By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The National Park Service is closing in on its goal to build a visitor center and park ranger office near the Bear Paw Battlefield south of Chinook.
National Park Service ranger Robert West said negotiations to transfer ownership of the 160-acre battlefield from the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to the National Park Service are on track and could be completed this month.
"We feel we're very close," West said.
The transfer is on the agenda of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission meeting this week.
Bonnie Weber, secretary of the Chinook Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber members are excited about the progress toward building a center.
"I think in the last year or year and a half or so we've seen more progress than we've seen in the 15 years I've owned my business here," she said.
Weber said the increased number of tourists attracted by the center would help Chinook.
"I don't think we could go wrong," she said.
The center would provide information about the battlefield and a starting point for the tour. The building also would enable the ranger to work full time at the site, West said. The ranger's office is now in Chinook.
"This is not a Smithsonian museum-type endeavor," West said. "It's really designed to complement the battlefield and the experience on the battlefield."
Once a facility is built, it could significantly increase visitors to the battlefield, he added. After a visitors center was built at Big Hole Battlefield, another Nez Perce Trail battlefield, the annual visitors increased from about 15,000 to 30,000, and that battlefield now receives about 60,000 visitors a year.
West said building a center, for which the Park Service has selected a preliminary design, will need to follow National Environmental Policy Act procedures. That will require conducting an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement to find impacts on the environment and cultural and historical items and areas.
If an environmental assessment is done, the study could be completed next year, West said. If it requires a more extensive EIS, it could take a bit longer.
The Park Service wants to place the center on about 20 acres adjacent to the battlefield, West said. The Park Service is negotiating with a private land owner to buy the land.
Calling the facility a visitors center is probably a misnomer, he said.
"The number one goal of this is resource protection," he said.
As well as providing an office for the ranger, the center will house displays, a small library and an audio-visual center. West said the main displays will continue to be at the Blaine County Museum in Chinook.
The battlefield, about 16 miles south of Chinook, was the end of a 1,300-mile journey by the Nez Perce starting in Idaho in 1877.
The U.S. government took back much of the tribe's reservation following the discovery of gold there in 1863. But some members of the tribe, including Chief Joseph and his father, Joseph the Elder, refused to leave their native Wallowa Valley.
In 1877, after Gen. Otis Howard threatened a cavalry assault to force the Nez Perce out of the valley, and a small band of Nez Perce raided a settlement and killed several white people, the tribe's leaders began a trek across Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. About 200 warriors and 500 others successfully fought and evaded about 2,000 members of the U.S. Cavalry for three months.
Just 40 miles from their goal, the army attacked the Nez Perce camp on Sept. 30, 1877. After a five-day siege Chief Joseph surrendered to Gen. Nelson Miles.
Joseph gave a famous speech, in which he told other Nez Perce leaders before their surrender, "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."