The Billings Outpost

Bighorn gets $1 million to bring artifacts back

By ED KEMMICK - LastBestNews.com

LITTLE BIGHORN BATTLEFIELD – Denice Swanke has a lot on her plate as superintendent of the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, but she said there is no question what is most important to her superiors in the National Park Service.

They want her to figure out some way of bringing home the battlefield’s invaluable collection of archives and artifacts. Safety concerns prompted the removal of the 150,000-item collection to Arizona three years ago.

“That will be my No. 1 priority as long as I’m here, because those were my marching orders,” Swanke said Tuesday.

Her superiors are giving her something besides marching orders. Swanke said the Park Service recently approved a request for $1 million to plan for the return of the collection.

That funding request was submitted by David Harrington, who served as interim superintendent between the departure of Kate Hammond in March 2012 and Swanke’s arrival in October of that year.

Swanke said she hopes to use the money to study any options that would make possible the return of part or all of the collection. The funds would be used for environmental studies, travel for consultation with Indian tribes and preparatory work by engineers, architects and other professionals.

The collection, which includes documents, books, clothing, flags, guns, gear, photographs, shell casings and Indian artifacts and sacred items, used to be housed in the basement of the battlefield’s small, 70-year-old visitor center.

When Hammond announced in 2011 that the collection would be moved to the Western Archaeological and Conservation Center in Tucson, she said it was being done “because of the potential for irreversible deterioration of items or catastrophic loss by fire or flood in its present, substandard location.”

There was no fire protection system in the basement, no special climate controls, no access for people with disabilities. It was also very cramped, and exposed plumbing presented the possibility of water damage.

In Tucson, the collection is being thoroughly inventoried for the first time. Swanke showed an Accession Receiving Report that is supposed to be completed for each object, listing, among other things, its condition, where it came from and whether it needed any preservation work.

“Someone’s sitting down there going through this process for every single item in the collection,” she said.

The next step for Swanke is to obtain permission from the Park Service’s regional office in Denver to amend the battlefield’s General Management Plan, drawn up in 1986. She would need to obtain that permission to explore most of the options on the table.

One is to renovate a portion of the battlefield’s administrative offices, downhill from the visitor center, to house all or some of the collection, at least temporarily. Long-term options include working with the Montana Department of Transportation and the Crow Tribe, which are exploring the possibility of building a rest area and Crow museum just north of the battlefield across Highway 212 on tribal land.

Swanke said she has been talking with both parties about building a facility there to house the battlefield collection, but the state and tribe are on track to proceed with their plans, including an independent Crow museum, with or without the Park Service.

Another possibility would be to lease a building in Hardin to house the collection. Also still alive is the proposal at the heart of the original management plan, to demolish the existing visitor center on Last Stand Hill and build a new center, with a museum and collection storage area, down in the Little Bighorn Valley near Garryowen, where the battle began.

But that option would involve expanding the park from 765 acres to many thousands of acres. The Custer Battlefield Preservation Committee owns or controls 3,500 acres on or around the battlefield and would like to donate it to the Park Service someday. But the Crow Tribe has resisted that proposal, and the donated land could not be accepted without an act of Congress.

Swanke said she just wants to get Park Service approval for changing the management plan so she can start involving the public in the planning process.

“I want to get to the point where we throw something out there,” she said.

Some previous proposals didn’t involve “robust” public participation and tribal consultation, Swanke said, but she promised that this planning process will.

Mike O’Keefe, of Placitas, N.M., president of the Custer Battlefield Historical and Museum Association, said he has been impressed by Swanke, especially her commitment to return the artifacts and archives.

“We’re very excited that Denice is really on top of this and working to get them back,” he said. “We think she’s the right woman. She’s very savvy.”

Jim Court, of Billings, a former battlefield superintendent who is active in the preservation committee, worries that the Park Service might not have the money to bring the collection home, which he said would be a big mistake.

“The collection is just sitting in Tucson and really nobody has any access to it,” he said. He said there are just four people there overseeing an enormous collection of documents and artifacts from 71 parks in the Western United States.

Another priority for Swanke is to start rotating items from the visitor center’s small exhibit cases to the facility in Arizona, and bringing in new items from there. That was to have been done soon after the relocation of the collection, she said, because certain items like fabrics and leather are not supposed to remain on display too long.

But with so many other unmet needs at the battlefield, the rotation never began. Swanke hopes to have an orderly rotation in place by the end of this year.

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 March 2014 18:30

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Lacrosse growing fast here

By MARTIN MULL - For The Outpost

Germinated a scant three years ago, the Billings Scorpions Lacrosse Club sprouts in our community, thanks largely to the Pied Piper lead from a young man who tired of counting hotel receipts and walking his black Lab up on the Rims.

Blake Wahrlich co-founded the local club in 2011. He serves as its president – his duties include adding up an ever-expanding number of lacrosse players and teams.

Beginning April 12, the Scorpions will play host to their annual lacrosse jamboree held at Daylis Stadium and Amend Park. More than 30 youth teams in various age categories from around Montana, along with Wyoming and North Dakota clubs, come into town to participate in the three-day event. This includes boys and girls competition, ages 11-15, along with high school-aged matches.

Prior to 2011, Billings had no lacrosse presence. Nada. Zilch. Wahrlich, who had come to Billings a few years earlier to handle the books at his father’s downtown Best Western Clock Tower Inn, sought activity away from the office to occupy his time. Along with his dad, Stephen, Brynn Schwarz and Michelle Kern, Wahrlich formed the blue and orange Scorpions lacrosse club, a nonprofit group.

“I was just bored,” Wahrlich said when asked how the group got off the ground. “I used to take my dog (Bell) up to the Rims, and play fetch (using a lacrosse stick and ball) or would play some with a friend here or there. I just realized I wanted to bring lacrosse into this community. I have a passion for the game.” And he knew the game.

Wahrlich spent part of his youth in New Jersey, where he was introduced to lacrosse in sixth grade. His family moved to the San Francisco, Calif., area when he was a sophomore in high school. Nuts then about lacrosse from living on the East Coast (where the game’s popularity is greatest), Wahrlich and a buddy started their own local club in the East Bay area.

By the time they were seniors, their high school had a varsity lacrosse squad. And the local club the boys started, The Diablo Scorpions, eventually grew to 650 members.

He later played four years of collegiate club-level lacrosse at Chico State University (Calif.). So the 30-year-old has been around the block with this lacrosse club-starting endeavor.

In addition, Wahrlich spent a year in England after college developing physical education programs in public schools. While there, he also coached men’s lacrosse with the England Lacrosse Association before coming back to the U.S. to work in his family’s hotel business, which has operated in town since 1967.

Wahrlich taught from the beginning the skills and strategies of the game, not to mention proper stick and athletic cup sizes (the game’s balls are very hard, and goalies need added protection) – all the way down to wearing the zany, colorful shorts lacrosse players proudly display – to a community that, for the most part, was totally ignorant about the game. 

But Wahrlich sensed the game could appeal to a niche of Billings youth. It has. It’s a mix of hockey and soccer, with elements of football and basketball. The game is fast. 

Lacrossers boast it’s the fastest game on two feet. Up and down the field continuous action, more rapid than soccer, but with almost as many players – ten to a side with boys, and the girls play 12 aside. Depending on where the ball is on the field, action is there for all, not too much idleness, like that Little Leaguer stuck out in right field.

And the boys’ game is physical. Once players reach the teenage levels, they can hit, or check, each other (there’s no checking in girl’s lacrosse). Boys will be boys. It adds to the interest. Gear includes gloves, elbow pads, helmets, even football-like shoulder pads.

Ian Quinn is a junior at Skyview High School. He runs cross-country, so his aerobic lungs are ideal assets for the lacrosse midfielder who constantly motions up and down the field helping out on offense and defense. But teamwork attracted Quinn to the game.

“In cross-country you’re part of a team, but you are not really working together. You run by yourself,” the 17-year old said. “In lacrosse, you can’t win unless we work together as a team.”

Quinn was introduced to lacrosse by Will Stephenson, a Skyview senior, who’s been part of Billings lacrosse for three years and hopes to play at the University of Montana after high school. He notes that players come in all sizes.

“You don’t have to be the biggest or the strongest athlete around to play lacrosse, because finesse is a big strength in this game,” said Stephenson, who plays the goal-scoring attacker position and played two years of high school football before turning to lacrosse. “And being smart, playing smart, is such a big part of the game.”

Stephenson captains one of the two high school-level teams in the city, the East team (the West being the other). Perhaps the biggest thrill he gets out of Billings club lacrosse is being part of something new in the city, with a sport that’s rapidly grown since he began with Coach Wahrlich from the inception back in 2011.

Lacroix Plainfeather is in his second year of lacrosse. He says he knew the game originated from Native Americans, and being part Crow and Cheyenne, he believed there was no reason he couldn’t be good at the game. But what really attracted the 225-pounder to the game are the licks he can lay on opponents from his defensive position.

The Skyview senior hopes to go to welding school after high school.

Looking at the upperclassmen, one can see they’re all athletic, and could, or have, played other sports. But they were all drawn to this new sport of lacrosse and say Coach Wahrlich is a big reason why.

Scorpion players cite their trust and respect for the coach’s knowledge of the game. He has a passion to make them better. He’s always around to teach the honorable way to play a physical game, where sticks can be mistaken for weapons. He’s a clear communicator, but a patient one, knowing his kids haven’t played this sport for years, unlike, perhaps, baseball or volleyball.

And the players get all involved, no matter the athletic skill. They learn how to secure financial aid to purchase necessary equipment that’s an expense for the new, or to help defray registration costs.

They’re but three of the 114 youngsters, including 14 girls, who now make up the Billings Scorpions Lacrosse Club. The club has three boys age groups beginning at age 11, in addition to high school-level competition that now includes two city teams. There’s a full competition schedule that begins in early March and runs until June.

The high schoolers will play at least 10 other teams from around the state, including ones in Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Missoula and Whitefish.  Missoula’s Hellgate is tops in the state; the Scorpions seek to reach their level.

Last year Wahrlich helped start the YMCA Pop Lacrosse program for kids under the age of 10.  And only recently, students at the University of Montana Billings have approached him to start a club program at the college. “Just get a stick in their hands,” he likes to say.

And remember, just over three years ago there was no lacrosse in Billings.  It was as foreign  as curling or cricket.

The Billings Scorpion Lacrosse Club’s website has information about how to become involved with youth lacrosse. Created and maintained, of course, by Coach Wahrlich.

Last Updated on Thursday, 20 March 2014 18:28

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Musselshell flooding again

By WILBUR WOOD - For The Outpost

Riverside is an old dance hall turned into a café called the Stage Stop, and is also the name of the cluster of houses that begins next to the dance hall and runs north from the Musselshell River a couple of miles outside Roundup. It’s an area susceptible to flooding, most recently remaining waterlogged for weeks during the unprecedented flood in late May and June 2011.

Now, nearly three years later, the Musselshell was in flood again. Highway 12 west, toward Lavina and other towns upriver, was already closed. This late winter flood of 2014 had come on almost as abruptly as the one in late spring 2011. And again, most Riverside residents had been forced to button up their homes as best they could and abandon them, joined by others living in the nearby lower-lying areas of Roundup.

Elizabeth and I, like most Roundup residents, live on higher ground above the flood plain, but to travel a highway any direction but north, everyone has to drive through the floodplain. We were scheduled to cross the Musselshell and get to Billings to catch a plane on March 11. However, by March 10 National Guard personnel were gathering as waters began to lick the edges of that road, so we hastened our packing and managed to scoot by and cross the river lest the road be closed as it had been, off and on, for three weeks in 2011.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s gauge for this part of the river is at Riverside. At this site when it reads 10 feet, the river is in flood. The high point of the 2011 flood came on May 26, when the reading was 14.78 feet— the highest ever measured at this point in the valley.

This winter, 2014, periods of freezing (sometimes very deep freezing) and snow have alternated with warming and melting. At the end of February the Roundup area had lots of snow, and only gradual warming, and USGS measurements show the river running with little variation at one and a half feet until Friday, March 7, when the air had warmed enough for snow to melt and flow and the river to begin a steep rise.

From 1 ½  to 4 feet by the end of March 7. From 4 to 6 feet on Saturday the eighth, then on Sunday the ninth all the way up to 12 feet. As I write this, Monday evening, the 10th, using a friend’s computer in Billings, Highway 87 is closed to all but emergency travel – and may soon be closed, period – with the water level at Riverside standing above 13 feet.

That places this event third in a list of floods measured by the USGS at Riverside since 1946: the 2011 flood at 14.78 feet; an event March 3, 1979, which topped out at 13.79 feet and probably, like this present one, was exacerbated by ice holding up the flow, holding up the flow, then releasing it suddenly; then this one which – who knows? – could keep rising, since snowmelt was being augmented by rain.

More frequent and more intense weather events: This is happening all around the planet. More extremes. Of course, in Montana, we are used to extremes.  The trajectory in the Musselshell Valley from 2011 to 2014 was from extreme snowmelt and runoff and rains in May-June 2011, rains that abruptly stopped as the flood waters were receding by July, to be replaced by 22 months of very dry weather – leading to forest fires destroying hundreds of houses and barns in the Bull Mountains south of Roundup in summer 2012 - and suggesting worse to come when the winter of 2013 stayed dry.

Everyone was looking at another hot, dry summer in 2013; ranchers were cutting back on livestock fearing that no rains meant no grass; farmers were considering what crops to plant. Then in mid-May the rains returned, and over the next seven months, to mid-December, our backyard rain gauge collected 25 inches of rain or snowmelt. Remember, this is semi-arid country. Roundup gets an average of 12 inches of precipitation per year (if “average” means anything anymore). Billings gets a bit more – 14 inches average – but while Billings had a better than average year, it did not come close to what our backyard in Roundup enjoyed.

Since mid-December, snow-melt in our backyard has added another 2.2 inches. (I keep saying “in our backyard” because I suspect our figures may deviate from whatever the official precipitation is for Roundup.) Where does all this water come from? Well, climate scientists point out that as the global temperature rises, more water evaporates. And it has to go somewhere. Why not here?

There’s some great balancing act going on in our atmosphere that even the most insightful climate scientists do not – cannot – fully understand.  During this same 2011 to 2014 period, the entire state of California, north and south, was gripped by a brutal drought. Perhaps the rains are starting to return to California, the snows to the mountains, but if so, doesn’t that suggest that somewhere else it will suddenly turn very, very dry?

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 March 2014 22:23

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