- Associated Press - Sunday, February 9, 2014

YANKTON, S.D. (AP) - If you live in southeast South Dakota or northeast Nebraska, Dugan Smith is bringing the Missouri River to a location near you.

The National Park Service, or NPS, ranger is converting a trailer into a mobile ranger station, with the assistance of local sign and electrical companies. The trailer, set to hit the road this spring, will offer free programs featuring educational and interactive panels about the Missouri National Recreational River or MNRR.

“We’ll even have a painting of the river on the floor,” the ranger said.

Park rangers, headquartered in Yankton, will take the vehicle to area schools, festivals and community events, Smith said. The trailer will also make stops at national and state parks in South Dakota and Nebraska.

“This station is unique nationwide because it’s both mobile and interactive,” he said. “There is one other national park that has a trailer, but it’s not interpretive.”

The MNRR consists of two free-flowing stretches of wild and scenic river. The 39-mile reach runs from just below Fort Randall Dam at Pickstown to Running Water. The 59-mile reach runs from just below Gavins Point Dam near Yankton to Ponca State Park in northeast Nebraska.

Upon entering the MNRR mobile ranger station, visitors will find each glass-covered display dedicated to an aspect of the river and its life. The panels cover topics such as fish and wildlife, American Indian culture, scenic and recreational opportunities, and geological and ecological changes.

The fish and wildlife section includes endangered, threatened and protected species, Smith said. The species featured on the panel include the least tern, piping plover, pallid sturgeon and bald eagle.

The cultural section tells the story of the Native American people along the river, he said.

“There are three panels for the Yankton Sioux, Santee Sioux and Ponca tribes. We will have a short story about each of those tribes,” he said. “We will also display buffalo hides and skulls, and visitors can use a touch screen to learn about tribal history.”

The exhibit will also look at the role of early homesteaders and steamboat travel, the ranger said.

“Today, we move our goods along the interstate (highway),” he said. “Back then, the river was our interstate. It was our major hub of commerce. We had steamboats that went to Montana - as far as they could make it on the river.”

The mobile ranger station will offer not only touch screens but also a big-screen television. The exhibit will offer something for all ages.

“The kids will enjoying reading the panels and pushing the buttons. They will also be able to put together something resembling a big puzzle of the river,” Smith said. “But the adults will also enjoy (the trailer) and have fun with it.”

Smith sought the mobile ranger station 1.5 years ago as a better way to reach the public, particularly those who haven’t visited the river.

“I talked to Steve Mietz, our (MNRR) superintendent at the time, and he said to go for it,” the ranger said. “We got funding and bought the trailer during late summer 2012.”

NPS staff started taking the trailer to public events last spring. With only the awning and exterior ready for display, rangers stood in front of the trailer and answered questions.

Even with such a simple beginning, the rangers quickly realized the mobile station’s potential, Smith said.

“We might have 15 to 20 people attending two interpretive programs on Saturday nights,” he said. “Here (with the trailer), we have 80 to 120 people at each event.”

Park ranger John Rokosz saw the positive reaction during the mobile ranger station’s visit to Riverside Park in Yankton during last August’s Riverboat Days. The station provided information to the public and offered educational activities to children.

“We want to let people know about what we have to offer here at the park,” Rokosz told the Press & Dakotan at the time. “And we want to get the kids involved, because that’s our next generation.”

Even life-long area residents may fully not realize the MNRR’s full story, Smith said.

“It’s important for people to see why Congress has made this a national park and recreational river,” he said. “This is a unique place. We have the two states that border it, and Congress designated the 39- and 59-mile stretches of wild and scenic river. Only one-third of the (2,341-mile-long) Missouri River is free flowing. Another one-third is channelized, and the remaining one-third is dammed.”

The mobile ranger station takes the MNRR story to the next level, Smith said.

“This is totally new for us at the Missouri National Recreational River,” he said. “We don’t have a permanent visitor center for telling our story, so this will be like a traveling visitor center.”

The NPS will continue partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the Lewis and Clark Visitors Center overlooking Gavins Point Dam, he said.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held when the trailer’s interior renovations are unveiled, Smith said. The panels will be updated as warranted.

People appreciate the river as a water supply, as hunting and fishing habitat, and as an important resource for business and the economy, Smith said. In that respect, it’s important to take the Missouri River’s message to the public, he said.

“This is their river, and it can be enjoyed by everybody,” Smith said. “We have the scenic beauty of the overlooks, the quiet of the sandbars and the cultural aspects of the river. There are so many stories we can tell.”

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Information from: Yankton Press and Dakotan, http://www.yankton.net/

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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