What Should be Done with Little Bighorn VC?

Little Bighorn BattlefieldThe National Park Service is more than just the big wide open wilderness areas of familiar places like Yosemite or Yellowstone. The Park Service are also the caretakers of many important historic sites around our country. One of those sites is the Little Bighorn Battlefield, commonly known as the site of Custer's Last Stand. I had a chance to visit a couple years ago. It was a very moving experience.

One of the surprising things about the park is that the visitor center is right in the middle of the battlefield. As I approached the front door, I could see a collection of tombstones only a very short distance away. It's quite an introduction to the story of the battle. The visitor center itself was really nothing special though. It felt pretty dated. To watch the orientation video, you have to leave through a side entrance, and then go down into the basement area where they have a shortened PBS production of the battle. The experience is very awkward.

So now there is talk of expanding the visitor center. But, before that is done, there are a lot of folks who want to just start all over again, to tear down the current structure and build a modern VC in a different location. A lot of people feel that the current visitor center location is an intrusion into the heart of the sensitive battlefield. On the other side, the argument is that the emotional impact of the battle can only be communicated if visitors are right there, within view of the final resting place of these warriors. My feeling is this: create a nice big modern visitor center away from the battlefield, and then provide a shuttle bus to the battleground. There is already an excellent paved trail and interpretive signs in place, perfect for a walking tour that can be done at your own pace. Let visitors stand at the crest of the hill and look out across the central-southern Montana landscape the way the warriors may have seen it, free from modern man-made buildings. Of course, as with many projects in the Park Service, money may be the detail that controls the outcome of this story.

There is an in-depth article about this issue in the Billings Gazette, which can be read here:
Battlefield debate pits crowds vs. preservation