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A woman in period dress speaking to a man wearing contemporary clothing near a wagon.
The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center at Baker City, Oregon.  (BLM)

Connecting to Community

By Sarah LeCompte

Interpretive centers are all about connections.  The goal of interpretation is not just to inform visitors about resources on their public lands, but to help them find a personal, lifelong, meaningful connection.  Operating an interpretive center is a big endeavor that requires many connections to gather the support and skills necessary to maintain a large facility and grounds and provide high-quality educational programs.

The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City, Oregon (Vale District), was created in the late 1980s and early 1990s to help an ailing local economy build a heritage tourism industry as a critical part of a regional economic recovery plan.  The BLM worked closely with ambitious community leaders to create a center that would draw tourists to the rural, relatively remote location and remain a branded tourist attraction that would stimulate other cultural tourism endeavors in the region for years to come. 

It took tremendous effort and numerous partnerships, and the center opened successfully in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews and high attendance.  Sustaining it over the next 20 years and further into the future required a different type of partnership.  BLM staff at the center melded partnerships with many private organizations, educational institutions, and other state and federal agencies to accomplish everything from marketing to facility repairs to environmental education.  One partnership has been especially enduring and versatile:  the Trail Tenders, Inc., volunteer organization.

Founded at the same time that the interpretive center was developed, this nonprofit group formed with the intention of cooperatively managing the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.  The group raises funds and manages grants on behalf of the interpretive center, operates a sales outlet, and recruits volunteers.  Volunteers assist with planning and implementing special events, educational programs, and outreach.  Funding from the group accounts for many of the interpretive programs at the site each year.  Special projects such as publications, films, capital improvements, and equipment have been possible through the group’s donated funds and labor.

An intangible aspect of this partnership is the greater network of resources that come from the variety of interests, expertise, and community connections represented by all the individual volunteers.  Family, friends, service and special interest clubs, schools, and churches all have a connection to the interpretive center through someone they know who is a Trail Tenders volunteer—and all might be tapped to help with a project or event!  The continuity provided by many of the long-time Trail Tenders volunteers helps any new BLM staff member quickly integrate into the local community and learn “how to get things done” in this part of the world.

Trail Tenders represent the center at community events, assisting with host tables at sports tournaments and community festivals.  They have become well known for their Dutch-oven cooking for visiting groups or community events.  They have been recognized for their community service with numerous local, state, and national awards.

Partnerships aren’t always easy.  Different approaches, opinions, and misunderstandings between a private organization and a public bureaucracy can be difficult to understand and accommodate.  Turnover in staff and volunteers over the years requires constantly taking the pulse and reestablishing relationships.  Traditional ways of getting things done need constant revision.  But the combination of public and private perspectives generally helps both groups better accomplish our work and projects.

As for helping visitors from around the United States and the globe connect with resources on public lands?  Many of our volunteers have roots in the local area and knowledge to share personal experiences and stories.  Getting a map is one thing, but getting a map with personal directions on different routes, scenery, or activities along the way is a bonus.  Over the first 20 years of its existence, Trail Tenders, Inc., has donated over 175,000 hours of service—keeping things well connected.

Sarah LeCompte has been manager at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center at Flagstaff Hill in Oregon’s Vale District since 2003 and was the historian/curator at the center from 1993-2003.