New superintendent sees opportunity at Bighorn Canyon 

When newly appointed Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area Supt. Mike Tranel was taking a boat trip on Big Horn Lake shortly after his appointment, his wife, Mary Tidlow, looked at the stunning canyon walls and said, “This is just beautiful. Why aren’t there more people here?”

As he works into his new position, Tranel hopes to find answers to that essential question and more.

After spending the last 25 years of his 33-year Park Service career in Alaska, the last seven as supt. of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Skagway, Tranel is coming home in a way, with his new posting that started June 8. He grew up in northern Wyoming and southern Montana in communities not far from Bighorn Canyon NRA.

Tranel lived on a ranch near Big Horn during his elementary school years and said he has many memories of that part of his life, then went to junior high in Miles City and high school at St. Labre School in Ashland, Mont., before graduating from Billings Central High School. The family still has a ranch north of Broadview, and Tranel has relocated to Red Lodge, with his new office at the Bighorn Canyon visitor center in Lovell.

“I’m one of 10. The majority of my siblings were born in Sheridan, and most of them still live in Montana,” he said. “My mother lives in Billings…Our kids were missing out on time with cousins and time with Grandma. That’s pretty meaningful to us, and being close to Billings was important. Fort Smith’s a little too far away.

“Red Lodge gives us the ability to go back and forth and for my mother to be able to visit. We’re small town people, not big city people.”

Tranel also said Red Lodge provides an easier transition from the climate the family was used to in Alaska, adding that the members of his family are all skiers and he is a musician, playing drums in Red Lodge and Billings.

Though he will spend plenty of time at park headquarters in Ft. Smith, he said it’s important to have a superintendent’s presence in the south district of the park at Lovell, which he said has been “missing for a while.” And, he added, there is the opportunity to build on some successes.

“I feel like there are some things that are successful in the south district of the park can translate into more success in the north district, as well,” he said. “We’ve got some good projects and some good people working here.”

Tranel said he already works closely with Little Bighorn Battlefield Supt. Wayne Challoner as two of a quadrant of parks working together. Tranel has been tasked with supervising the superintendents of three other Park Service units in the region: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Devils Tower National Monument and Fort Laramie National Historic Site. So in that regard, Bighorn Canyon as his main office is pretty centrally located, he said. He said he’ll be on site at the other parks about once a month, noting, “It’s an 1,100-mile loop.”

Supt. Mike Tranel, on the job just a few weeks, already sees great possibilities for Lovell and the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.
David Peck photo

The parks will be able to share some staff duties and potentially some budget items, he added.

Tranel said it’s important for the superintendent to develop relationships with leaders in Big Horn County, noting, “There’s a real need for the Park to interact more with the town of Lovell and Big Horn County” to coordinate on things like the lake level issue.

“There are real advantages to being in Lovell and having that perspective,” he added, noting that he can talk to Keith and Ken Grant and Elaine (Harvey) about the lake or with the sheriff’s office and Ken Blackburn on search and rescue and emergency services.

“I feel like there’s some work to do and a real need for increased engagement with the city and the county,” he said. “That was a significant factor in feeling like making Lovell my main office would be a good way to go.”

While park headquarters will remain at Ft. Smith, Tranel said future division chiefs will have the option of operating out of either Ft. Smith or Lovell, but he said any “number two person” would need to be located at the other end of the park.

Issues in the park

Asked about some of the issues affecting Bighorn Canyon, Tranel said the water level in the lake is an important issue.

“The Bureau of Reclamation has been working on it a long time, and I’m a newcomer,” he said. “It’s really important that we identify what are the interests, and I’m always going to put the condition on, when I meet with the Big Horn River Alliance, that you don’t get to say that the other side is less important. I’m not swayed by any arguments that the river recreation is more important than the lake and vice versa…

“The purposes of the park are very much focused on the lake, the recreational opportunities and scenic and historic values, which includes the historic ranches.”

When it comes to the lake level issue, Tranel said meaningful dialogue is very important, adding, “There are tremendous amounts of factual information that we can use, and we will, but ultimately the discussion needs be, ‘OK, what are you really asking for here?’ How do we operate Horseshoe Bend, for example, for a meaningful length of the season? How do we have the right levels in the river so the fishing community can still do what they’d like to do there?

“I’ve been to probably most of the national recreation areas and many of the lakes that the National Park Service manages, and Bighorn Canyon is pretty constrained as far as how it can operate because it’s within such a deep canyon. And so the flexibility for how high or low the lake can go is very much subject to that.

“So what we need from the Bureau of Reclamation, I guess, is to be able to find out exactly what those constraints are. The dialogue also includes the Friends group for the lake and what works for recreational opportunities. Then we have the unpredictability of weather and climate and siltation in the lake.

“It’s a lot to sort through, but my immediate plan I’ve communicated to Ken and Keith Grant and to Elaine Harvey is I’d like to have the National Park Service host some of those meetings – meet in Lovell or meet in Ft. Smith … so we’re fully engaged in that discussion. I would say that the Bureau of Reclamation is better at engineering than we are, but the National Park Service has expertise and experience with doing public meetings that we can bring to the equation.”

Tourism development

There’s also a concern about economic development and tourism in Lovell, Tranel noted, stating, “That’s a big issue that’s important to me and means a lot to me, because I grew up in Wyoming. I think there’s a lot to see, there’s a lot to offer. I can tell you I wouldn’t be in this job if it weren’t for having grown up next to the Big Horn Mountains and going up into the mountains a lot.”

Growing up near Big Horn gave him his love of the outdoors and of western and Wyoming history, he said.

“That needs to be shared, so I see Highway 14A as being underutilized,” Tranel said. “I regularly take that route to Little Bighorn and other places that I go, and it could handle more tourism. Lovell certainly could, and how can we contribute to that in addition to the recreational opportunities on the lake? I see the historic ranches as underutilized. Whenever I’ve been to places like the Lockhart Ranch or any of them, really, you see visitors walking around and they’re having a great time, but there could be more.

“How do we market that authentic western history to visitors? That’s the real question.”

Tranel said he recently met with Elaine Harvey and Diane Shober (Wyoming Division of Tourism) and said people visiting from the Midwest or the East are “kind of hammered with what’s available in the Black Hills” by the time they reach Wyoming and may be seeking something authentic.

As for paving the road to Fort Smith, Tranel said the controversial project is “a longer term thing” with much of the road on the Crow Reservation and some proposed wilderness in the area of the road.

While saying he’s too new to take a position on the road, he did note, “I’m very interested in the background and hearing from the different perspectives on pros and cons. I’ve worked on controversial issues for the last 25-plus years of my career and a lot of times there’s a resolution that is different from what either side was thinking initially that comes to light when you start having meaningful discussions about it.

“I’m open on the question. It’s much more complex than ‘everybody agrees on this and let’s just get some money to build it.’ I don’t see it as quite that simple.”

Tranel said he’s a strong proponent of rebuilding the Ewing-Snell Ranch. He
said the ranch offers a cultural landscape in a beautiful setting that resonates with people.

“People who visit there are going to have that personal connection,” he said. “It’s not just about seeing places or reading about them, it’s what it feels like to be there. That’s what I think are the attributes of restoring that place. Every time I’ve been there I’ve seen visitors walking around. There’s lots of interest. We’ve restored the orchards, we’re taking care of the out buildings…Right in the middle of it right now we have charred remains and a foundation. So let’s fix it, and let’s have that landscape.”

Tranel said he would love to develop living history programs at the historic ranches.

Ready to go to work

Tranel said he is ready to get going.

“I used to say I’m young and idealistic, and I’m still idealistic,” he joked. “I have high energy daughters who keep me young. The talent I’m looking for (at the park) is a high energy team player, and I need to model that myself.

“We have a wonderful mission. I believe in being efficient, and my father taught me the value of hard work…We need to build on our strengths. We’ve got some great employees who have been here a long time from the local community. How do we find more people like that in the local community who really care? In Alaska we had local hire authority. We don’t have that here, but I would like to recruit and retain people locally as much as we can.”

Tranel said his wife, Mary Tidlow, also works for the Park Service in facilities management, working from home on such things as deferred maintenance and energy management and efficiency.

Referring to Mary’s comment on the beauty of the lake mentioned at the top of the article, Tranel said, “That’s a pretty good summation. Those are very accurate insights of what I think. We hear that in Red Lodge. I talk to people who say that’s Montana’s secret…Let’s keep it a secret. It’s a beautiful place. It’s just underutilized, so how do we get more people interested?

“There’s the whole tourism marketing (aspect). I’ll be working with Diane (Shober) for the Wyoming side and working with Brenda Moss (of Southeast Montana Tourism) on the Montana side. I’m interested in being
very much engaged with them. At the local level we have Elaine Harvey, who’s clearly a great park supporter and great proponent of ‘let’s get more people to come see this area.’ I plan to put some energy into tourism marketing.”

By David Peck