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Kate Hammond On Expansion


By Lorna Thackeray

Webmaster's Note: This article appeared in the February 24, 2009 issue of the "Billings Gazette."

Kate Hammond, new superintendent at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, knows her way around the Alaska wilderness and the halls of Congress.

In a 14-year career with the National Park Service, the Yale-educated New England native has served as a backcountry ranger in Denali National Park in Alaska, as chief of interpretation at Amistad National Recreation Area in Texas and as a ranger at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico and Walden Pond State Park in Massachusetts.

Most recently, she worked in Washington, D.C., in a congressional fellowship program, an assignment that meant working on the staff of the House National Resources Committee for a year and spending a second year working in the Park Service Director's Office of Legislative and Congressional Affairs.

But what makes her uniquely qualified to tackle the prickly issues and relationships that have clung to Little Bighorn Battlefield since the historic clash of the 7th Cavalry and an alliance of Sioux and Cheyenne June 25, 1876, is her extensive experience as a project manager. Her resume includes stints as project manager for construction of complex projects throughout the West, including Grand Canyon and Glacier national parks and Point Reyes National Seashore. She was planner and project manager at Harpers Ferry Center in West Virginia and worked with the Cheyenne and Arapaho to develop the first general management plan and a visitor center at Washita Battlefield National Historic Site in Oklahoma.

Hammond has her work cut out for her in moving the park beyond the tangle of issues and complications that have limited the park's ability to accommodate visitors and do justice to park resources and the story of the nation's most famous and controversial Indian Wars battlefield.

In the month since assuming management of the national battlefield situated on the Crow Reservation, Hammond said, she has been learning the ropes - getting to know staff, neighbors, battle historians, tribal leaders and others with a stake in its future.

"The last month has been spent laying the groundwork before getting out and tackling the major issues," she said.

Visitor Center Issues

The major issue of her tenure will likely be the visitor center, a 60-year-old structure inadequate to handle hundreds of thousands of summer visitors and which sits obtrusively in the heart of the battle ground.

An interim plan by retired Superintendent Darrell Cook to expand the existing visitor center drew the ire of historians and former Park Service officials last year. They said that expansion of the visitor center would further intrude on the historic site and would serve to delay implementation of the 1986 General Management Plan.

That plan called for adding about 11,000 acres of land to the 640 acres owned by the National Park Service and construction of a new visitor center in the Little Bighorn Valley below. Part of the objective was to move the visitor center off the battlefield itself and put it near where the battle began instead of at Last Stand Hill, where it ended.

Under pressure from opponents of the interim visitor center expansion, the Park Service backed off Cook's plan, and no steps were taken to improve visitor conditions. Cook had hoped the expansion would resolve problems with handicap access, as well provide an all-weather space for ranger talks that now take place on a small, often noisy, outdoor patio.

"Those problems haven't gone away," Hammond said. "We need to take a look at the visitor center again and see what we can do to improve the visitor's experience."

One of the things she will be looking at is the 1986 General Management Plan.

"People have been working on the plan for 23 years, but there has not been a lot of success," she said. "I need to spend some time looking at it. The logical question is 'Is that still the right vision for the park?' "

Asked if money from President Barack Obama's stimulus package might be available for a new visitor center, Hammond said it is unlikely.

"They are looking for things that are shovel-ready," she said. "That's not one that's shovel-ready."

It's not just a question of money, she said. Although the land targeted in the 1986 plan has been purchased for the benefit of the National Park Service by the nonprofit Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee, it would take congressional action to expand the borders of the park, she said. The Crow Tribe's views would have to be considered before approaching Congress, she said. The tribe has opposed expanding park boundaries in the past.

New Projects, Programs

Little Bighorn does have one shovel-ready project - rebuilding the tour road from the main battlefield to the Reno-Benteen battlefield a few miles away. The project plan is complete, but funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation was not expected to be available until at least 2011.

Hammond said she is not sure what to expect this summer with the economy threatening the tourist season. But she intends to work with the Hardin and Billings chambers of commerce. Plans are in the works to improve the park's Web site and to implement a cell phone tour that will guide visitors from station to station as they tour the park. Those projects are being directed by Ken Woody, chief of interpretation.

He is also putting together a program called "Teacher, Ranger, Teacher." The program, initiated last year at the battlefield, allows teachers to work in various capacities for eight weeks during the summer and take their experiences back to the classroom. The teachers don't become Park Service employees, but a small stipend is provided. Last year, one teacher participated. This year, two teachers may be accepted into the program.

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