One More Casualty at Little Bighorn?

A battlefield in southern Montana details the fall of George Custer, the end of the American Indians’ way of life, and the crippling decline of the Park Service budget.


By Scott Kirkwood


Deep in south-central Montana, just off Route 212, lies Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, the site where 263 soldiers from the U.S. Army's 7th Cavalry fought thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors in June of 1876, a battle commonly referred to as “Custer’s Last Stand.” In 1874, when gold was discovered in South Dakota's Black Hills—the heart of the Great Sioux reservation—thousands of prospectors swarmed into the region. Eventually, the Lakota and Cheyenne left the reservation and started raiding settlements on the fringes of their land. The commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered the tribes to return to the reservation, and when they didn’t comply, the army was called in to enforce the order. The park tells the story of Lt. Col. George A. Custer’s fight against Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Lame White Man, and Two Moons, who won the two-day battle but would soon lose the war to preserve their way of life.

Nearly 140 years later, the Park Service is struggling to tell that story. Here in the shadow of Yellowstone, Little Bighorn faces a painful number of funding challenges, revealed in a Park Service report from 2010: “The 58-year-old visitor center is too outdated and cramped to comprehensively convey one of the most important stories in American history and Plains Indian history. The monument’s roads and parking lot are in bad shape and woefully inadequate for today’s traffic. Thousands of artifacts and documents stored at the site are poorly protected.”

An illustration of just how bad things got: Last June, park employees hurriedly grabbed artifacts including soldiers’ uniforms and letters signed by President Lincoln, barely saving them from water pouring down the basement walls as the Little Bighorn River crested its banks. Now those icons of American history sit in a storage facility in Tucson, Arizona, where park visitors, tribe members, and researchers have little opportunity to lay eyes on them.

Little Bighorn is one of the smaller park units in the system, but its impact on the region’s economy is significant. Park Service data from 2008 show that the site generated 187 jobs in the region and $10 million for local businesses. “More than 300,000 people visit this monument annually… and these people purchase fuel, food, souvenirs, and accommodations in [local communities],” says John Brewer, executive director of the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce. “If the monument were to be closed, or if it no longer had the ability to meet the needs of its visitors, the impact to the local economy could be severe.”

“This is a huge piece of America’s cultural tapestry, yet the park is a poster child for funding shortfalls affecting all of our national parks,” says Tim Stevens, director of NPCA’s Northern Rockies region. “Back in 2003, NPCA issued a report on Little Bighorn and found some very troubling issues relating to the condition of the park. Unfortunately, almost ten years later, most, if not all of those issues have yet to be addressed.” And that’s unlikely to change anytime soon, given the nation’s broader economic challenges.

“Although our country is facing worrisome deficits and a struggling economy, in the case of our national parks, we don’t need to choose between austerity and jobs,” says John Garder, budget and appropriations legislative representative for NPCA. “The parks are proven economic engines that constitute only one-thirteenth of one percent of the federal budget. Recent polls show national parks are among the most popular federal benefits and that people want them funded, yet they could be further damaged if they are neglected during the current budget debate.”

Meanwhile, a tourism task force appointed by President Obama just released a report encouraging federal agencies to work with the private sector to welcome 100 million international visitors to the United States, in the hope that they would spend as much as $250 billion annually by the end of 2021. The task force, which includes representatives from the Departments of Interior, Commerce, Treasury, and Labor, points out that park rangers are among America’s most recognizable and beloved public figures and notes that “when travelers visit a federally-managed site—such as a national park, refuge, marine sanctuary, or forest—the U.S. government gains a unique opportunity to create an unforgettable experience.” True enough. But if park budgets are slashed, those experiences may be unforgettable for entirely different reasons.

“If we’re going to invite international travelers to visit our parks, we need to make sure there are rangers there to greet them,” says Garder. “Little Bighorn is a great example of the disrepair that impacts the tourism experience, and it’s symptomatic of the $11 billion maintenance backlog that threatens the resources people come to enjoy. Unless Congress can find a way to address across-the-board spending cuts scheduled for January, parks will get an unprecedented 8-9 percent cut, which would mean a damaging reduction in park rangers. It’s just good economic sense to focus on the assets that draw people who invest in our economy, while supporting the countless businesses located near so many national parks.”

Last November, NPCA published Made in America, a report that identifies threats to specific parks like Little Bighorn and the possibility of even more dire consequences if Congress cuts the Park Service budget yet again, as many fear. (Learn more at www.npca.org/madeinamerica.) Want to get involved? Sign up for NPCA’s activist alerts at www.npca.org/takeaction and contact your senators and representative directly, urging them to preserve park funding.

SIDEBAR

“When the visitor center was built in 1952, about 100,000 people visited the park every year. But visitation has tripled since then, currently averaging about 300,000 people per year. The park has no auditorium or large meeting room, and until 2008 it used a dingy basement storage room to show the park film; that practice was stopped because the space wasn’t handicapped accessible and it posed safety issues. To hear a ranger program, visitors gather on a patio that’s not big enough to hold typical seasonal crowds of 100 to 150 people.”

SOURCE: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument: Critical Issues and Opportunities for the 21st Century, National Park Service, 2010.

Scott Kirkwood is editor-in-chief of National Parks Magazine.

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