After decades of discussion, and with significant hurdles still to overcome, 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. “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.”
The land being considered originally belonged to the Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST), but 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.
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.
Named the South Unit of Badlands National Park, the area lies entirely within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
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 final legislative step, which would officially make the South Unit a tribally managed park, will require congressional approval.
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.