Battlefield visitor center

The visitor center at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is a cinderblock building constructed in 1952. A National Park Service Environmental Assessment calls for construction of a new visitor center in the footprint of the existing one as well as the return of tens of thousands of battlefield artifacts.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

A plan for the future of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument includes the National Park Service’s preference for building a new 10,600-square-foot visitor center on the footprint of the current center and bringing back some if not all of the tens of thousands of battlefield artifacts now being stored for safekeeping in Tucson, Arizona.

Park officials are accepting comments on the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument General Management Plan Amendment and Environmental Assessment through Jan. 4, 2018. The only scheduled meeting on the EA will be held via a conference call from 2 p.m. through 4 p.m. Dec. 14. Phone 866-714-0783 and use participant code 4244998#.

“Right now we are in the information-gathering stage. We want to hear anything we may or may not be aware of,” said Wayne Challoner, superintendent at the Little Bighorn Battlefield monument for the past month. “We are trying to see if we can go in and rebuild in the same footprint with a new and better-designed facility. Getting those artifacts back has always been the goal.”

There’s no construction timetable in the plan, and there’s no guarantee that funding will be available.

"We want to make sure the public buys in on what we are trying to do," Challoner said.

According to the plan, the decision to move artifacts to the park service’s Western Archaeological and Conservation Center in Tucson was “strongly opposed” by tribal members “who felt the move would disconnect their attachment to items of cultural importance associated with the battlefield site. … Restoring the trust relationship is essential to future park management and cooperation and consultation with the tribes and other stakeholders.”

The NPS says it’s committed to returning the collections to the monument “and providing secure on-site curatorial storage.”

The preferred alternative would bring an end to the current summertime practice of up to 200 visitors at a time squeezing together to hear a ranger deliver a talk beneath a partial overhang outside the visitor center.

Rebuilding in the footprint of the existing visitor center would give visitors an “‘entry experience,’ which includes seeing key elements of the battlefield from the visitor center’s windows and patios and creating a place-based context for their visit," the plan states.

Before the visitor center is demolished and rebuilt, an interim remodel of the current visitor center would provide for updated interim exhibits, including the removal and relocation of existing objects and new exhibit construction and installation.

The plan states it’s possible that a 7,000-square-foot collections facility will be built near the existing administration building.

Five alternatives were considered and then dismissed:

  • Leasing a new visitor center and museum storage facility in the Garryowen area. The plan calls this alternative “unreasonably expensive.”
  • Leasing facilities in the Reno Creek Road area. These modifications “would present the history of the battle chronologically but would be costly,” the plan states.
  • Building facilities on Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee land. The 11 percent grades on the site “far exceed” the normal construction threshold of 5 percent.
  • Locating administrative offices outside the park. Plan writers eliminated this alternative “because of technical and economic infeasibility.”
  • Leasing facilities as part of the proposed Montana Department of Transportation “Battlefield Rest Area.” The rest area is conceptual until MDT and the Crow Tribe sign a lease agreement. The park “has a compelling need to move forward to address its issues, and this alternative may or may not proceed in the near future,” the document states.

Visitation at Little Bighorn has been up in recent years — from about 278,000 in 2013 to more than 332,000 in 2016, an increase of almost 20 percent.

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