It’s been 10 years since the Cold War crumbled to pieces along with the concrete and mortar of the Berlin Wall, but it’s only been five years since the impact of that event was felt in Missoula. What made the war’s end hit home for us was 1994’s Defense Authorization Act, a federal bill decreeing that Fort Missoula would one day be passed from the U.S. Army to a small non-profit group called the Northern Rockies Heritage Center (NRHC).
Since then, the NRHC has become much larger, wiser, and more bureaucracy-savvy. You can hear it in the language of the directors, who now use military lingo to explain why the fort is finally on the verge of going civilian—almost.
“It was a natural conduit for the army to use the BRAC process to turn the property over to us,” says co-director Timothy Gordon. BRAC, it turns out, stands for Base Realignment and Closure, a protocol used by the army for decommissioning—or as Gordon calls it, “de-excessing”—bases like Fort Missoula. What BRAC does is make sure that Missoula’s historic fort is safe, sturdy and up to code before the army hands it over to the Heritage Center. So even though the transition has been delayed for years, Gordon says it’s worth the wait.
“The benefit that we’ve gotten out of being patient on this is that the army has to take care of all the infrastructure,” he says. “Who’s gonna take care of the streets, the sewer, the power lines, the water system? All of these things have now been taken care of by the army, which didn’t leave us, a fledgling group without very much money, to have to deal with them.”
In the meantime, Gordon notes, the civilian occupation of Fort Missoula has continued apace. Over the past year, the feds have licensed several buildings over to the NRHC so that cultural, educational and historical organizations could begin setting up shop to form what the NRHC hopes will be a regional cultural center. Gordon now counts nine groups in the NRHC’s cultural hothouse, including the International Wildlife Film Festival, the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and, most recently, a branch campus of Walla Walla College.
But not all of the transition has passed so subtly. In a ceremony on the parade grounds Thursday morning, the army post at Fort Missoula was officially closed and signed over to the National Guard and Reserve. The transfer of the remaining property to the NRHC simply awaits the signature of the Secretary of the Army, a process officials say will take six to nine months.