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April 29, 2010 3:57 am

Historical site study for Heart Mountain camp draws support

Written by Tribune Staff

A bill that would authorize a study to examine the future of the former Heart Mountain Relcoation Center camp site between Powell and Cody is moving through the U.S. House of Representatives.

The House's Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands expressed support for H.R. 3989, the Heart Mountain Relocation Center Study Act, at a hearing on Tuesday. The measure is sponsored by U.S. Representative Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.

The bill would direct the National Park Service to conduct a Special Resource Study of the site, where more than 14,000 Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II between 1942 and 1945.

The resource study would examine options for long-term management of the 123-acre site, including the possibility of the site being taken over and managed by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site.

If conducted, the study would provide only recommendations and would involve a great deal of public input.

In opening remarks to the subcommittee, Lummis said the bill was important for the citizens of northwest Wyoming and for memorializing the site. More than two-thirds of the Japanese-Americans interned at the site between Powell and Cody were U.S. citizens, confined by the government over fears that they might be loyal to Japan. In 1988 legislation, Congress and President Ronald Reagan apologized for the injustice of the relocation.

“While the system of Japanese-American intern camps is a dark spot on American — and Wyoming — history, the opportunity to preserve the historic landmarks that still stand at the site of Heart Mountain serves as one possible avenue to help us to learn from this chapter in our country's life,” Lummis said.

She noted that letters of support for the study had been submitted by the Park County Commission, the Powell and Cody chambers of commerce, the Park County Travel Council and the Wyoming Business Council.

“I understand the reticence some have towards acquiring new federal land, particularly out West, where so much of our land is already federally owned,” Lummis said. “I want to assure my colleagues that this study has been done the right way, from the bottom up. The bill is broadly supported at the local level.”

Further, of the 123 acres in question, 73 acres already are owned by the federal government through the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and the remaining 50 acres — which house an under-construction Interpretive Learning Center — are owned by the Heart Mountain, Wyoming Foundation.

For the past couple decades, the private, non-profit foundation has been leading efforts to preserve the site. The Heart Mountain foundation got the ball rolling on the resource study, saying it was a logical step to take for future management.

Eric Muller, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law and foundation board member, testified in support of the bill on Tuesday, saying it would aid preservation and interpretation at the former relocation camp.

In a letter to subcommittee chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta — who was interned at the site as a boy — called it a “critically-needed” study.

For his part, Grijalva called the legislation “important,” adding that people in Arizona were beginning similar efforts to preserve and recognize former internment camps there.

“We welcome your legislation as a good model for other places,” Grijalva said.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said Muller's testimony hit “one of my soft spots.”

“Though I have never been to Heart Mountain, I have spent a lot of time at Topaz (War Relocation Camp), in Utah, and one of my best friends, one of the great people I have met, was born in Minidoka (War Relocation Camp) in Idaho — and this is a part of our American history that I hope is never lost,” Bishop said.

Lummis asked Muller if the foundation would be willing to donating its land to the government, should the study recommend Park Service management.

Muller said the board would need to discuss it, but he said generally, the board is “absolutely open to the idea of donation.”

If it the site was turned into a Park Service site, Muller said the foundation could continue to provide support for educational activities and fundraising.

Noting that there are nine other relocation camp sites, “one of the questions we have heard, Mr. Chairman, is why does this location deserve to be part of the National Park System and not the others?” said Lummis. “And of course our best answer to that is that the Heart Mountain site has preserved structures, the likes of which do not exist elsewhere.”

Muller said the preserved strucutres — several barrack-like buildings and the “very, very haunting” free-standing brick chimney — are unique in that they are in their original locations.

“Those structures ... especially with Heart Mountain there as the very dramatic backdrop, enable a visitor to have a sense of the power of that place which, in my experience, is unique among the sites,” said Muller.

If and when the bill ultimately passes, the study will not be a fast or cheap process.

“It can take up to four and a half years at the current rate of funding for the Park Service to get to a special resource study, and the average cost is between $200,000 and $500,000,” testified Katherine Stevens, Assistant Director of Business Services for the Park Service. “Our estimate for this one would be on the low end of that, about $250,000.”

The Heart Mountain site is currently a National Historic Landmark.