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