It’s not often that both sides of a conflict push for the same goal, but such has become the case in the ongoing debate over where to build a new veterans cemetery in Western Montana. For six years, Montana veterans have attempted to work out a deal to expand the existing, and full, veterans cemetery at Fort Missoula to make room for new internees.
“Miles City and Fort Harris have veterans cemeteries. There is no veterans cemetery on this side of the state,” says Charlie Crookshanks, a Navy veteran and the chairman of the Western Montana State Veterans Cemetery Committee.
The land surrounding the current veterans cemetery at Fort Missoula was once owned by the U.S. Army, but the Army gave it away in chunks a decade ago, to the city, county, the Missoula High School Association and the University of Montana, says Crookshanks. Attempting to regain use of some of this land has proved a steep challenge for the veterans.
“We met with representatives of those four orders for several months and tried to work out an accommodation where we could have thirty to fifty acres…We were never able to do that.”
Part of the problem, according to Jerry Willis, a veteran serving on the cemetery committee, was that schools are disallowed by law from selling property for less than full market value.
“We can get all the [federal] grants to build a cemetery…but we can’t currently get grants to buy land,” Willis says.
With 35,000 Montana veterans presently living west of Helena, and World War II and Korean War veterans dying nationally at a rate of almost 1,800 a day, the site selection committee knew it needed to act fast, and turned to a piece of recreational land on Blue Mountain.
The proposed new cemetery site, which runs from Blue Mountain’s trailhead 3.01 down to Blue Mountain Road, was formerly a shooting range, given in 1949 to the dual ownership of the U.S. Army and the Forest Service.
Crookshanks says that the Blue Mountain site wouldn’t impact or interfere with any trails.
Wildlife author and Blue Mountain recreationist Susan Reneau disagrees. Reneau, who walks the proposed Blue Mountain site daily with her two Labradors, says “The bottom line is that I am not against a cemetery for veterans, but I am terribly against a cemetery, or…any organized human development at Blue Mountain.”
“There hasn’t been one person I’ve spoken to that has been anti-veteran,” Reneau continues, “but, unfortunately, if you follow the letters to the editor in the Missoulian, you might think that people who were against the Blue Mountain plan were un-American.”
In a letter to Congressman Denny Rehberg, Bradley Powell, the Forest Service’s regional forester, concurred with Reneau’s sentiments, writing: “The need for such a cemetery is important and we share your sense of urgency in finding an appropriate site. That said, we do not believe the site at Blue Mountain is the best nor most appropriate area for such a use.”
But with the prospects of a Fort Missoula expansion looking grim, veterans didn’t know where else to turn.
“If there were any chance at all within my lifetime of getting Fort Missoula property, we’d go ahead in a heartbeat,” says Crookshanks.
On Jan. 2, Montana Senator Dale Malum and Representative Dick Haines offered Crookshanks the chance he’d been looking for. Haines, with the aid of Malum, will introduce a bill employing eminent domain to secure land for the veterans at Fort Missoula.
“I’m trying to find something we can all be happy with,” says Malum.
Reneau believes that both veterans and the bill to locate the cemetery at Fort Missoula will find strong community support. And though she was vehemently against the plan at Blue Mountain, Reneau, whose husband is a veteran and whose father served in World War II, Vietnam and Korea, said that she would personally join in the veterans’ fight for a site at Fort Missoula.
Crookshanks hopes the bill will pass too, though he says that the site selection committee isn’t tossing its Blue Mountain plans in the trash yet.
“They’ve been trying to do this for six years,” Reneau says of veteran attempts to secure land at Fort Missoula, “but they didn’t tell anybody. I guess they figured it was their problem and they were going to take care of it, but if I had known earlier, I would have fought alongside them tenaciously for Fort Missoula.”
Indeed, Reneau could make for a strong ally, as she recently served as president of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula for three years.
And with the announcement of the bill on Jan. 2, Crookshanks and Reneau, once divided, suddenly found themselves united.
“We never wanted to be in an adversarial position with anybody, so if those people feel they can support the Fort and bring some influence to bear, well, welcome aboard,” says Crookshanks.
But the battle isn’t over yet. Reneau expects that legislation to expand Fort Missoula’s cemetery “is going to be very controversial. The soccer moms are adamant about the regional park with the soccer field.”
Senator Haines, meanwhile, believes there’s enough land for an expanded cemetery and a soccer field, but says that even if having both turns out to be impossible, his first concern is with the veterans cemetery.
“The sacrifices that these vets made is the reason we’re able to play soccer today.”
Two important events may help decide the fate of the cemetery: a public meeting set for the end of January, though no particular date has been scheduled, and the willingness of current Fort Missoula landowners to negotiate land trades.
Senator Malum says that when the last round of negotiations was held, the University was helpful, as was the Parks Department. Talks with the High School Association have been trickier.
In total, approximately 163 acres of Fort Missoula remain undeveloped.
“I can’t believe they can’t spare fifty acres,” Reneau says. “That’s just me, but it’s also a lot of other people.”
“We’re trying to do the best thing for everybody,” says Crookshanks, “but I still have to go back to the idea that I think veterans deserve a little extra consideration, so that’s what we’re hoping for.”