Letter to the Editor: Questions About Bent’s Old Fort and Its Management

Description: The Following Letter Written by Steve Keefer was sent to the Bent’s Old Fort NHS Superintendent. (The opinions expressed in Letters to the Editor are not necessarily those of SECO News or Consulting With A Hart LLC)

Published: 02/08/2024
Byline: SECO News

Questions About Bent’s Old Fort and Its Management

By Steve Keefer

There is a lot of uproar about changes in how Bent’s Old Fort is managed. It is my understanding that there was a consultant hired to do an assessment of interpretation and staffing, and that there were also some concerns with engineering aspects. I have a few questions, with the hope that the answers may help us in the community to better understand what is happening, and for the National Park Service to better manage our resources. There are comments included with some of the questions. The comments are from my experience and are to help me, and maybe the Park Service, understand what is happening, and maybe provide for better management. A few of these issues go back to a previous Superintendent, but I feel that they might as well be brought up now, so that this site can be better managed for the American people and the communities of the lower Arkansas Valley.

Before I ask my questions there is one other point that I’d like to make. Over the years it has been my privilege to know many of the staff at Bent’s Old Fort and other Park Service properties. Though every large organization has a few employees who don’t make the grade; in my experience the people of the National Park Service are largely knowledgeable, dedicated, competent, and a credit to the organization and the country. Bent’s Old Fort is no exception, the staff had made it a superb example of what a historical site can be. I want to hear from all of the staff, and I respect their opinions. That said the site does not exist in a vacuum; it impacts the culture, the quality of life, and the economy of the surrounding communities, and as such the citizens of these communities should also have a say. Now for my questions:

1.      When one hires a consultant, it is especially important that all parties understand what is being asked for. Often it is in the consultant’s best interest to “shake things up” so that they are seen as being valuable. With those things in mind: Why was the consulting firm hired? What were they asked to do? Were they asked to determine what was being done right, as well as what needed improvement?

2.      How many, and which employees were interviewed? Were all interviews included in the recommendations? Were all employees allowed to give their views? Were they allowed to do this in a way that would prevent repercussions if they disagreed with management?

3.      The operations review provided to SECO News made no mention of interviews or surveys of community members or visitors. These are the members of the public that the site is supposed to serve. Were visitors interviewed or surveyed? If not, why not? If they were interviewed or surveyed, when? How were they chosen? And how were they interviewed or surveyed? Why was the survey done at a time of year when visitation is lower?

4.      Were members of the community surveyed or interviewed? If not, why not? If so, how were they selected? What kind of outreach was done to the community? If not, why not? If so, how was it conducted and/or advertised? If done, what portions of the community did the outreach focus on (for example, business community, schools, college, historical associations)?

5.      The document also indicated that the consultants didn’t do the tour, which may have given them different insights. Why didn’t they do the tour?

6.      I am unaware of there being any public meetings concerning upcoming changes in Bent’s Old Fort management. Also, the first information that I am aware of concerning the changes were through the rumor mill shortly before the changes were supposed to be made, not through Park Service news releases, giving time for the public to respond. Were any meetings called? If they were called, how were they advertised? If they were not called, why not? Were public notices made? If so, when? If not, why not?

7.      How can I get a copy of the advertisement seeking the consultant? Contract? Complete report?

8.      We’ve been told that the upper story of the Fort is unsafe. Is this due to structural deficiency, or a failure to meet modern safety standards, such as guard rails? If it is due to the latter, how does the park service intend to meet modern standards and still retain the historical accuracy of the fort? If it’s a more serious issue, how is this being addressed? What is the time frame for taking care of the problem?

9.      How can I get a copy of the engineering report and conclusions?

10.   The animals provide atmosphere, an understanding of the character of the fort, and an educational value. In addition to that, the location and design of the fort is a rodent magnet, which was at least minimized by having cats, chickens, and peafowl. How does the Park Service intend to replace the educational value of the animals? And how does the Park Service intend to replace the practical aspects of things such as rodent control? What was done with the animals? Is there a mechanism in place to bring them back? If not, why not?

11.   The reenactors, both professional and volunteer, educate the public in ways that static displays cannot. My personal experience has been that both the staff and volunteer reenactors are quite willing to interact with visitors, and they make this a much more memorable experience. Historically, reenactors tend to be white males. I am well aware that history is not all white males. At Bent’s Old Fort it is my understanding that the majority of those at the fort would have been male, though not necessarily white. The women at the fort seem to have been fairly well represented through reenactors. There has been some representation of Hispanic and native peoples, though I would agree not to the degree that such groups were at the fort. Were there any recommendations as to how to address the underrepresentation other than not to have reenactors? What were those recommendations? If they were not making these suggestions, why not?  How do you plan on replacing them with something that is as informative, interactive, and interesting to the visitors? The document indicates that there are some visitors to historical sites who prefer to wander on their own, instead of being led by volunteers or staff. Even when special events were held, visitors were able to tour the site on their own and engage or not engage in the living history aspects. Although, in my experience, visitors very much enjoy the living history.

12.   The special events when reenactors come to the fort are very interesting and informative. The camps and cooking help bring the fort alive to me as a visitor. If I understand the consultant’s document, these are going to be discontinued or at least reduced? Why? How do you plan to replace these events with something that is as effective? Allowing reenactors to stay at the fort—which is often considered a “perk,” especially to volunteers, because not only do they not have to drive to one of the communities to find lodging, but it also helps them get into character. What are the issues with them staying there?

13.   Why have the hours been cut back for the fort?

14.   The fort has been utilized for school programs for decades. How do you intend to continue that? Or do you? If not, why not?

15.   If these changes are due to limited budgets, has there been an attempt to reach out to other partners, such as the National Parks Conservation Association, for assistance? If not, why not?

16.   Though this is not as recent a decision, the Park Service staff and resources were used extensively in local celebrations, such as parades. A popular part of that was the ox cart, which was for most people the only time that they would see this part of our history in use. Why was the use of the ox cart discontinued? Why have the Park Staff not been as involved in local events as before? Is there any plan to restore this type of involvement?

17.   I am now retired. While working, I ran across people who came to our area due to learning about it through the “Trails and Rails” program when they were riding through the area on Amtrak. Because my work was mostly outside, I encountered both locals and tourists. If people commented on this a couple of times over the years, it would be no surprise, but people spoke about the experience several times a year, which means if I talked to five people a year about it, there were probably well over 50 a year who came down here due to “Trails and Rails,” and it had a major impact. They came back and toured not only Bent’s Old Fort but other historical and natural sites, which means they probably stayed locally and added to the economy. It is my understanding that with a new board chair, Amtrak backed out several years ago, although a way was found to partially reinstate it without Amtrak funding, but then COVID caused the program to be suspended. However, it is also my understanding that the program has been revived in parts of the country. Are there any plans to revive it in this area? If not, why not?

18.   How do the current Superintendent and the National Park Service see themselves as part of the local community?

19.   What role do the Superintendent, other Fort employees, and the National Park Service see for the visitors to have a say in the management of the Bent’s Old Fort Historic Site? What’s the role of the local communities? How do you see this for Sand Creek and Amache?

20.   The changes that the Park Service has planned have obviously caused a bit of heartache in the surrounding communities. How do you intend to minimize such problems in the future? How do you intend to address the concerns that have been brought to you from the community?

Thank you for answering the questions listed above. And thank you for your time and consideration.


Steve Keefer

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