Will the Badlands become the first tribal national park?

Oglala Lakota leaders hope to transform their bombed-out Badlands and help lift the tribe out of poverty, but it won’t be easy.

  • Louie Brings Plenty carries sweet grass for burning while singing prayers on the sharp pinnacle overlooking the Stronghold in Badlands National Park. Louie is the whip carrier for a Lakota Tokala society, a traditional Warrior Society, and a member of NYM, the Native Youth Movement.

    Aaron Huey
  • Keith Janis' hogan on Stronghold Table in the South Unit of Badlands National Park.

    Brendan Borrell
  • The Palmer Creek area of Badlands National Park, part of what could become the first tribal national park.

    Steven Donley, NPS
  • A storm moves into the town of Manderson, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

    Aaron Huey
  • Badlands National Park paleontologist Rachel Benton has worked to protect the park's Titanothere fossils from looters.

    Brendan Borrell
  • John Rondeau, showing the scars of life on the reservation, says the new park won't help people like him.

    Brendan Borrell
  • Gerard Baker is optimistic that a new tribal national park could be a model for management of other parks on tribal lands.

    Brendan Borrell
  • The former military bombing range as seen from Sheep Mountain Table in the South Unit of Badlands National Park.

    Rikk Flohr
  • Former national rodeo star Merle Temple runs cattle on land leased from the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the South Unit of the park. He fears his family would be kicked off their land for a second time, if the park plan goes through.

    Brendan Borrell
 

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There are also doubts over whether existing tribal institutions are up to managing a national park and its finances. OSPRA, despite its earnest staff, is plagued with problems. One evening, I sat in on a board of directors' meeting in Manderson. A dozen people sat around two folding tables as a crockpot of bison stew simmered in the kitchen.

The front of the blue wooden building, which is owned by OSPRA, was a warren of cubicles -- relics from a failed call center that has since been rented out intermittently. OSPRA had also recently lost the concession to the Cedar Pass Lodge in the North Unit, and a vacant property in the town of Interior was eating into its budget. It was forced to up its general line of credit to $375,000. Now, it was struggling with its core mission: bison management. A hundred or so head had vanished, and the FBI was investigating.

"How did we get so bad?" asked a woman named Donna Lamont. "We are so far in debt, but we don't know why we are in debt."

"Look at the big picture," said Virgil Bush, the board president. "We have that South Unit here. The governing body is going to be responsible for millions of dollars. How are we going to manage that, if we can't manage what little we have here?" He sighed. "This is a big ol' black eye financially. We're not making nothing out of it."

A few days later, I opened my tent and looked out across an expanse of desiccated bison poop. I had arrived after midnight to sleep at the North Unit's Sage Creek campground. I saw a pair of bison lazily shifting in the morning sun. Their shaggy winter coats seemed to be peeling off like old carpet. Nearby, a chubby white guy stood in the grass with a brown felt hat, a sage green shirt, and khaki pants, his hand in a Costco-sized box of Cheerios. He was from New Jersey, and his name was Jonathan.

I asked if he knew much about the South Unit. Last year, he had visited the reservation. He spent the whole day driving around on bad roads and was so paranoid he handed out $20 bills whenever he parked his car. He didn't see much. "I was intimidated," he said. "I can hike around here, no problem, or I can go down there and there's a slight chance I'll come across a bomb."

I thought Jonathan's concerns seemed overblown. Still, it's not uncommon for outsiders to find Pine Ridge intimidating -- a formidable challenge to increasing visitation to the park and the flow of tourism dollars to the reservation. Even the spectacular North Unit has always been a second-tier park -- a pit stop on the interstate to Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone. The prospect of sustainable tourism in the South Unit seemed even more remote given its serious image problems, not to mention its distance from a major highway. "We're not going to see a million visitors," said Ivan Sorbel, executive director of the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce. "You can't expect to throw a bunch of buffalo out there and expect (people) to come and look at them."

Indeed, a successful, mission-defining program like bison restoration seemed impossible in light of the tribe's financial problems, land disputes and the weight of history. The World Wildlife Fund is paying a consultant to help the tribe weigh the profitability of bison under various management schemes. But getting cattle ranchers in the South Unit on the same page as conservationists and other park supporters would be a challenge in itself.

To better understand these complications, one afternoon I met Merle Temple in Rockyford. Temple is a local legend: He won the Indian National Rodeo Finals in bareback in 1985 and qualified for the National Rodeo Finals in Las Vegas five times. Today, he leases range unit 508 in the South Unit from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and also grazes cattle on a patchwork of private land outside the park. In the management plan, the tribe has proposed building the Lakota Heritage and Education Center on a bluff overlooking his allotment, potentially removing his cattle and re-stocking the area with bison, so they could be next to the highway and easily visible to visitors.

In his home, Temple sat in a brown La-Z-Boy with a plate of noodles and beef. His face was sun-reddened and his hair matted from his wide-brimmed hat. "Ranching is hard enough to pay your bills," Temple said, explaining his opposition to the park. With gas costs so high, he'd resent being pushed to a distant pasture somewhere else. "That's just a little part of it for me," he added. "This is my home. I don't know why people can't understand that." His family, he noted, had been kicked off the bombing range in the '40s, and he wasn't keen to see history repeat itself. He suggested we drive out to the 508. The cattle wouldn't be there for another week, but he could show me the land before sunset.

Bison were reintroduced to the North Unit in 1963. Things have been more complicated in the South Unit, and the biggest obstacle today may be the Prairie Winds Casino. Expanded in 2005 with a loan from Minnesota's prosperous Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux, the casino employs 200 tribal members. But it loses money every year, and Temple said that grazing leases in the 508 and other parts of the South Unit are collateral on the casino debt, something I was unable to confirm with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "We might all be speaking Shakopee before long," Temple said, as we inched along the grassy lip of Stirk Table.

We dropped into a wide canyon, the ground lush with new grass, the dry riverbed pale and chalky. Once, Temple and his brother got lost here after dark. They finally saw their father's headlights up on the bluff and started galloping toward them. Temple doesn't have anything personal against bison. "A lot of times I'm just riding around thinking about the time before fences, when the buffalo was still roaming," he mused. "That must have been quite a sight."

Most of us like our stories to end neatly, with a clear conclusion. This one doesn't. It's still a work in progress, and no one can say how things will turn out for the first proposed tribal national park and the tribe that stands to benefit from it.

Still, the conflict on Pine Ridge at times seems irresolvable; the burden of history too heavy. The many arguing voices may seem like a major obstacle to the park's ambitious goals. And yet, I began to view those voices as part of the tribe's great strength. There is not one Lakota, but thousands. They are enduring and opinionated. The fight is part of their bones, blood and spirit. Were it not for that, they would have never endured for so long in the face of so many tragedies and injustices. And, yet, together, they are on course to make history by regaining control of national park land. That alone is something to celebrate.

Late one afternoon, I joined Jill Majerus, a tourism expert with the WWF, on a few errands around Pine Ridge. We were headed to the OSPRA trailers in Kyle, and when we got there, tribal biologist Trudy Ecoffey met us at the door. "It smells pretty bad," she warned us as we walked to the back of the building and opened a chest freezer. There, a gangly male wolf was contorted in the confines of this temporary coffin. His paws were as large as our own hands, and Majerus stroked his thick white fur. "He looks so much bigger than in the picture," she said. The stench of rot permeated the room. Ecoffey said that the wolf's collar traced to the Yellowstone pack, about 450 miles away. It had been hit by a car near Pine Ridge town. "This is our first one," she said.

As sad as the sight of its dead body was, the wolf seemed like a promising sign: a hint that the primeval spirit of this land had not yet been exterminated. Gerard Baker told me that bringing back wolves in the Badlands was too much to ask for. Sometimes, I guess, it doesn't hurt to hope.

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