New Battle at the Little Bighorn
Planned “Temporary” Visitor Center in Center of Battlefield Draws Historians’ Ire
Washington, DC — A plan to build an expanded visitor center at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana has sparked heated opposition from historians, two former park superintendents and conservation groups. This week, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (CNPSR) have asked NPS Director Mary Bomar to halt the plan and review its appropriateness, legality and impact on the historic battlefield.
Under the plan, an enclosed theater seating 200 people would be built at the base of Last Stand Hill, site of the climax of the 1876 battle in which General George Armstrong Custer and five companies of the 7th Cavalry were wiped out. On April 23, 2008, the National Park Service cleared the project for construction, slated to begin as early as this summer.
Although the site is now occupied in part by a patio attached to the current visitor center, the expansion has drawn heavyweight opposition, led by former NPS Chief Historian Robert Utley, because it would –
- Occupy the heart of the battlefield and intrude on the historic landscape;
- Contradict the 1986 General Management Plan (GMP) for the park which envisions a new visitor center near where the battle started and out of the battle sightlines; and
- Violate the philosophy of historic preservation embodied by the much-praised new visitor center at Gettysburg, which does not visually intrude on the cultural landscape.
“While the NPS contends that this building would only be a stopgap measure, inadequate temporary structures have a tendency to be left in place for decades,” said Bill Wade, Executive Council Chair of the CNPSR, noting that a private group led by a former Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument superintendent has already purchased lands and raised funds for the new visitor center envisioned by the GMP. “This plan makes the current situation much worse and gets in the way of what should be done.”
As recently as last year, the National Park Service itself conceded that the project would have an “adverse impact” on the battlefield but reversed that finding without explanation. In addition, according to a legal analysis by PEER, the plan appears to be at odds with the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and the Service’s own Management Policies.
“The latest Park Service finding that this project would have ‘no significant impact’ does not stand up to scrutiny,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, pointing to NPS policies that are supposed to prevent the agency from putting itself between visitors and the park resource. “A theater to display an NPS-produced film should not be in the middle of the very battlefield it is supposed to preserve.”
The PEER letter also asks Director Bomar to suspend the project in order to avoid litigation.