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The South Unit of Badlands National Park is Likely to Become America's First Tribal National Park


Hikers in Badlands National Park. NPS photo.

Pending the results of management plan vetting currently under way, the National Park Service is primed to turn the South Unit of Badlands National Park over to the Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST) for management as America's first tribal national park. In other words, it looks like the Oglala Sioux Tribe is going to get their half of the park back.

The South Unit of Badlands National Park is an oddity, having been born of an administrative decision that incorporated a large tract of Indian-owned land into a national park in a rather heavy-handed manner. A gunnery and bombing range was established on OST land in 1942 shortly after America entered World War II. When the range was declared excess and closed in the 1960s, it was returned to the Oglala Sioux in the form of a government-held trust, and with the provision that it be part of the expanded Badlands National Monument. A Memorandum of Agreement stipulated that the OST-owned land was to be managed by the National Park Service.

The South Unit consists of two tracts of OST-owned land -- the Stronghold and Palmer Creek units -- lying entirely within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. For administrative purposes the reservation tracts are collectively referred to as the South Unit. At a little over 133,000 acres (208 square miles), the South Unit accounts for more than half of the park’s total area of 244,000 acres. (For map orientation, see this site.)

In 1976, the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the National Park Service reached a new agreement regarding the governance of the South Unit. Under these terms, the Park Service and the Oglala Sioux Tribe would henceforth jointly administer the South Unit. Two years later, Congress redesignated the monument as Badlands National Park.

The central problem is this: The Oglala Sioux Tribe doesn't like the way the federal government took control of the South Unit land back in 1942, doesn't like the way it is being managed today, and doesn't believe their grievances can be resolved unless management of the land -- the tribe's land -- is returned to them for management.

There has never been any argument about the basic fact of Indian ownership of the land, or that Indians were badly treated when the gunnery and bombing range was established nearly 70 years ago. The military gave the Indians then in residence -- about 800 of them -- just one week to vacate. Subsequent decades of U.S. Air Force bombing and gunnery left the targeted areas of tribal land crater-pocked and littered with unexploded ordnance, some of which remains to this day.

The administration of tribal land within Badlands National Park has left the Oglala Sioux feeling ignored and disrespected. A promised new visitor center and road improvements never materialized. While the North Unit has a paved road and a nice visitor center, the South Unit has a substandard road system and a visitor center that is housed in a converted trailer and open only seasonally. Operating on an annual budget of just $166,000 -- less than 4% of the park's operating budget -- the South Unit attracts only about 9,500 visitors a year, which is just 1% of the park's annual visitation (933,918 last year).

There are other issues, too. The Park Service’s management of the massive fossil deposits and valuable wildlife resources on tribal land leaves much to be desired. The Oglala Sioux insist that they can take better care of these resources, which include extensive grasslands, the world’s richest Oligocene epoch fossil beds (but no dinosaur fossils) and some federally listed endangered species, including the black-footed ferret.

The defects of the joint administration approach to the management of the tribal land have been obvious for a long time, and for more than a decade now it's been clear that the deeply flawed arrangement cannot be allowed to limp along indefinitely. Between 1982 and 1999, the North and South units were both managed according to a Master Plan and Development Concept Plan. After the development of a General Management Plan for the park was authorized in 1999,the ensuing public scoping meetings left no doubt that the new management plan could not work unless it forthrightly addressed the South Unit's serious problems.

Understanding that the GMP/EIS development process could be made to work to their great advantage, and knowing that time was on their side, the Oglala Sioux adopted an adversarial stance that threatened to delay the vetting process indefinitely. In 2002, a failed Park Service attempt to resolve the impasse through negotiations with the OST and the Bureau of Indian Affairs led to an NPS decision to proceed with separate GMP/EIS processes for the park's two units. The process for the North Unit was then continued while the South Unit GMP/EIS was postponed until 2006.

By the time the South Unit GMP/EIS development process was officially launched in 2008, it was evident that the OST would get a new deal very favorable to their interests. The ideas incorporated into managerial alternatives on the basis of public meetings, planning team meetings with NPS and OST members, agency comments, and other inputs were many and varied, but returning the tribal land to tribal management remained the path of least resistance.

The Park Service greased the ways. Dr. Paige Baker, a Mandan/Hidatsa Indian from North Dakota, was appointed Badlands superintendent in 2006 and served until his retirement last December. With the backing of top Interior Department officials, and at least implicit Congressional approval, Dr. Baker vigorously argued for a fundamental change in the South Unit’s managerial arrangements -- a change that would, at the very least, have the OST playing a much more central role in the management of the South Unit. The park's new superintendent (as of August 2010) is Eric Brunnemann, a veteran administrator who has extensive experience with Indian tribes, openly admires Dr. Baker's work at Badlands, and has pledged to continue where Dr. Baker left off.

Things are moving along swiftly. The draft South Unit GMP/EIS that is now being reviwed, and which can be viewed at this site, poses seven management options:

• Option 1: Continue Current Management
• Option 2: The Preferred Management Option: Tribal National Park
• Option 3: Shared Management
• Option 4: Affiliated Area
• Option 5: New National Park
• Option 6: Deauthorization
• Option 7: Oglala Sioux Tribal Park

The option the Park Service prefers would put the OST in charge of implementing the South Unit GMP/EIS and create America's first tribal national park:

Congress would designate the South Unit of Badlands National Park as a Tribal National Park, managed and administered by the OST and closely associated with the national park system. The Tribal National Park would be managed in a manner consistent with the Tribal laws and resolutions of the OST and guided by all laws and policies generally applicable to units of the national park system. This option would ensure that the Oglala Lakota people manage, own, and operate their lands for the educational and recreational benefit of the general public.

Pending the construction of the Lakota Heritage and Education Center (LHEC), the White River Visitor Center would serve as the primary visitor contact area for the tribal park, which would be identified by signs featuring both the OST logo and the NPS arrowhead.

To clarify the administrative and procedural details necessary for the full transition of park management from direct NPS oversight to the OST, a new agreement would be established between the OST and the NPS.

Upon execution of the new agreement, the 1976 Memorandum of Agreement would be replaced. The agreement would contain a Tribal park staffing plan, organizational plan, and business plan prepared by the OST with the assistance of the NPS. When completed, the agreement would be submitted to the OSPRA board, the OST Council and President, and the NPS, before being routed to the Secretary of the Interior for final approval.

The park would get technical assistance from the NPS upon request and would be funded by a combination of federal appropriations and entrance fees.

The Tribal National Park would receive an annual funding appropriation from Congress to manage and operate the park and would also be allowed to compete for monies and technical assistance within the established NPS allocation process. Technical assistance could include interpretation, resource protection, and development of the LHEC. Additionally, the Tribal National Park would be authorized to implement an entrance fee with the provision that those funds would be used for park operations.

The OST would be responsible for the training and development of staff and volunteers, with technical assistance from the Park Service. Eventually, the staff of the Tribal National Park would be OST employees.

At the start of the transition, experienced NPS employees would staff administrative and resource positions, mentoring Tribal employees in managerial and other skills through on-the-job and in-service training and other professional developmental programs. As the Tribal employees develop the necessary skills, they would step into the positions previously held by NPS employees and assume responsibilities for park operation. Tribal park employees would receive on-the-job training; would have access to NPS servicewide training as well as relevant training opportunities outside the NPS; and would have opportunities to take relevant training and coursework outside the NPS at local or regional institutions of higher education, funded by NPS.

While it is intended that the new Tribal National Park should be wholly under tribal management as soon as practicable, continued responsible stewardship of the new park remains a key objective. The Park Service-backed alternative provides that "Resources would be managed to perpetuate and protect the natural environment and to preserve cultural and historic resources and values, following the ordinances and regulations established by the OST and the policies pertaining to units of the national park system."

To accommodate tribal needs and wants, the OST would introduce some managerial practices not currently allowed in Badlands National Park. For example, OST-regulated hunting would be permitted for tribal members.

Converting the South Unit into an OST-managed Tribal National Park would require congressional approval, but that does not appear to be a major hurdle.

The draft South Unit GMP/EIS is subject to a 60-day comment period that will entail five public meetings in western South Dakota during September 14-16 and one in Washington, DC, in October. The public is also invited to comment electronically on the NPS’ Planning, Environment, and Public Comment (PEPC) website and/or at the Badlands National Park website. The public may also mail comments directly to the park (Superintendent, Badlands National Park, P.O. Box 6, Interior, South Dakota 57750).

The Park Service includes this privacy declaration with its invitation:

Before including your address, phone number, e-mail address, or other personal identifying information in your comment, you should be aware that your entire comment, including your personal identifying information, may be made publicly available at any time. While you can ask us in your comment to withhold your personal identifying information from public review, we cannot guarantee that we will be able to do so. We will make all submissions from organizations or businesses, and from individuals identifying themselves as representatives or officials of organizations or businesses available for public inspection in their entirety.

The public comment period closes on October 19. Following distribution of the final plan (and a 30-day no-action review period), the Badlands National Park superintendent and the NPS regional director will sign a Record of Decision documenting the NPS selection of an alternative for implementation.

Postscript: Other tribes that own lands within national park borders are intently watching the drama currently unfolding at Badlands National Park. If the Park Service decides to transfer the South Unit to the Oglala Sioux Tribe for management as a tribal national park, some other tribes will be sorely tempted to pursue the same goal. Perhaps the most obvious example is at Arizona’s Canyon de Chelley National Monument, where Navajos have long objected to the arrangement by which the Park Service jointly manages (with the Navajo Nation) a park consisting entirely of Navajo Tribal Trust Land.


Bob, thank you for presenting an article that lays out facts with no obvious bias. Too often these days, opinions seem to trump objectivity. This sounds like it could be a win-win situation if it is done with wisdom and care.

Yes, thanks for this.

I hope the OST can manage this resource effectively. I visited the Badlands (one of my favorite places), but I couldn't help but notice the poverty in Pine Ridge. I want tribal lands returned to their rightful owners, but will they be able to maintain it as an open, public land for everyone's enjoyment? It's a fairly tough job (albeit the NPS doesn't always succeed, either, to be sure).

I'm going to be watching this one. I hope it works for them.

Good job on this article!

As everyone is saying, another fine job.

I am glad you are inching toward the key issue of addressing partnership parks. There must be a way the skills developed in the better of the heritage areas can be applied to national park proposals where enlightened conservation is necessary, but no preservation can occur without collaborative management.

Chesapeake, Blackstone, Maine Woods and the Hudson River Valley are currently being discussed.

Years ago in Alaska, the National Park Service proposed that a large core area in the Gates of the Arctic -- an area including Native lands in Anaktuvuk Pass and the John River Valley to the state-claimed lands north of Bettles, all be included in an area called "Nunamiut Wildlands." Plus, the then-enlightened NPS was negotiating for what it called "wandering rights" for visitors to hike across private lands, and key "Areas of Ecological Concern" on the boundaries of Gates of the Arctic park where the NPS would collaborate with local land owners to avoid inadvertent or thoughtless damage that could affect the park through sprawl or development, with no federal restrictions on private land decisions. NPS began what at first seemed to be fruitful discussions with the state of Alaska to keep the Oil Pipeline "Haul Road" closed, so to protect the park from eventual road access along its exposed east boundary, with the idea that no ATVs or cars would ever be permitted in any of the new parklands in Alaska. And of course, provision to permit the continued opportunity for subsistence uses with local residents with a history of such use.

Provisions like these were required to secure a large area, containing not just the mountains and mountain passes, but the Arctic foothills to the north and subarctic foothills to the south. The hope was the perpetuation of an entire ecological zone.

This proposal actually was approved by the Department of the Interior when the NPS proposed it in 1973.

However, with its typical imagination, on the very last day, the proposal was blocked by the Office of Management and Budget, the same people who are undercutting partnerships and heritage areas today.

NPS had to stick an "errata [sic] tag" in every document disavowing its core proposal. This happened in December 1973. Very soon after, in 1977, the NPS lost first the proposal to include the northern-flowing Killik River in the park, and right after that, the Areas of Ecological Concern went into the trash bins of history.

With more flexibility on all sides, Gates of the Arctic would have been a greater national park. NPS staff needs the skill sets being developed in national heritage areas like Blackstone and Ohio & Erie, and other collaborative conservation strategies from groups like the Nature Conservancy. Success with the challenges that this Badlands proposal will face will depend partly on exactly those skill sets, win-win negotiations and enlightened imagination.

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