Travel: Interior Department, Oglala Sioux plan for country’s first tribal national park at the Badlands in South Dakota

Expanding the vision of our national park system

Badlands National Park, South Unit. PHOTO BY BOB BERWYN.
A new management plan for Badlands National Park calls for expanding bison populations into the South Unit. PHOTO BY BOB BERWYN.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — An expanse of high plains known as the South Unit of Badlands National Park could soon be the first tribal national park, as the Interior Department forges ahead with broadening the diversity of the park system.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis last week announced the release of the final General Management Plan and Environmental Impact Statement for the area, recommending the creation of a tribal national park in partnership with the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

“Our National Park System is one of America’s greatest story tellers,” Salazar said. “As we seek to tell a more inclusive story of America, a tribal national park would help celebrate and honor the history and culture of the Oglala Sioux people. Working closely with the Tribe, Congress, and the public, the Park Service will work to develop a legislative proposal to make the South Unit a tribal national park.”

The South Unit of Badlands National Park is entirely within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. The Park Service and the Tribe have worked together to manage the South Unit’s 133,000 acres for almost 40 years. If a tribal national park is enabled by Congress through legislation, the Oglala Sioux people could manage and operate their lands for the educational and recreational benefit of the general public, including a new Lakota Heritage and Education Center.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota.

The new management plan for the South Unit reflects the goals of the National Park Service’s recently released plan for the Service’s next 100 years. The Call to Action plan emphasizes a system of parks and protected sites that more fully represent the nation’s natural resources, history and cultural experiences.

The tribal national park would seek to promote an understanding of Oglala Sioux history, culture, and land management principles through education and interpretation.

“Continuing our long-standing partnership with the Tribe, we plan to focus on restoration of the landscape, including the reintroduction of bison that are integral to the cultural stories and health of the Oglala people,” said NPS Director Jon Jarvis. “We will offer expanded access and opportunities for visitors to experience the beauty and utility of the prairie as the Oglala Sioux have for centuries.”

Bison in Badlands National Park. PHOTO BY DYLAN BERWYN.

Under the plan, the National Park Service and the Tribe will focus on restoring the health and vibrancy of the prairie to enhance wildlife habitat, expanding bison into the South Unit, providing roads and trails and providing greater opportunities for visitors to experience the natural grandeur of the South Unit and the heritage of the Oglala Sioux people.

The National Park Service is expected to the plan this summer; however, congressional legislation is necessary before the preferred management option can be implemented. legislation.

Depending on Congressional action, the South Unit could be being administered through a variety of options, including as a unit of the National Park System managed by tribal members hired as NPS employees or managed by tribal members as employees of the Tribe. The plan proposes no change in overall responsibility or management absent Congressional legislation.

The “Call to Action” goal of engaging youth has already begun at Badlands where tribal and non-tribal students will work together as seasonal NPS employees this summer, receiving training and experience in the responsibilities of being National Park Service rangers.


“These are our future rangers,” said Badlands Superintendent Eric Brunnemann. “These are the young people that may lead a tribal national park into the future. I do see a time when our rangers will routinely work side-by-side with tribal biologists, archeologists, and paleontologists.”

In 2010, nearly 1 million visitors traveled to Badlands National Park and spent $23 million in the Park and surrounding communities. This spending supported more than 375 area jobs. With expanded future opportunities for recreation and education in the South Unit, a tribal national park is an exciting prospect for South Dakota.

During World War II, the War Department established the Pine Ridge Aerial Gunnery Range from lands within the Reservation. In1968, the Gunnery Range was declared excess, and Congress conveyed most of the lands to the Tribe with the provision that the South Unit be administered by the National Park Service. In 2003, the Tribe formally requested government-to-government negotiations regarding management control of the South Unit, and the Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Tribe agreed to use the general management plan process to explore options for greater involvement in the South Unit.


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