Tribal nat’l park could be setback for ranchers |

Tribal nat’l park could be setback for ranchers

by Matthew J. Trask
for Tri-State Livestock News

By 2016, the Oglala Sioux Tribe could be managers of the nation’s first tribal national park, on ground once condemned by the United States Government and used for 20 some years as a bombing range. Whether or not it becomes a tribal national park, the area may soon be home to a genetically pure conservation herd of buffalo numbering 1,000 head. The OST would get the annual excess from the buffalo herd, and if the tribal national park became a reality, could charge admission. This may sound like a triumph of democracy, but many believe it would be an extreme setback for ranchers in the area and could be a disaster for the Tribe as well.

The South Unit of Badlands National Park

The South Unit of Badlands National Park is comprised of some 133,000 acres on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which were part of the U.S. Air Force Gunnery Range. The United States Government acquired the ground in 1942 in a rather embarassing chapter of U.S. history. Families in the area were given very short notice that they had a limited amount of time to sell their land to the U.S. at Depression-era prices or face eviction. Regardless of their ultimate choice, some families never did find a new permanent residence. The Air Force declared the Range Excess Property in 1968, and it was dispersed in various ways, with the National Park Service managing what became the “South Unit of the Badlands” which was held in trust for the Oglala Sioux Tribe by the U.S. Government. A 1976 Memorandum of Agreement between the National Park Service and the OST authorizes the “Sioux Parks Board” to perform maintenance and upkeep of the South Unit. Under the MOA the OST receives the grazing fees from livestock on the South Unit and half of the fees collected annually at the entrance to the North Unit of the Badlands National Park.

A new management plan

The National Park Service generally updates management plans for each of its National Parks every twenty or thirty years; further, occasional tensions between the OST and the NPS showed the need for a revision to the 1976 MOA. In 1999 the NPS began the process of writing new management plans for both the North and South Units of the Badlands National Park; while the North Unit General Management Plan was completed without delay the General Management Plan for the South Unit was held off until 2006 and completed in 2012, with input from the National Park Service and the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority. A Record of Decision was approved in 2013 stating the preferred course of action and signed by representatives of the National Park Service and the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

The General Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement discusses a wide range of options for the South Unit, which were discussed between the NPS and OST. These range from Deauthorization of the South Unit to No Change to Alternative D, The Creation of a Tribal National Park, which became the preferred option. Some of the options varied only slightly from one to the other, and all of them had some things in common, for instance the construction of a Lakota Heritage Education Center just outside the boundary, subject to the availability of funds. Alternative D “focuses on restoration with expanded access for visitors.” Physically, under Alternative D, a small Development Zone around the perimeter of the South Unit would be outfitted with signs, trails and interpretive displays, while the majority of the Unit would be a Recreational Zone with minimal development. In addition there would be a small Research Zone with limited public access. Buffalo would be reintroduced “in range unit 505” and a small herd of buffalo would be kept near the White River Visitor Center “for demonstration purposes.” In addition, “livestock grazing leases would eventually be phased out;” like this idea or not, it has been the intent of the National Park Service since at least the 1976 MOA.

The GMP/EIS also proposes to convert the South Unit of the Badlands into the nation’s first tribal national park; this cannot be done by a General Management Plan, but requires Congressional legislation. “If you want to see a National Park Service lawyer cringe, capitalize the words Tribal National Park, because there’s no such thing yet,” says Eric Brunnemann, Superintendent of the Badlands National Park.

If the tribal national park becomes a reality, the 1976 MOA becomes void, and the OST will cease to receive half of the gate fees from the North Unit; the new park could apply for annual Federal appropriations, but the GMP makes it clear that such funds are not guaranteed. The OST could charge admission to their own park, but revenue generated by such receipts is unquantifiable at present.

Here come the buffalo

The General Management Plan for the South Unit of the Badlands says very little about buffalo itself, except “that they will be introduced in range unit 505.” Its basis in the plan to terminate grazing leases on eleven range units next year, some of which are outside the South Unit boundaries, and introduce 1,000 buffalo in something called the “Stronghold Grazing Unit,” is unclear to say the least. If the OST terminates those grazing leases, it loses approximately $600,000 in annual grazing fees.

“Buffalo could be introduced at any time,” says Brunnemann, “but we need to do an Environmental Assessment, study the social impact, all that. I’ve told the Tribe to slow down, but they won’t listen.”

The affected ranch families are understandably upset, and an offer to pay the first year’s grazing lease somewhere else isn’t helping. “Yeah, they’re offering us leases nobody else wants, that’s why nobody’s on ‘em already,” says Chancey Wilson, who ranches with his family near Kyle. “They’re leases with no water, stuff like that. Or they’re a hundred miles away.” Many ranchers have made improvements on the leases themselves. “This one unit, Dad put a lot of dams out there,” says Curtis Temple, who leases pasture and also owns ground in the proposed Stronghold Grazing Unit. “You know, at first we didn’t go to a lot of these meetings, we thought ‘they’re just gonna do what they’re gonna do.’ But then we started hearing about all these things, these buffalo and losing our leases, and we thought ‘we gotta stop this’”

According to OST Ordinance 13-21, which establishes the “Stronghold Grazing Unit” a group called Ranch Advisory Partners completed a “Buffalo Expansion Feasibility Study” which recommended 100,000 acres for the target 1,000 buffalo. How exactly the target number was reached is unclear. There are buffalo on the North Unit, and the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation authority already manages close to 1,000 head of buffalo in smaller bunches in different parts of the reservation, buffalo that are not forcing ranchers to lose their leases.

The South Unit GMP makes some interesting observations; it tends to suggest that the removal of “livestock” (domestic cattle, apparently) will minimize harm to exposed fossils. It does not explain how 1,000 free roaming buffalo will be different in that respect than smaller groups of more confined cattle. In the GMP’s discussion of the black-tailed prairie dog, it notes that “prairie dog population could increase because livestock are currently grazing.” It does not explain how a similar concentration of buffalo could coexist with a larger population of black tailed prairie dog. And finally, in a section on non-native plant species the GMP states that “A biennial yellow sweet clover is widespread through the North Unit… This plant is of concern because it may be causing ecological damage by its soil changes… Yellow sweet clover seems to be suppressed in the South Unit due to livestock grazing and drier soils. The removal or reduction of livestock grazing may cause an increase in the distribution and abundance of sweet clover in the South Unit.” Allowing for the “drier soils” and the fact that nothing is known of population distribution of buffalo in the North Unit, the buffalo do not seem to be suppressing the sweet clover, a species of concern to the NPS.

The second taking

There are private land holdings, including homesteads, in the area and the landowners and residents are sometimes terrified that they will once again be forced to relocate. OST Ordinance 13-21 notes that “Article V, Section 1 (1) (of the Tribal Constitution) authorizes the Tribal Council to purchase, under condemnation proceedings, land for public use…” Eric Brunnemann makes it clear that this doesn’t have to be. “If that private land is there, if those buildings are there, that’s there. If they want it fenced out, we can fence that out.” He also said he didn’t envision problems with access to private property.

Sandra Buffington is not so sure. “That condemnation language, we’ve asked them to take that out, and they’ve promised to take it out, but it’s still in there. Well, I’ve been around long enough, I know that if it’s in there, they’re gonna use it someday.” Buffington ranches in the disputed area; she and her husband Don operated Buffington Rodeos, a stock contracting company, for years. The idea that she would be forced to relocate by the Tribe weighs heavily on her. “If you’ll recall, there’s a church up on Cuny Table, and there’s a cemetery there too. My grandpa’s buried in that cemetery. And all these other people, the Cunys, the Swallows, the Twiss’, they’re all up there too. These guys, you can tell they don’t have a heart for the people. You look ‘em right in the eye and say ‘you can’t kick us out of there, that’s our home,’ and they look at you like ‘you poor thing, we feel so bad for you.’ Back when I was young, when Don was still alive and we were working together, they put buffalo out there in 505 and Geeminee Christmas, they scattered, just like salt in the wind. They called us up and asked us to help put them back and we spent weeks out there, what a mess. I tell you what; I’m old. I spent years working hard, traveling up and down the road, me and my husband to put together what I got. And I’ll be damned if I’ll let it go without a fight.”

Chancey Wilson says that at one public meeting on the proposal a tribal official called the ranchers, most of whom have Indian blood, “wasicus exploiting cheap land.”

“Some of the other tribal members got up and said ‘Our land ain’t cheap, and the ranchers are doing a pretty good job runnin’ it,’” Wilson recalled.

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