SIOUX FALLS — Thousands of acres taken from the Oglala Sioux Tribe nearly 70 years ago would be returned and managed as a tribal national park under a proposal from the National Park Service.
The change involves the 208 square-mile South Unit that's part of Badlands National Park in southwest South Dakota.
In 1942, the U.S. government's War Department took what is now the South Unit from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to establish a practice bombing range that was used until the 1960s. The land was later returned to the tribe as government-held trust land to be managed by the Park Service as part of Badlands National Park.
Giving the tribe responsibility for the land is the preferred option from four management alternatives for the South Unit. It would be the first tribal national park in the nation and require congressional approval, said Steve Thede, deputy superintendent of Badlands National Park.
"We're setting precedence, kind of a scary place but kind of an exciting place to be too," said Thede.
The 133,300-acre South Unit and the more heavily visited 109,456-acre North Unit within Badlands National Park are now managed by the National Park Service.
Birgil Kills Straight, executive director of the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority, said full conversion to tribal management would take several years.
He said a tribal national park would complement a Lakota Heritage and Education Center being built by the tribe and tie in with a proposed scenic byway through the reservation to the Crazy Horse Monument being carved in the Black Hills.
The new management plan and accompanying environmental impact statement for the South Unit are subject to a 60-day comment period that will include five public meetings in South Dakota Sept. 14-16 and one in Washington, D.C., in October.
The preferred alternative could be adjusted or changed altogether, based on the comment period, Thede said.
"One of the things with this plan is we've done so many public meetings — 18 listening sessions and some other things — that we think we've got a pretty good handle on what the public wants.
"So I'd say the odds of that (major changes) are slim, but it's completely open and that's what the process is all about — doing what the public wants us to do."
At least 95 percent of the facilities for visitor use and park management are located in the North Unit, which is connected to Interstate 90 and draws more than 900,000 visitors annually.
The South Unit draws around 9,500 visitors annually and is operating this fiscal year on a $166,000 budget. The full park's operating budget is $4.6 million, according to the National Park Service.
Hundreds of Indian families were forced off the land in the 1940s. Some considered it their contribution to the war effort, while descendants of some families believe the land should be returned to them, Kills Straight said.
"There is overwhelming support for it among tribal members," Kills Straight said of the tribal park. 'There are some people who question it, but we've answered most of the questions in the public meetings."
"We can't change history," said the NPS' Thede, "but this is an opportunity to revisit the decisions that were made and maybe do a little better this time around."