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For years, a 5,500-acre plot of green and golden yellow prairie just east of Wind Cave National Park sat unperturbed and largely undiscovered. Stories of its history — of Native American settlements, buffalo jumps and homesteaders — circulated not from man’s vision but from his lips.

On Tuesday, as haulers, graders, excavators and bulldozers buzzed about, a grin stretched across the face of Tom Farrell, chief interpretation officer for Wind Cave National Park, from beneath his park ranger cap.

“Thank God for the South Dakota National Guard,” he said.

Just a few hundred feet away, a rough, rutted, two-track dirt road was in the midst of transformation as National Guardsmen toiled beneath a powder blue sky grading the bumpy surface ahead of compacting and graveling work.

By next Tuesday, the project to grade and all-weather gravel the one-mile stretch of road — 266th Street off of Red Valley Road — leading to the park will be completed as part of the 34th annual Golden Coyote training exercises. The exercises, which began Saturday and will finish June 23, will keep the Black Hills and outlying areas abuzz as nearly 2,100 service members from nine states and two foreign nations undergo training relevant to overseas contingency operations and homeland defense.

Engineering projects like bridge and fire trail maintenance in Custer State Park, road work at Wind Cave and the Sanford Underground Research Facility, and timber hauling from the Black Hills National Forest to the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations, will keep the guardsmen busy. So will combat training like the urban patrol, convoy operation, first aid and firearms exercises at West Camp Rapid.

But it’s the road construction to Wind Cave’s previously untouched land that has Farrell excited and Commander Brian Schaff occupied.

After acquiring the land in 2011 with the help of the nonprofit Friends of Wind Cave National Park — the group also purchased the materials used for constructing the road — park officials began planning how to provide access to the area while simultaneously preserving its rich history. Just west of the road work, a yellow two-story house dating to the early 1900s sits unoccupied. Homesteaders settled on the land in 1881, Farrell said.

Before that, Native Americans called the area home. About 100 stone circles were found by the original homesteader as he plowed the land, Farrell said. On a ridge just north of the road and home, Native Americans used to herd and run bison off the edge of a cliff — a "buffalo jump" — then slaughter them at its base for food and shelter before guns and ammunition invaded the plains and its peoples and made such effort unnecessary.

“There are some tremendous stories to be told here and some great recreation,” Farrell said.

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Until 2017, when the South Dakota National Guard — which hosts the Golden Coyote exercises — agreed to complete the road work, there was one big problem: The road leading to the park sits outside its boundaries, meaning the park cannot spend money to construct and improve it. In came the South Dakota National Guard, the Golden Coyote exercises, and Farrell’s cheerful, thankful demeanor.

“This is an accumulation of a lot of people helping us,” he said, crediting Friends of Wind Cave and the National Guard in particular before calling the legwork to get money appropriated from Congress for then land purchase, and all the legal and financial snafus afterward, “a long and tortuous journey.”

But in just seven days, all the work and obstacles overcome by Farrell, park officials and the National Guardsmen will become just another story to tell about a visually unremarkable but historically rich plot of land where bison amble, prairie dogs mingle and ancestors whisper from caves.

“This is a project,” Farrell said, “where you can really see the benefit for years and years.”

Contact Samuel Blackstone at samuel.blackstone@rapidcityjournal.com and follow him on Twitter or Facebook @SDBlackstone.

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City Reporter

City reporter for the Rapid City Journal.