New superintendent optimistic about future of Bighorn Canyon

David Peck

A love of history and the American West has led the new superintendent of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area to a posting he calls a blessing in his career.

James Hill began his new position in July, moving west from his previous post as the superintendent of Guilford Courthouse National Military Park in North Carolina, where he served for two years. Prior to that, Hill served as the superintendent at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in western Nebraska for 10 years.

Hill is also the superintendent lead for the Power River Group of parks, which includes Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Devils Tower National Monument and the Fort Laramie Historic Site, a position also held by his predecessor, Mike Tranel, who was hired late last year as the deputy superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. Hill served two stints as acting superintendent at Fort Laramie in 2013-14 and 2019, working for Tranel the second time.

The position at Bighorn Canyon is a natural fit for Hill, he said, because of family ties to the West.

“I married a girl from Western Montana,” he said, referring to his wife, Dena Sanford. “She grew up in Bozeman. Her parents both worked for Montana State, and one is from the Hi-Line, the other one from the Hamilton area…Both of us love the Mountain West, and, of course, it’s her home, but it’s sort of my second home. I did work in the extreme northwestern corner of the Nebraska panhandle just below the Black Hills for 10 years, about 10 miles from the Wyoming state line as the crow flies.”

He said as a history major in college, he was told by a professor that he would never find a job with that degree, but once he found his way into the National Park Service, he has been able to both study history and forge a career. Both he and Dena are architectural historians.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to work in and around history for most of my career,” he said.

In a way, Hill has come full circle, he said. Although he grew up in Georgia and the Carolinas, his father was a professor of animal husbandry at Clemson University, and Hill grew up with tales of Montana, Wyoming and Texas.

“Somehow, I think, I drank deeply that there was a life out west, and somehow I knew that would maybe include me one day,” he said.

College took him to Clemson, the University of South Carolina Aiken and Iowa State University, and his first job with the Park Service was in Omaha, where he was hired in 1998 as an architectural historian with the Midwest Regional Office. He also worked in textile manufacturing for a while, he said. He has a master’s degree in colonial American history.

“I love the West. I love the trees and forests of my homeland, but there’s just something about breathtaking vistas and being able to see for miles, the juxtaposition between the high plains and, all of a sudden, the mountains,” he said. “We certainly see that here in the recreation area when we look to the Big Horns or the Pryors and even northwest to the Beartooths.”

Hill said he came to know the west as a child when his father would attend meetings of the American
Society of Animal Scientists and the family would vacation before or after the meetings, which took him to places like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Rocky Mountain National Park.

“Each summer we looked forward to August, because we were on
the road seeing America,” he said.

An exciting challenge

Hill said Bighorn Canyon NRA is the largest and most complex park he has worked in, noting, “There’s never a dull moment here. That’s another thing that’s exciting about this park. We’ve got internal challenges that push us to excel, we’ve got external partnerships, we’ve got Mother Nature throwing us curve balls periodically with low water levels and the silting of basins and things like that. But there’s never a dull moment. There’s also the interaction with our neighbors in Montana, the Crow Tribe, which is a really rich cultural experience.”

Although in his position for just about 14 weeks, Hill said he has already come to appreciate many aspects of Bighorn Canyon such as the scenic values, natural geology and geography, recreation, wildlife and historic components from the Bad Pass Trail to historic ranches.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “It’s the first park I’ve had the privilege to serve in that has bears, mountain lions, bighorn sheep and wild horses. I feel like we’re living in a miniature Yellowstone. That’s the landscape the Park Service is tasked with, preserving and
protecting for the enjoyment of future generations, and at the same time we make it available for the use and enjoyment of this generation. That’s exactly what national recreation areas are all about.

“That challenge of making it accessible to folks to recreate, refresh themselves and renew themselves today and care for it in a way that it’s going to be around for their grandchildren’s children, that’s a pretty awesome task.”

Hill said he sees tremendous opportunities with the Powder River Group with the parks’ natural wonders and rich history to become destinations themselves, maybe not at the level of Yellowstone but substantial nevertheless.

“I feel like this is truly a lesser grand tour of national parks,” he said. “People know they can go out west and do the big parks, but I almost feel like we’re a lesser known grand tour here of the Wyoming parks and the parks of Eastern Montana. It’s a great way for someone to craft a vacation.

“Perhaps none of the parks in the Powder River Group are destinations in the same sense of Grand Teton or Yellowstone, but we are destination parks. Between all of the public lands in the region, people could craft a really, really great western experience coming out here and visiting these parks, and a very authentic western experience.”

Looking ahead, Hill said he wants to continue “the great partnership work” being done by Christy Fleming and her interpretive staff in the Wyoming portion of the park, and he wants to explore partnerships with the Crow Tribe on the Montana side.

“We’re at a wonderful time with our leadership, and it looks like Mr. (Charles) Sams will be confirmed as the first Native American director of the National Park Service, so with the leadership we have, we have some real opportunities to partner on the north district with the tribe.”

Facilities and maintenance

Hill said Bighorn Canyon has outstanding facilities, noting that the resource and maintenance teams are outstanding.

“The facilities are in good shape, and I’d like to keep them in good shape,” he said. “Whether it’s deferred maintenance or cyclic maintenance, we need to continue to focus on those structures and those facilities that allow the public to have a first class experience here.”

The Park Service has a large maintenance backlog, he said, but with the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act, there are opportunities. He said the project to restore the ranch house at the Ewing-Snell Ranch, which burned several years ago, is progressing, with the pre-construction phase of planning and design going well and actual construction about two years away.

“Not only do we want to rebuild and restore the cabin, but we also want to be able to make it a place where field schools could conduct business and classes and things like that,” Hill said. “Those types of projects will always be with us, but that’s certainly a signature one.”

Hill said some of his priorities include housing maintenance at Fort Smith, a facelift for the visitor center at the north end, ongoing renovation of the Afterbay Campground at Fort Smith and balancing the interests of lake and Big Horn River recreationists. He said he attended a “very cordial and informative” meeting last week with the fly-fishing outfitters and noted that the various members of the leadership team well understand the issues the park is facing and the park’s management policies and ideology.

“In the end, the BOR (Bureau of Reclamation) will always control the water level. We manage around that,” he said. “I understand the importance of in-stream flows up north, and I understand the importance of high water levels down south, and at the end of the day, my job is simply to manage what Mother Nature and the BOR decide to give us. We certainly want to engage the public, and we want to provide a forum for all the different user groups to express their needs and desires in the visitor experiences they want to have.”

Hill said he has been busy in his first few weeks working on continuing the memorandum of agreement with the Crow Tribe to provide access to the Ok-A-Beh Marina, which had sunset in 2017, and has been extended for short periods of time several times since that time.

“Without that memorandum, we can’t operate in the north,” he pointed out.

Another issue is staff turnover, he said, noting that the park has lost several staff members since the summer with uncertainty surrounding the federal employee vaccination mandate date of November 22.

“We have several challenges that are upon us, and it’s causing some staff turnover,” he said. “There are just a lot of things that have been thrown at all of us regardless of what station in life we’re in. These have been tough and trying years for the last few years. The future, though, is bright, and I think we’re all looking forward to some sort of return to normalcy as we get out of the pandemic, and we’ll see some halcyon times just like in 2016 and 2017 around the centennial celebration for the Park Service.”

He said he’s becoming educated on the longtime transpark highway issue, noting that much will depend on the Crow Tribe.

“The transpark road has not floated to the top of those conversations (with the tribe) yet,” he said, though adding that members of U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney’s staff were in the community seeking an update on the project earlier this summer.

Looking ahead

Moving forward, Hill said the park staff is putting a lot of time and energy into commercial use authorizations with concessionaires, noting that the Garrisons have done a tremendous job with the Horseshoe Bend Marina, pointing out some potential improvements to the facility.

“We’re really happy with the way things are going here on the south end, and we see future improvements,” he said. “In Todd Johnson we have a perfect person on staff to manage that stuff.

“We’ll continue to make progress. We’re not just going to hold the line. I think the future is bright. We’re just not kind of retrenching. We’re going to continue to make progress…That’s what I would assure your readers, that we’re going to continue to move forward and that they can expect great things from us.”

He said he sees opportunity for growth.

“In the recreation area here I believe we’ve got the capacity for a lot more people. We can provide a relief valve for Yellowstone. In fact, this is a great place
for people to get a taste for Yellowstone and then come on over here and spend a little time.”

Hill said the communities can help in the Powder River Group by improving accommodations, which has been done recently in Lovell, and there is a huge role for communities to play making themselves welcoming and inviting to visitors. Both Powell and Lovell are welcoming towns, he said.

He said the Lovell community can help by providing rental properties for seasonal rangers or artists in residence.

“We are short of housing down here on the south end,” he said. “There are probably a number of niche businesses that are opportunities for folks in the community to play a role with us in the recreation area. We all know from trips we take it’s the towns that provide an authentic and a welcoming and a comfortable experience that really do well. Those are the ones that people remember.”

Hill is bullish on the future of Bighorn Canyon.

“I think the sky’s the limit for us,” he said. “My career in the Park Service has been one where civic engagement has been a major part of that. We need to hear from our partners, and they need to hear from us. We need that exchange of information.”

He said he is proud of his staff in the park.

To have a solid management team here and to have them with deep roots in the community and to be so invested in the community, that’s a tremendous thing. And that reassures me that, however long or short I may be here, the management of the recreation area is rooted in these communities.”

Hill said he welcomes visits from members of the community, just asking people to call the front desk first, because he’s not always in the office.

He said with as large and complex as the park is, it’s an exhilarating challenge for him as superintendent, and to have a supportive and seasoned team and communities invested in the park, “it’s a wealth of riches here if we can all work together and make things click.

“I’m very blessed and very appreciative to be here.”