County Commissioners, Lewis and Clark Foundation concerned about future of interpretive center in Great Falls

The U.S. Forest Service has faced significant budget cuts and the increased demand for resources from the recent wildfire season has compounded the issue that is now affecting the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center.

Last week, Cascade County Commissioners sent a letter to Bill Avey, forest supervisor for the Lewis and Clark and Helena National Forests, formally requesting information.

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

Among their concerns, commissioners wrote that the center has seen at least five directors/managers in the last seven years.

“Management has not aggressively sought a permanent solution to dwindling budgets, staff and programs. At best this is poor leadership on the part of the Forest Service, especially when there were many opportunities to engage willing partners,” commissioners wrote. “The proposed plan of 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.”

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

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

The Forest Service has not yet returned The Electric’s calls seeking details about their plans.

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

Russell said that figures from the Forest Service indicate a $30,000 cut this fiscal year and another $113,000 in the next fiscal year at the center.

Commissioners and Russell said the center is currently operating with 2.75 employees. That’s down from 12 previously, Russell said.

“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,” commissioners wrote.

The volunteer program has also been cut from about 120 to about 55, according to commissioners.

“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,” commissioners wrote.

In their letter, commissioners wrote that they’ve been made aware the Forest Service is considering several management options for the center but that local partners and the community have not been involved in the discussions.

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

Russell said they’re sympathetic to the budget constrains the Forest Service is facing but that the foundation is still hoping for some sort of public-private partnership to ensure the center continues to operate.

“This is not going to get any better, in fact it will probably get worse,” Russell said of the budget cuts, “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.”