Pompeys Pillar National Monument
On a cool spring morning, two students break away from their group to inspect the large plates of bark on a towering Cottonwood tree. As they inspect the cracks and crevices they fixate on a specific spot and start motioning for their peers to come over. Their teacher asks what they have found. The students point to an intricate spider web, “That is so cool,” one of the other students exclaim. Their guide, Sonni Hope, a park ranger for the Bureau of Land Management, talks about the Cottonwood gallery along the Yellowstone River and why it is such a critical part of the local environment.
The students are fourth graders visiting Pompeys Pillar National Monument to learn about the landscape and the amazing history of the area. The monument is part of the BLM’s National Conservation Lands and contains the signature of Captain William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Clark’s inscription is the expedition’s only remaining physical evidence visible along the explorers’ actual route. Thousands of students have visited the monument in that last few years. In 2013 alone, over 2,000 students visited the site, with some schools traveling over three hours to get there.
Pompeys Pillar has been a key field trip destination for students from throughout eastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming for years. However, since 2012, there has been a significant increase in young visitors. “We have increased our focus on providing opportunities for future generations to come out and learn about their history and heritage”, says Monument Manager Jeff Kitchens. As part of this initiative, Pompeys Pillar staff started a letter writing program to schools throughout the region. In early 2012, Jeff and his staff sat down and looked at where schools had come from previously. “When we started putting pins on a map, we were amazed at how far school districts were willing to travel to visit us,” says Kitchens. “Schools have traveled to Pompeys from as far away as Casper, Wyo. and the Canadian Border.” From this data, the BLM created a large area of potential schools to and began inviting them to visit the national monument.
Along with these efforts, Pompeys Pillar became a Hands on the Land site in 2012, a national network of field classrooms that connects students, teachers, communities, and volunteers to America’s public lands. Hands on the Land sites focus on hands-on experiences connecting classrooms with local natural and historical settings. Pompeys Pillar creates opportunities for students to step outside their classroom and experience the history of the monument through explorations led by staff and volunteers. “In truth, we owe much of the success of this program to the Friends of Pompeys Pillar and their vast network of volunteers and supporters,” says Kitchens. “We could not offer the breadth and depth of programming if it were not for their support.”
When asked why it is so important that they continue to offer students programs outside the classroom, Kitchens stated, “These children will carry forward a connection to the land, which being indoors could not have created. They are experiencing their environment and history in a tangible way that will create lasting memories. It is these memories and connections that help build both a sense of place and desire to learn more.”