John Day Fossil Beds
Administrative History
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Chapter Seven:

Interpretation and site planning at the Cant Ranch

Despite having to face a number of inherent difficulties, the monument's educational program merited recognition from authors of a guide to vertebrate fossil localities in 1989 for its outstanding interpretation of paleontological resources. [38] This represented an impressive achievement, especially since the number of permanent and seasonal interpreters at any one time never exceeded four. They also had the challenge of presenting the monument's story in a park lacking focal points through which the breadth of that story could be told. Part of the problem lay in the Clarno Formation (which sets the stage for interpreting the park story, that of evolutionary change throughout the Tertiary Period) being located considerable distance from where other formations such as the John Day, Mascall, and Rattlesnake, are so plainly evident. [39]

Even with one employee stationed at Painted Hills year round, interpretation in this unit had to be done largely through nonpersonal devices such as trail brochures, bulletin boards, and outdoor exhibits. The NPS allocated most of its personal services to the Sheep Rock Unit, where uniformed staff provided interpretation on a regularly scheduled basis at the Cant Ranch and along some trails. Clarno received far less attention from interpreters than either of the other two units because of its distance from main travel routes, but park employees provided programs for students at Camp Hancock on an occasional basis after 1990. [40] These interpretive efforts, along with two mutual assistance agreements, served to back the claims made before the monument's establishment that the NPS and Camp Hancock could complement each other. [41] The small amount of actual park land and associated development in the Clarno Unit, however, has generally kept the NPS presence there to a minimum. [42]

Camp Hancock
Camp Hancock, later Hancock Field Station, July 1977.
(NPS photo)

The NPS centralized its interpretive operations at the Cant Ranch by necessity. In being the monument's main visitor contact point, the ranch house provided a place to focus front line interpretation and nonpersonal services such as exhibits, audio-visual presentations, and cooperating association sales items. [43] Despite some advantage to centralization, a number of NPS employees found the historic ranch setting to engage visitors to the detriment of interpreting the monument's comparatively subtle paleontological story. In response, park crews periodically tried to reconcile what Ladd began to call an "interpretive conflict" by turning some of the outbuildings into exhibit or demonstration areas. [44] This occurred on a somewhat piecemeal basis without the benefit of a plan, and did not result in any clear separation between the monument's paleontology and history themes. [45]

Kim Sikoryak and Loye Miller at Cant Ranch
The NPS did what it could to reconcile paleontology to the Cant Ranch setting. One room in the house interpreted the ranch story (top) while fossil exhibits dominated the main visitor contact area located across the hall. Interpreter Kim Sikoryak (bottom) portrayed naturalist Loye Miller (who accompanied the 1899 University of California Expedition) in a living history presentation which took place near the house during the summer of 1980.
(NPS photos)

Ladd called for site planning assistance after acting regional director William J. Briggle visited the park in 1986. [46] NPS personnel in Seattle subsequently drafted a task directive for the site plan, hoping that the document might guide the next 15 years of rehabilitation, adaptive use, and development of new structures and exhibits in or near the Cant Ranch complex. [47] A four member team formulated several recommendations in the plan. They assumed that budgetary limitations might allow the proposed Thomas Condon Visitor Center to serve only visitor orientation and interpretive center uses. As a result, associated functions such as fossil preparation, laboratory demonstrations, storage, research, and group seminars might have to remain at the Cant Ranch complex. [48] The team also suggested moving the vehicular entrance to the complex 300 feet further north. This allowed for more parking to be developed and better sight distance for motorists making the turn from State Highway 19. They stressed that a new entrance could also help visitors make a logical progression through the complex on foot once the NPS relocated its maintenance facilities from the ranch workshop to a new site west of the highway immediately opposite the ranch house. [49] Pedestrians might then go from the parking area to a prominent site orientation device. Once aware of their options, visitors could proceed toward exhibits and demonstrations which gave primary emphasis to paleontology. In recommending that the barn be used for this purpose, the team saw moving fossil preparation into the workshop as a logical complement. They also suggested that a research and education center be located on the ground floor of the ranch house, with NPS offices being upstairs.

In formulating this "logical progression" through the site, the team also made allowance for development of a self-guiding loop for interpreting ranch life. In its most basic form, the loop incorporated a display of ranch machinery on one side of the barn and a stop at some nearby sheep pens. [50] In addition, the team recommended using the screened porch of the ranch house to interpret ranching history. They also wanted consideration given to building a self-guiding trail along the John Day River which presented the story of pioneers and agriculture. As part of a larger circulation system, such a trail might provide visitors with access by footbridge to Sheep Rock. [51]

When their draft reached the Washington Office, NPS director William Penn Mott questioned the team's main assumption that functions associated with fossil resources had to be split between a proposed visitor center and the Cant Ranch. He could not understand why the proposed visitor center could not be designed to include exhibits, demonstration areas, and laboratory space. [52] Mott saw the ranch story as entirely separate and agreed with other Washington Office personnel that Denver Service Center planners could help the team determine the location and costs for a stand-alone visitor facility. [53]

Team members and representatives from the park met in Seattle almost a year later to review progress toward a final plan. They agreed to play down the draft's emphasis on rehabilitating the barn for interpretation, choosing instead to use it for fossil storage after stabilization work had taken place. The participants also wanted to address moving park headquarters to the Cant Ranch in the final plan, something which represented a new consideration. [54] Further progress on the plan halted once Ladd opted for the stand-alone visitor center in November 1988. [55] He still wanted to see if moving headquarters to the Cant Ranch complex might be feasible and asked for a formal evaluation to be conducted over the following year. [56]

Although the site plan never reached a stage where it could be finalized, the NPS implemented two of the team's suggestions. One had to do with signage and resulted in the design of new entrance motifs for the Sheep Rock Unit. [57] Park curator Ted Fremd formulated a plan to guide paleontological research at the monument in response to the team's observation that the degree, extent, and level of involvement in this activity needed to be addressed. [58] Planning for a new maintenance facility continued, but most of the issues the team raised did not receive further examination until Congress approved funding for preliminary design of the Thomas Condon Visitor Center in 1989. [59]

Potential site for
the monument's visitor center
Private land on Rattlesnake Creek, south of Picture Gorge in 1981.
This is Tract 101-07, which the planning team favored as a potential site for the monument's visitor center.
(NPS photo by Jim Mack)

That December the NPS selected a site for the visitor center across from the Sheep Rock Overlook, but west of State Highway 19. [60] Planning began anew despite previous efforts which took place from 1978 to 1980. At that time the NPS slated the facility to be built at the Sheep Rock Overlook and completed a preliminary design. [61] After shelving the project for lack of construction funds in 1980, the NPS did nothing to consider other sites for a visitor center until 1987. [62] At that point the team associated the Cant Ranch site plan with recommendations concerning several prospective locations for a visitor center along US 26 and State Highway 19, but indicated some preference for one south of Picture Gorge near Rattlesnake Creek. [63] Despite some initial interest in this and other alternative locations, the proposed visitor center remained at Sheep Rock Overlook for the moment because of concerns about having to acquire private land. [64] The overlook's small size and proximity to the Cant Ranch resulted in a subsequent shift in NPS attention across State Highway 19 to an adjacent site. [65] Sufficient space existed there to develop a facility visually separated from the Cant Ranch, while commanding a view of Sheep Rock so that visitors could focus on paleontology. Exhibit planning began as soon as the regional director signed a task directive for design of the visitor center. [66] Architectural drawings and other elements of the package, such as plans for site work, followed in 1991 and 1992 50 that actual construction could begin in 1993 or thereafter. [67]

Site plan, February 1993
Site plan, February 1993. Existing structures are shown in black and prospective buildings are shaded. State Highway 19 divides the visitor center area from Park Headquarters at the Cant Ranch; other roads and parking areas on the plan are proposed. Except for the trail from Sheep Rock Overlook to the ranch house, all of the trails (shown by dotted lines) are planned. The "p" indicated a future picnic area near the John Day River.

From its outset, planning for the visitor center included Ladd's desire to move park headquarters from John Day to the Sheep Rock Unit. Planners initially had administrative functions housed in the visitor center, but park employees saw the ranch house as compatible with a headquarters office as well as continued public use in the form of picnicking and interpreting ranch life. [68] This led to another round of site planning for the ranch complex, primarily to study future rehabilitation options. This site plan, however, soon included design of a small residential area and locations for the proposed maintenance facility. [69]

Since the funds appropriated for visitor center design allowed for additional site planning at the Cant Ranch complex, the NPS rolled them into one development package. [70] Plans associated with it effectively updated the monument's GMP and DCP when the NPS released an environmental assessment in 1993. [71] The proposed action described functions and site improvements associated with a visitor center, removal of the road and parking area from Sheep Rock Overlook, as well as rehabilitation and new construction needed at the Cant Ranch complex. [72]

In a similar vein, completion of an interpretive prospectus in 1991 served to update the monument's interpretive plan. The latter had been formulated to support plans for a visitor center and the GMP in 1978, but did not supply sufficient direction for the NPS to produce interpretive media through its service center located in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. [73] Consequently, the prospectus provided more detail about how interpretive opportunities related to the content of possible wayside exhibits, audio-visual programs, and publications. [74]

Having updated planning documents in hand did not, of course, necessarily translate into the means for their implementation. With this in mind, the NPS encouraged state and county contributions to the visitor center project in hopes of prodding Congress to appropriate money for construction. [75] Grant County responded in early 1992 by pledging funds to improve road access to the prospective visitor center. [76] A few months later the Oregon Economic Development Department agreed to underwrite bringing electrical power to the site. [77] Although these contributions remained contingent upon Congress providing money to build the visitor center, they did help the project assume a higher priority among NPS construction requests nationwide. [78] Planners nevertheless had to shelve the development package in 1993 because construction funds did not materialize. [79]

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Last Updated: 30-Apr-2002