FORT LARAMIE – It all started when then-President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864.
That document set aside the first natural area for “preservation and public use,” according to the history of what’s today known as the National Park Foundation. Those first steps carried forward with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 and the designation in 1890 of the lands detailed in the Yosemite Grant as Yosemite National Park.
Supporting operations at the 419 national parks, historic sites, monuments and more – known in the vernacular as “units” within the NPS – across the country has become the mission of various associations, big and small. Locally, the Fort Laramie Historical Association has been working hand in hand with staff at Fort Laramie Historic Site for more than 60 years.
Partnerships have been an integral part of National Park Service operations since 1916, said Eric Valencia, chief of interpretation and visitor services at FLNHS. The way the partnerships work goes back to how NPS was chartered, as a public-supported entity, funded primarily by the public.
“Essential services such as our book store can’t be run by civil servants,” Valencia said. The Historical Association “is a non-profit. They run the gamut in how they support the park.”
Those support services range from interpretation and orientation for visitors to the site to special programing and events. Historical Association workers staff the book store, along with the Enlisted Men’s Bar, serving cold sarsaparilla. And, just last weekend, the Association provided refreshments and help secure entertainment for the Fort’s annual Frontier Christmas celebration.
“I see it as assisting with the educational and interpretive goals of the National Park Service, Susan Hunzeker, Association business manager, said. “We assist in ways (the NPS) are unable to do.
“We do long-term interpretation, have the book store, so people can take part of the historic site with them when they leave,” she said.
The association plan other events as well, like the October performance by the Wind River Dancers and summer activities, including the annual Fourth of July celebration.
“Mainly what we’re doing during the summer is providing employees to help with the summer events,” Hunzeker said. “Help with the day-to-day operations.”
Partnership associations – both at Fort Laramie National Historic Site and other NPS attractions – also help with promotion. Again, under their federal charter, NPS units aren’t allowed to advertise, said Mark Davison, park superintendent.
“A lot of park associations will put billboards up, for example,” Davison said. “Help promote the park.”
Fort Laramie National Historic Site was designated as a national monument by presidential proclamation in 1938. The local historical association was chartered on March 25, 1956, Hunzeker said.
There aren’t partner associations specific to every NPS Unit in the country. The largest – the National Parks – generally have their own associations that support operations there. Some of the smallest units rely on larger, regional associations, Valencia said, with the largest being the Eastern National and the Western National Parks Association.
The dividing line between those two major associations is essentially the Missouri River, but the two groups cooperate from coast to coast. The popular Passport to your National Parks program, which started in the 1980s within the Eastern National association, is just one of those cooperative programs, Valencia said.
It’s important – and someone unique – for FLNHS to have its own, dedicated association, Valencia and Hunzeker said. Visitors to the historic fort and similar units aren’t necessarily like the people who visit other NPS Units.
“People want to come here,” Davison said. “People go to Yellowstone because everyone goes to Yellowstone. Here, they have to have an interest in the time period, the culture, the military, the history.”
Valencia agreed: “You’ll find our visitors already have knowledge of Fort Laramie. They have a basic knowledge of the importance of Fort Laramie.
“When they go into the visitor’s center, there’s almost an epiphany or a realization of how important the fort was to the entire history of the west,” he said. “Their arrival here turns that nugget into the foundation of unlimited understanding.”
FLHA is run by a board, elected from among its almost 400 members across the country, Hunzeker said. While it’s not a requirement of its charter, the current FLHA board all hail from Goshen County, she said.
“It used to be easier to have board members from the local area, so we could meet regularly,” Hunzeker said. “With modern technology, with being able to have meetings over the computer, we have expanded that to being able to have board members from all over the country.”
The association is currently working on updating its website, due to launch Feb. 1, 2020. Visitors will be able to shop the bookstore, learn more about the park and join FLHA at one of several different levels, all online.
And its association members who are the life-blood of the historic site. Without the association, how the park operates would be vastly different, Davison said.
“I don’t think the visitor experience would be as rich” without the Fort Laramie Historical Association, he said. “They play an important role in helping us interpret the story and get the information out. We depend on the Association to tell the story.”
Hunzeker and Valencia agreed, calling the association essential to the future of the historic resource.
“I see a lot of people who’ve joined our association as members and as visitors coming in and supporting us because they want the history to stay alive,” Hunzeker said. “They want to be able to support that so it doesn’t change through the generations.”