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Chimney Rock and other local landmarks make endangered list
October 06, 2011 Lisa Betz   
Many pioneers spent months traveling in covered wagons across the Oregon Trail and much of what we now know as our homeland. Today, much of the grounds they tread upon in our area have been listed in a top 10 of endangered Oregon Trail sites by True West magazine.

Among a those listed, Chimney Rock was listed number six, followed by Fort Mitchell, Robidoux Pass, and the 1851 Horse Creek Treaty Site as number nine. These combined sites aren’t considered endangered at the current time but rather, are at a “potential for opportunity,” according to the article published in True West magazine on June 27, 2011.

Karen Ott, who owns property that was once part of the Horse Creek Treaty site, said that the entire treaty site extends from what is now Henry down to Mitchell, so there is no actual land marker to distinguish the site.

Another at-risk site identified by True West was Chimney Rock. It’s one of the most recognized landmarks on the trail in Nebraska. It has been protected for a long time by private land owners, but now the 551 acres is at risk for commercial and residential development. The current landowners, Gordon and Patty Howard, purchased the land to keep it from development similar to what much of the Oregon Trail lands have undergone.

The Howards have explored placing the land in an historical trust but plans fell through when an assessment was lower than expected. The Howards feel that the land needs to continue producing for now. “The Nebraska State Historical Society wants to buy all of my pasture but I need the income,” said Gordon Howard. The Howards have dryland pasture and 152 acres of irrigated fields. According to Howard, the land is all in grass now and leased to graze cattle. “I have about 400 head of cattle out here all summer long,” said Howard.

The state currently owns 80 acres where a visitor center is located near Chimney Rock. Efforts are now being made to create a law to protect the grounds from future developers in hopes that it will remain as pasture and in agricultural use for many years to come.
Fort Mitchell and Robidoux Pass are also on the endangered list. Fort Mitchell was an outpost of Fort Laramie from 1864 to 1867. It was also the site of Pony Express Station No. 36. Robidoux Pass saw more pioneers through it than the more well-known Mitchell Pass. It was the primary pioneer route from 1840 to 1850. It is the site of the Robidoux Trading Post and has an intact prairie ecosystem, wagon ruts, grave sites and remains of the trading post. The two sites are not yet considered to be endangered but pose the risk of endangerment.

Efforts have been made to create a National Historic Park concept, which would involve Scotts Bluff National Monument, the site of Fort Mitchell, Robidoux Pass, and the 1851 Horse Creek Treaty site along with Chimney Rock.

According to the True West article, “Scotts Bluff is (currently) facing no serious impacts and Robidoux Pass is also protected by private landowners. The Fort Mitchell site, also privately owned, is now a field, but an archaeological survey has located the historic fort location and remains (deep in the soil).”

The potential risks identified by the article have to do with plans for a railroad overpass or highway project that could be positioned near the locations. It is believed that if a national historic park concept is accepted, the added protections will ensure the longevity of these historic Oregon Trail landmark sites.

Ken Mabery, park superintendant at Scotts Bluff National Monument explained that the national historic park concept first emerged from the Oregon California Trail Association (OCTA) meeting that was held in Gering at the Gering Civic Center in 2007. “In its simplest form it would be taking four sites in addition to Scotts Bluff National Monument and rolling them into a national historical park,” said Mabery. The benefit of a national historical park designation, according to Mabery, is that the sites receive broader national exposure. The word ‘history’ is a critical element and must be part of the title for the legislation. Only an act of Congress can create a national park, historical or otherwise.

A national historical park designation would put the park on the same structure as any other national park such as Yellowstone but with one major difference, national historical parks are allowed to have a variety of land ownerships within them.

According to Maybery, “The lands need to eventually pass into public ownership in some form but Chimney Rock, for instance, is owned and managed by the Nebraska State National Historical Society (NSHS). They would continue to own and manage the location with no change.
Similarly, out at Horse Creek Treaty Site, about a third of it is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The other two thirds, approximately, are managed by Platte River Basin Environment.” To Mabery’s knowledge, there are some private property owners at the Horse Creek Treaty site but the majority of the area is owned by those two ownerships.

According to Mabery, if the historical park designation went though, in the near term there would not be any change other than more prominent signage. In the long term, a national historical park would open avenues for additional funding that NSHS or Platte River Basin environment or whoever owns the other sites could tap.
Mabery said that “most likely, the ownership would have to pass to some sort of public ownership” but he clarified that “there is no longer any authority for condemnation, declaration of taking or eminent domain. Those three methods of acquisition are no longer utilized in legislation for any national park service site.

Nowadays, it is either a willing seller, a form of donation or some other type of willing participation,” said Mabery.

Because the Horse Creek Treaty site and Chimney Rock are already in public ownership, under the national historical park concept, they would continue to be managed by public ownership. Congress could put the privately owned Robideaux Pass and Fort Mitchell within the authorized boundary of the park but there would be no park management presence until those lands passed into public ownership.

A good example of how this would work already exists at El Malpais in New Mexico, where a land owner possesses a primary landmark of the park, which was established in 1989. The landowner opted not to sell his land; therefore, there is no public management and the private landowner manages his land as he chooses, although it is part of the national historic park site.

Maybery said that there is no timeline established that he knows of but that the congressional delegation has been approached by various groups such as Heritage Nebraska, Friends of the Bluff and others who have expressed an interest in seeing the landmarks preserved through a national historic park.

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