Bear Paw Battlefield needs to have a center to tell the story of the battle and of the flight of the Nez Perce. “You don't do service to it with what's there now, and you don't tell the Nez Perce story with what's there now,” said Jude Sheppard of the Blaine County Museum. Tim Nitz, Oregon-Washington unit manager for the National Park Service, said he regularly communicates with the tribes associated with the battlefield, and he does not know that they are interested in having their story told in that way. “Yes, they want their story told,” he said. “I'm not certain they trust anyone else (to tell it).” MacKenzie said the new environmental assessment ignores the work done in the 2001 assessment, including the option of building a center on privately owned land just off the boundary of the battlefield. “This report is not mentioned,” he said. Somers said the 2001 environmental assessment was not used because it is not a valid document for at least two reasons the report was not signed by the regional National Parks director, as is required, and the Indian tribes associated with the park have said they were not formally consulted in its creation, as is required. Bob Inman of Chinook, a supporter of the visitors center and treasurer of the Friends of the Bear Paw, Big Hole and Canyon Creek Battlefields, said he thought everything was set to build a visitors center on land just off the site of the battlefield. “I thought it was done,” Inman said. “I thought everything was a go. I couldn't believe it.” Henry Gordon, who owns the land where the center was proposed to be built in the 2001 assessment, said he still is willing to negotiate an easement with the park Ssrvice to build a center there. He said he has been in negotiations with the agency for 15 years, but the negotiations always go off track with the park service representatives straying from that idea to talk about other property Gordon owns adjacent to the battlefield. Somers said he was not aware that the negotiations with Gordon included the possibility of an off-site easement for a visitors center. Those negotiations are done by a different branch of the park service, he said. “The park service can be a many-headed agency,” he said. Somers urged everyone with a comment on the environmental assessment to submit those comments, but they must be submitted in writing, either by mail or by e-mail. Park service representatives at the meeting said the process is still in its early stages and the preferred alternative could change with sufficient reason given. Somers said comments could be submitted to his e-mail, but must include “comments on Bear Paw Battlefield EA” in the subject line. Somers gave his e-mail address for submission of comments as [email protected]. Comments can be mailed to: Gary Somers, superintendent; Perce National Historical Park; Attn.: Improve Visitor Services at Bear Paw Battlefield; P.O. Box 1000; Lapwai, ID 83540.