A Park on Pine Ridge: A Longtime Partnership May Finally Lead to the United States's First Tribal National Park


It has taken decades of discussions. There are still hurdles to overcome. But now, the country’s first tribal national park may soon become a reality.

“Right now we are seeing the end results of nearly 40 years worth of conversation,” Gerard Baker, Mandan-Hidatsa from the Fort Berthold Reservation and the new interim director of the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority (OSPRA), told Indian Country Today Media Network. “The National Park Service has been in business for almost 100 years and we have never had a tribal national park in this country. It’s time to change that.”

Originally belonging to the Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST), the land in question was seized by the government shortly after the U.S. entered World War II. The Defense Department later used it as a gunnery and bombing range, Eric Brunnemann, the superintendent of the Badlands National Park in Interior, South Dakota, told ICTMN.

In 1949, the military land was declared excess, and in 1968, 140,000 acres were given to the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service (NPS) to be held in trust. Then, in 1976, the OST and NPS signed a memorandum of agreement detailing the terms of co-managing 133,300 of those acres, Brunnemann said.

Dubbed the South Unit of Badlands National Park, the area lies entirely within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Badlands National Park totals 242,756 acres.

By 2006, the tribe and NPS had begun talks to develop a general management plan (GMP) for the South Unit. While the park originally started a GMP in 2000, the process was separated in 2002 because of operational differences between the North and South units, Brunnemann noted.

The new GMP was submitted for federal review in late summer 2011 and, if approved, will be published and distributed for a 30-day public review. The GMP includes an environmental impact statement and a 20-to-30-year plan for staffing and development, he noted.

“We anticipate having the final GMP within the month,” Brunnemann said on April 17. “Following which time the NPS will sign a record of decision that implements the GMP.” At this point, the “NPS and OST can formally begin developing a legislative framework for creating the first tribal national park.”

The final legislative step, which would officially make the South Unit a tribally managed park, will require congressional approval.

“When you create a partnership with a big government agency, the NPS, and a tribal agency or government, there are a lot of advantages and endless possibilities, as well as challenges,” said Baker, who retired from the NPS in 2010 after 35 years.

Currently, the Badlands’ budget is $4.3 million and it attracts one million visitors annually, reported the Lakota Country Times. The South Unit gets $200,000 of that money and draws about 9,500 visitors each year.

“We’re going to do training and we’re going to focus on tourism and youth projects,” Baker told the Lakota Country Times. “We’re going to start with the White River Visitor Center, we’re going to get it promoted better, we’re looking at having cultural experiences here for visitors, [such as] brain tanning [and] bow making. [We’re] going to get the youth involved as well, help them to develop a better appreciation for the land, the natural resources and their history and culture.”

Baker and Brunnemann harkened to OST President John Yellow Bird Steele’s inauguration speech in November 2010, wherein he discussed the educational, cultural and spiritual benefits of a tribal national park for American Indian children.

“Like Tribal President Steele said, this is about our youth, the next generation,” Baker said. “These children are saying, ‘I want to be a tribal national park service archaeologist, paleontologist or manager.’ Tribal children are taking the reins of our world-class resource.”

Shifting to a tribal management should be a smooth transition for OSPRA, which currently employs 16 people, Baker said. “The tribe is not coming in blind, obviously,” he told ICTMN. “It already has an efficient force of park rangers from
OSPRA’s wildlife management programs. They are already working with paleontologists to reintroduce the swift fox to the landscape, as well as the mountain lion, which has been pretty much hunted down, and big horn sheep.”

Most substantially, the tribe plans to introduce a significant buffalo herd of up to 1,200 bison to the South Unit.

“This could be the largest environmentally sound, but also economically sustainable, herd [in the country],” said Baker.

He is confident that a tribal-managed national park will be a success, even if it is “off the beaten path.”

“People will come,” he predicted. “They will want to see the buffalo and animals on the landscape and hear first-hand experiences from tribal elders.”