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KYLE | The last Defense Department-owned piece of the former Badlands Bombing Range has been made safer by extensive cleanup efforts, but it could remain closed indefinitely to all but official personnel.

That’s the gist of a plan presented Friday at the Kyle College Center by two civilian Air Force employees, a contractor and three officials from the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Although the public was invited to the meeting, nobody but the Journal attended.

The plan addresses the 4-square-mile parcel known as the Air Force Retained Area. It's a remote patch of prairie and badlands straddling the White River, several miles south of state Highway 44 between Scenic and Interior.

Shawn Swallow, a bombing range specialist for the tribe, said he wishes the parcel could be officially opened to livestock grazing and perhaps even returned to the ownership of the tribe or tribal members. But he acknowledged the potential danger from unexploded ordnance that could still lurk on or under the area's most rugged and inaccessible terrain, where cleanup efforts have been foiled.

"Unfortunately, this is probably the safest thing for now," Swallow said, referencing the plan to leave the area fenced-off and closed.

The plan for the Retained Area is the latest chapter in the nearly eight-decade-long story of the bombing range. The range was established by the federal government in 1942 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where some Native Americans who resided within the range boundaries were forced to sell or otherwise relinquish their land and leave.

The range comprised a rectangular area of 534 square miles, and it was used for bombing and gunnery practice by military planes during World War II. That activity left the ground littered with debris and some "unexploded ordnance," which is the term applied to bombs and shells that fail to detonate but remain a danger because of the explosives they contain.

Between 1948 and 1977, all but one 4-square-mile parcel of the bombing range was transferred out of the Defense Department's ownership. Some of that transferred land is now included in the South Unit of Badlands National Park, some is held in trust by the federal government for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and some was sold back into private ownership. The transferred land has been subjected to government-funded cleanups, and all of it is open to at least some use, including grazing.

The 4-square-mile Retained Area was kept off-limits because it suffered especially heavy pummeling by explosives, and because it continued to be used for artillery training by the South Dakota Army National Guard during the 1960s and '70s.

Since the 1990s, the Air Force and the tribe have overseen extensive efforts to survey the Retained Area with sensory devices mounted on vehicles, helicopters and even one-wheeled, people-powered contraptions. Surface collection efforts and digs with shovels and backhoes since 1999 have harvested approximately 23,000 pounds of debris, plus dozens of artillery projectiles and cartridges. The unexploded ordnance was safely detonated where it was found.

Two especially steep and rugged areas alongside the White River and an area of sedimented bottomland were deemed too inaccessible to clean up, and a small bull's eye area could still be afflicted with debris or unexploded ordnance buried so deep as to be undetectable.

So, the Air Force is recommending that the Retained Area remain fenced-off and encircled by hundreds of signs that denote the area as dangerous and off-limits, even though everyone at Friday's meeting acknowledged that livestock is frequently let loose there. The extensive cleanup efforts have at least made the area safer for such trespassers, the officials said. The plan for the Retained Area also includes annual inspections and five-year reviews. 

Other alternatives for the future of the Retained Area have been studied, including further efforts to locate debris and unexploded ordnance, further excavation, and the eventual opening of the land to grazing. But those alternatives could cost up to an estimated $14 million.

The Air Force's recommendation to maintain the Retained Area's status quo is open to public comments through March 15 and will be the subject of three more public meetings on the reservation before a final decision is made.

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal and author of "Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills."