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Happy 95th, NPS: ‘backstage’ hike at SBNM

August 6, 2011

In 1872, the world was introduced to the concept of the national park when Congress set aside Yellowstone in the Wyoming and Montana territories

“as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Without structured management, the 14 national parks and 21 national monuments that had been established by 1916 were “vulnerable to competing interests.” (Scotts Bluff wasn’t yet among them. It was named a national monument in 1919, thanks to strong local boosterism.) The National Park Service was created 95 years ago this month, August 25, 1916,

“to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

To mark the 95th anniversary of the NPS, several entities around the area are pulling together to sponsor community events. Here’s a link to a press release. I’ll insert a schedule at the end of this post, too, for your convenience. A brochure for the month-long celebration includes a tantalizing but frustratingly vague item:

Special “Behind-the-Scene” Tours – Check at the National Parks
“Know Your Park Steward” Programs – Check at the National Parks

If it weren’t for the fact that I work at the newspaper and the reporter with the desk next to mine knows I like such things (thanks, Chabella!), I might have missed the event held this morning at Scotts Bluff National Monument, the “hidden park tour.” I think if the event had been better publicized, the group would have gotten too large, though. As it was, the pre-tour briefing filled the museum’s indoor theater room.

I guess the tour of the “rarely seen” north side of the monument wasn’t all that special for me, scenery-wise, because I’ve run and walked on the canal road several times. But this time, I got to see the sights the cheater way, by driving via caravan on the canal road, something that is not ordinarily permitted.

Our first stop was to a black-tailed prairie dog town on SBNM property, one of several NPS sites where Kansas State graduate students are studying the critters to figure out population dynamics that will help with “good neighbor” prairie dog management tools. (Ranchers don’t like prairie dogs because they compete with livestock for forage, particularly in dry years, but some research suggests that forage around a prairie dog colony may be more nutritious because of the rodents’ activity.)

The prairie dogs the researchers had trapped were not at all happy when a big group of humans approached. I'm sure they were even less happy when a hawk flew overhead.

Here’s part of the tour group hiking back over a rudimentary plank bridge across the irrigation canal:

The next stop was a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp site. The road, trails and structures at SBNM were constructed through government-sponsored Depression-era work programs. In 1933, the Civil Works Administration began construction with a crew from the Scotts Bluff County Re-employment Office, but money for the project ran out. In 1935, with support from Congressman Terry Carpenter, CCC Camp 762 was built in the badlands area of the monument. The camp, which supported a crew of 200, included dormitories, a mess hall, and even an infirmary and a library. Per NPS standards, the camp was mostly obliterated when the project was complete, but the road to the camp, a few foundations and a tunnel under the BNSF tracks to the river (where adobe brick was made to construct the visitors center) are still there.

The CCC camp had its own newspaper, too – “The Adobe Echo,” which was the top-ranked of all 4,000 CCC Camp newspapers across the country. The North Platte Valley Museum has copies in its archives. (Eeee!)

Here’s a quote from a story, which ran in the October 1937 edition, the month after Summit Road (AKA the hyperbolicaly-named “super-summit highway”) opened to the public:

The year 1937 marks the entrance of Scotts Bluff national monument into the class of major historical park areas. The recent travel season was featured by a record-breaking tourist crop, the completion and opening of the super-summit highway, and rapid progress in the CCC work program.

Thousands of people, attracted from all sections of the United States, swarmed to the monument to see its fine museums, the beautiful picnic area, the historic Oregon Trail remains, the summit road development, and not least of all, the quaint adobe construction and other interesting CCC projects. Statistics for the travel year, 1937, measured from October 1, 1936, to September 10, 1937, far exceeded those of any previous year, and compare very favorably with figures compiled by other national park areas in this region. Considering its remoteness from major transcontinental highways, the national popularity of Scotts Bluff, “on the old Oregon Trail” is truly phenomenal.

During the year 14,676 private cars entered the Monument . . .

Here’s a photo of the group hiking out on the CCC camp road, north of the irrigation canal road:

The next stop was the badlands. They’re not great to photograph in the bright, midday sun, so here are a few pictures from a canal road hike I took on a cloudy day last April:

Waterfowl seem to like the area. I photographed this Canada goose in flight last April. On the drive down the canal road today, I spotted several ducks flying up the canal.

The badlands are where some pretty nifty fossils of little critters that lived in the area 25 to 40 million years ago have  been found. A palaeontologist surveys the area on a regular basis to see what new old things have eroded out of the ground. Unfortunately, locals like to do the same thing and keep what they find, leading to a loss of scientific data. According to the SBNM fossil website:

Fossil hunting in the badlands remains a real threat to the publicly owned paleontological resources of the Monument.  Visitors must remember that the collection of natural features, including fossils, is strictly prohibited, and can result in a fine and/or imprisonment.

Here’s a piece of jawbone from an ancient camel-type critter pulled from the SBNM monument vault for us to view:

The most common fossil finds in the area include turtles (which I found on this hike) and oreodonts (which I may have found bone fragment from on this hike?). Interesting that the fossils I found on both hikes were in the South Bluff area. Maybe I should comb the badlands one of these days and see what tidbits I can photograph (and inform the rangers of, if I find anything of note).

Here is a photograph of two of the friendly “neigh”bors of the bandlands area:

On our way out, we had to pause for a moment for a backhoe loader to doze some dirt from a project off the canal road:

As promised, here is a listing of some of the events taking place in the area for the NPS 95th:

Special exhibits during the month of August

  • “History of the National Park Service” at Scotts Bluff National Monument
  • “Westward Expansion Map” at North Platte Valley Museum


  • “Westward Expansion National Park Orientation” at Farm And Ranch Museum, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday for the first three weekends of August
  • “Spirit of the Pony Express” premier at Midwest Theater August 13, 7:30 p.m.
  • “This is America” Ken Burns film (first public showing in the area) Midwest Theater August 14 at 7:30 p.m.

Special events

  • kick-off ceremony at SBNM with congressional attendance August 12, 9 a.m.
  • “Transportation through the ages” demonstration at FARM August 13
  • Recognizing and Preserving Westward Expansion” seminar at Harms Advanced Technology Center, August 25, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (registration due by August 23; fee is $30, which includes lunch and dinner)

And, for even more information about NPS and SBNM history, here are some links I disappeared into for a few hours this afternoon:

National Park Service history

Scotts Bluff administrative history

Local Places, National Spaces: Public Memory, Community Identity, and Landscape at Scotts Bluff National Monument

Copyright 2011 by Katie Bradshaw

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