Badlands National Park will have a new, modern visitor center in the Cedar Pass section of the park due to grants and contributions from notable organizations.
The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust granted $3.3 million for the project. The Badlands Natural History Association will pledge $1.8 million, and Badlands National Park Conservancy will contribute $100,000 toward the project.
Helmsley Charitable Trust trustee Walter Panzirer said the trust wanted to be a catalyst for the Badlands.
"We are so excited we joined this partnership because this park, their visitor center, is older," Panzirer said. "It was built in the '50s and '60s, and majorly needs renovation to be to ADA standards, and also share the treasure of Badlands National Park."
He said the new center will be able to accommodate the increasing number of visitors and tell the story of the Lakota culture.
The new center will provide park visitors with more opportunities to learn about Badlands National Park's natural, cultural, historical and recreational resources; improve scientific study and understanding of its paleontological and geological resources; and help people connect with the past and present history, culture, and heritage of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Lakota People.
The current Ben Reifel Visitor Center is located on the North side of the park near Cedar Pass. The center is named after Reifel, also known as Lone Feather, the first congressman elected with Lakota heritage, to represent the state's first congressional district.
Panzirer said this is a community project, not just a Helmsley Charitable Trust project.
“The National Park Foundation is grateful to the Helmsley Charitable Trust for their investment in what will be a stellar visitor center experience that will welcome people to this stunning national park for generations to come,” said Will Shafroth, National Park Foundation President and CEO. “This project is a true testament to what partnerships make possible.”
National Park Service Director Bert Frost said the parks service started a development plan in 2015.
"If you know anything about the Parks Service, we don't do anything fast," Frost said. "The plan has been carefully considered. We refined it, we reviewed it. ... We got to the point where we're going to move into preliminary design for the visitor center, but we can't do these types of projects without partners."
Frost said the $5.2 million going toward the center will be used to leverage federal dollars.
"The federal government has a responsibility, the federal government will step up," he said.
Sam Benne, Badlands Natural History Association Board president, said the board has been planning a new center for the past 25 years and saving money for it.
Secretary of Tourism Jim Hagen said he's excited about the future development the new visitor center will lead to.
"This is a world-class park... it is deserving of a world-class visitor center and other facilities as well," Hagen said. "Over the last 10 years we have seen the interest in this park, especially globally, just explode. We are hearing from visitors literally weekly from all over the globe talking about Badlands National Park."
He said he believes the financial gift will be transformational for the park. He also said it's been a crazy summer and will be a record-breaking summer, although final tourism numbers won't be in until January.
Hagen said his department has been aggressive in telling their story on a global scale, which "has created a huge spotlight for South Dakota."
Plans for the new center are still in the works.
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