Some landowners express concern on historic trail designation for Bozeman Trail

Stephen Down, The Sheridan Press photo Darrell Kelley and Bob Wilson discuss firearms at Fort Phil Kearny last summer. The fort is one of the historic sites along the Bozeman Trail that could benefit from a National Historic Trail designation.

SHERIDAN — The efforts to designate the Bozeman Trail as a National Historic Trail has continued in recent months with outreach to hundreds of landowners, governments and Native American tribes along the route.

During a meeting of the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources committee last week, Sheridan resident Dave McKee said the public response to the informational efforts has been strong, and many landowners, governments and tribes have chosen to write letters of support.

But the conversations have also revealed concerns, particularly among landowners, about potential federal government overreach on private properties along the trail route, McKee said.

During the committee meeting, Converse County rancher and former state Rep. Frank Moore shared some of those concerns.

“My concern is government overreach,” Moore said. “The National Historic Trails designation goes under the Secretary of the Interior, who has the ability of condemnation if they feel there is a parcel of private ground that needs to be utilized for this. It’s real easy for someone in Washington, D.C., to look at a piece of ground… and say, ‘For the better good, we should condemn this piece of ground’ and use it for whatever they need, whether that be an interpretive center or a viewing area or whatever… While I think the Bozeman Trail is historically significant and important, we need to be careful of what actually is going to happen if this gets designated as a historical trail.”

McKee said similar concerns were heard during the recent National Historic Trail designation process for the Chisholm Trail, which runs from Texas to Kansas. The legislation for that NHT designation included additional language protecting private property rights, McKee said.

Tom Rea, Casper resident and president of the Wyoming chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association, agreed the rights of private property owners will be protected through the process.

“Landowner rights will be completely protected,” Rea wrote in a letter to the travel committee. “NHT designation does not allow federal management or unauthorized public access on private land.”

The outreach process is just part of the long road ahead for the National Historic Trail effort, McKee said.

The process, which will take a minimum of four years, according to McKee, involves requesting legislation from the U.S. Congress on two separate occasions. The first piece of legislation will direct the Secretary of the Interior to complete a National Trails System Feasibility and Suitability Study to evaluate whether the trail deserves the National Historic Trail designation. 

If the study comes back with a positive recommendation, as McKee expects it to, Congress will need to pass another piece of legislation listing the trail as a National Historic Trail.

With many years to go, there is still plenty of time to meet with landowners like Moore and make sure their concerns are addressed, according to Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper.

“I do appreciate Mr. Moore’s comments and would appreciate it if Tom and Dave would try to get together (with landowners), because I know it’s more than just Mr. Moore’s concerns,” Sweeney said.

The Bozeman Trail route — established in 1863 as a 535-mile shortcut from the Oregon Trail on the North Platte River near Casper to the gold fields around Virginia City, Montana — crosses private, state and federally managed public lands in eight counties in Montana and five counties in Wyoming, including Sheridan County.

Supporters of the designation, including McKee and Rea, say designation of the Bozeman Trail as a National Historic Trail will provide clear and lasting documentation of the historical significance of the trail and the events that occurred along it. In addition, national designation will enhance preservation efforts, education opportunities and visitor experiences along the route while strengthening grant requests from museums, cities, counties, states, Native American tribes, federal land management agencies and nonprofits located along the trail.

National Historic Trail status would also increase interest in visitation, which would, in turn, have a direct impact on local economies, Rea said.

“Such a designation would provide clear and lasting documentation of the significance of the trail and the events along it in the 1860s to our national history for current and future generations,” Rea wrote in his letter. “NHT status would encourage tourists and other travelers to visit the already well-developed historic sites and museums along the trail corridor — and would encourage new signage and interpretation as well at other less well-known sites.”

Sheridan County sites that could potentially benefit from the designation include Fort Phil Kearny and the Fetterman and Wagon Box battle sites near Story; the Connor Battlefield near Ranchester; and the Museum of the Bighorns in Sheridan, Rea said.

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