Forest Service considers closure of Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center

The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center overlooks the Missouri River from atop a limestone bluff within sight of the fifth falls that tried to block the explorers’ cross-country trek. (Jenn Rowell/The Electric)

The U.S. Forest Service is apparently considering the closure of its once-vaunted Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center in Great Falls after budget cuts decimated the museum’s staff and volunteer program.

But city and county officials in Great Falls say they’ve been excluded from the discussion and are demanding answers from the agency.

Same come the complaints from the Lewis and Clark Foundation.

Figures from the Forest Service show a $30,000 cut in the center’s operating budget this fiscal year and another $113,000 in the next fiscal year. Where a 12-person staff once managed the 25,000-square-foot exhibit hall, the employee count now stands at 2.75.

The volunteer program has also been cut – from 120 to about 55, a counterintuitive move as funding declined, many believe.

Last week, the Cascade County commissioners sent a letter to Bill Avey, forest supervisor of the combined Lewis and Clark and Helena national forests, formally requesting information on the museum’s status.

“We are writing to express serious concerns about the management and future” of the center, they wrote.

The museum has seen at least five directors/managers in the last seven years, commissioners said.

“Management has not aggressively sought a permanent solution to dwindling budgets, staff and programs,” they continued. “At best, this is poor leadership on the part of the Forest Service, especially when there were many opportunities to engage willing partners. The proposed plan for a part-time manager from the supervisor’s office speaks volumes as to the further marginalization of the center. Indeed, it appears that the center is being managed for eventual closure.”

Then last Friday, Forest Service officials held a meeting with staff and volunteers, but County Commissioner Jane Weber said the commissioners weren’t invited.

Weber played a key role in fundraising, management and construction of the $6 million interpretive center prior to its grand opening in May 1998. At the time, it was among the most-heralded of the interpretive projects undertaken in advance of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s bicentennial.

Jay Russell, director of the Lewis and Clark Foundation, said that during Friday’s meeting, Forest Service officials discussed options for the future ranging from maintaining the status quo to partial or complete closure.

No one from the agency returned The Electric’s calls seeking details about the plans.

Closure hadn’t been mentioned as an option in previous discussions about the growing budget constraints, Russell said, and “that rattled a few people. Just the fact that they’re talking about it and that upcoming budget cuts are worse. They said the word closure this year, what does next year bring?”

“Clearly, the center will see an accelerated decline with such an appalling level of staffing, affecting everything from programs, exhibits, marking, school programs and facility maintenance,” the county commissioners wrote in their letter.

“In a time when staffing levels are being reduced, we would at least expect volunteer recruitment efforts to have expanded, not reduced by things such as fewer volunteer newsletters and socials, which speaks to the lack of importance accorded to this important contingent,” they said.

Commissioners noted that they’ve been made aware the Forest Service is considering several management options for the center, all without involving local partners or the Great Falls community in the discussion.

That comes in stark contrast to the community’s longstanding involvement in the interpretive center, including the $3.6 million in private and non-federal public money that went into the center’s construction.

In fact, the Lewis and Clark Foundation was pursuing a public-private partnership to take over management of the facility in 2010, but the Forest Service wasn’t receptive, according to the county commissioners.

The foundation still wants some sort of public-private partnership to ensure the center’s continued operation, its director said.

“This is not going to get any better; in fact, it will probably get worse,” Russell said, “so we need to get together and figure this out. They need to give us a plan. We don’t really know where they’re going. We need to hear from them and see how best to react and figure out how to help.”

According to county commissioners, Sen. Jon Tester was supportive of the public-private partnership in 2010 and was ready to introduce legislation to make it happen.

In a statement to The Electric on Monday, Tester said: “I will continue to take direction and input from the folks on the ground. The Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center highlights Cascade County and Montana’s prominent place in America’s history and supports the local economy. As the Forest Service faces tough budgetary times, it’s important that Montana kids and visitors can still learn from the legacy of Lewis and Clark.”

When the center was built, Cascade County, the city of Great Falls and the state of Montana all contributed $200,000 each and the community helped raise $3 million to meet a federal match.

“The community needs to have a seat at the table in determining the future of the center,” Russell said. “We really haven’t had that.”