Parks agency to improve Plenty Coups' house

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CROW AGENCY, Mont. - After more than two years of foot dragging and bureaucratic maneuvering the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Department has slated a schedule of repairs and capitol improvements for Chief Plenty Coups State Park.

The park, located in the western corner of the Crow Indian Reservation, was set aside, at the Chief's request, upon his death. Plenty Coups had visited George Washington's home, Mount Vernon, on a trip to Washington, D.C., in 1880. The home made such an impression on Plenty Coups he decided to leave his home and surrounding lands for all people to enjoy.

The park includes a museum, a small trading store the chief operated, his home which was the first two-story structure on the reservation and a large recreation area. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, the site has not always had the care Plenty Coups envisioned. The state-operated park, which holds spiritual significance for many visitors, has received needed attention since the formation of the Friends of Chief Plenty Coups Advisory Council.

Council members joined Livingston legislator Bob Raney in 1999 to lobby for additional funding. Legislation granting $500,000 passed, but the wheels of bureaucracy turned slowly. By 2001 only $78,000 of the funds were spent. State parks officials said they were waiting for the completion of the park's final management plan, which council members say had been sitting on the shelf since 1991.

MFWP administrator Doug Monger said, "The appropriation is up to the judgment of the agency. It was our intent to spend it. We did spend an initial $78,000 and we planned all along to request $200,000 in 2001, and another $200,000 in 2003. Rather than disturb the whole park, it would have allowed for people to get used to the changes at the park and allows us to work within our cash flow."

Council chairman Adrian Heidenrich was skeptical, saying. "They were dragging their feet. They wanted to wait as long as they could. Anytime somebody says they are going to go and get money that's smoke and mirrors. The Legislature is on a tight budget and to say they are going to ask for less than half of what it was supposed to be, that's slipping. Foot draggers may be more fiducially responsible, but money has been spent at other parks.

"This park is different. It is the only one on a reservation and it is the only one that is an active living part of a culture."

Raney said he believed the park was not a priority for the agency because it is not a moneymaker, has low visitation and is somewhat remote.

"The problem is the previous director and Doug Monger made a conscientious decision not to spend the money, totally ignoring what the legislature told them." Raney said. "But they've got loyalty and they're not going to say that."

Not satisfied with the answers they were getting, Raney and council members went to the state Capitol during the 2001 Legislature to make sure funding was not lost. Raney said newly appointed parks director Jeff Hagener helped the group immensely when he testified on their behalf.

"Jeff Hagener is more responsive to cultural parks than others have been in the past."

Raney said he followed up his testimony when he and the Montana State Parks Foundation threatened a lawsuit, backed by the Earth Justice Legal Fund.

The additional pressure resulted in a response from the joint subcommittee on Natural Resources and Commerce stating that Chief Plenty Coups Park would now be a top priority at MFWP and a promise the agency would spend the remaining $422,000.

Recently agency officials met with the advisory council for the first time since their trip to the Legislature. MFWP supervisors Harvey Nyberg and Doug Habermann offered a six item, prioritized list of projects scheduled for completion in the next biennium. Included are paving the parking lot, adding a fire exit in the museum basement, a fire protection system for Chief Plenty Coups home, latrine replacements, improved interpretation and expanded curatorial care.

Habermann said he hopes to complete some of the projects before June 30 but said other items will require community response and specialized outside input. He said more items could be added if money remains, but cautioned the remaining $422,000 will not go as far as one might think.

"We're trying to work with them," Heidenrich said. "But it does take outside pressure. The good news is in some ways we've made a lot of progress. The advisory council relationship with FWP is a struggle, a continuing challenge, but it is not bad."