Skip to main content

Tribe may get part of Badlands

  • Author:
  • Updated:
    Original:

WOUNDED KNEE, S.D. (AP) - The National Park Service is considering management changes that could give the Oglala Sioux Tribe control of the 208-square-mile South Unit of Badlands National Park.

One option includes the complete return of the area to the tribe.

It's an apparently unprecedented set of proposals that, at least symbolically, would represent a reversal of the centuries-old tradition of land grabs by the U.S. government.

The proposal holds hope of economic development, cultural preservation and pride to some leaders of a reservation known for rampant alcoholism, poverty and joblessness.

Others worry, however, about handing roughly half of a national park to a tribe with a history of turmoil.

''We can manage the South Unit as a park,'' said Monica Terkildsen of the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority. ''I know we can do that. I have total faith that we have enough expertise here to do that.''

Some white owners of Badlands-area tourist attractions and campgrounds say they'd rather have the NPS retain control.

''From the track record of the tribe, I don't know how that would work,'' said Phillip Kruse, owner of Circle View Guest Ranch near Interior. ''It wouldn't hurt my feelings if the tribe manages it, as long as it's done well. But from what I've seen of the tribe, it's usually not done that well.''

The South Unit is vastly different from the North Unit, the part of the park most tourists see. The North Unit has the road that connects at both ends to Interstate 90. It also contains the park headquarters and virtually all of the park's modern amenities.

The South Unit, meanwhile, contains virtually nothing but nature - ''table mesas offering sweeping panoramas, incredible canyon washes and ravines, and foreboding walls,'' according to NPS literature.

''God has created the scenery there, and it's how it should be,'' said Guy White Thunder, 84, an Oglala Sioux tribal member.

The federal government owns the North Unit, which is managed by the NPS. The tribe owns the South Unit, which is within the Pine Ridge reservation's boundaries. The federal government took the land that makes up the South Unit during World War II for use as a bombing range. It later was set aside as a South Unit of Badlands National Park.

On paper, the tribe and the NPS jointly manage the South Unit. In practice, the NPS has most of the control.

The four concepts under consideration for management are:

* the status quo;

* more management duties for the tribe;

* turn management over to the tribe with technical help from the NPS; or

* give all control of the South Unit to the tribe.

The last option ''would deauthorize the South Unit of Badlands National Park and end NPS management there,'' according to NPS literature.

Thirteen meetings were held April 7 - 18 to allow public input. Ten were held in reservation towns.

A management plan is to be proposed a year from this fall. The three options that include greater tribal involvement are all said to require congressional approval.

Some tribal members want to maintain the unit as a park and improve visitor access. But some look at uses such as mining, grazing and farming. Still others think it should be returned to the original owners' descendants.

Some grazing already is allowed in the South Unit, with lease payments to the tribe. More grazing and wheat farming would be possible if the tribe gained full control.

The land also contains zeolite, a mineral with uses ranging from water softening to nuclear waste treatment.

There also are prehistoric fossils, some of which were damaged during the bombing range days or taken by fossil poachers.

Some, however, prefer the tribe's current role and do not want changes. During the public input meetings, ''One person, he wrote the word 'embezzlement' [on a marker board] - 'there are too many embezzlements going on, they're always in the red,' you know, that type of stuff,'' Terkildsen said, ''so they don't trust the tribe.''

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.