RAPID CITY, S.D. — After years of work and even a signed agreement, the once-collaborative dream of having the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation be home to the nation’s first tribal national park has degenerated into a bureaucratic standoff.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe has passed a resolution halting its participation in the project. Badlands National Park, meanwhile, is withholding $442,000 of the tribe’s share of park gate receipts because of the tribe’s failure to produce required annual financial reports.
The two sides had spent the past nine years developing a plan to convert Badlands National Park’s South Unit, which is within the reservation, to a tribal national park.
Chancy Wilson, a tribal council member, said the resolution approved in February by the council represents more than a stoppage of work on the plan. He wants to go further and remove the existing national-park designation from the South Unit.
“We want the National Park Service off our reservation,” Wilson said.
Badlands Superintendent Eric Brunnemann said his communication with the tribe has dwindled, and he’s awaiting word from Park Service superiors on how they want to proceed with Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele and other tribal officials.
“Right now it’s probably going to have to be a conversation between President Steele and our director in Washington,” Brunnemann said.
Just three years ago, Brunnemann and Yellow Bird Steele sat side-by-side in a tipi and signed an agreement to convert the South Unit to a tribal national park operated by tribal members. Yellow Bird Steele now opposes the project.
The land in the South Unit was taken from the tribe and its members by the U.S. War Department (now the Defense Department) in the 1940s for use as a practice bombing and gunnery range. About 125 people were relocated.
In 1976, the government and the tribe struck an agreement that gave ownership of the land back to the tribe but essentially granted the government an easement to manage the land as part of Badlands National Park.
In 2006, the Park Service began a formal process to consider options for increased tribal involvement in the management of the South Unit. That effort culminated six years later in the signing, by Brunnemann and Yellow Bird Steele, of a document that put the South Unit on a path to become a tribal national park, with federal financial support, pending authorizing legislation by Congress.
The consensus quickly fell apart, partially because of activism by tribal members and others who were concerned about the loss of cattle grazing rights and associated tribal revenues under the proposed reintroduction of bison to the South Unit.
In February, the tribe passed a resolution that received little outside attention but dissolved the team working on the tribal national park project and deferred any further work on it until a pair of demands are met. Those demands are that the Park Service resume paying the tribe’s share of North Unit gate receipts and start handing over all the park’s surplus bison. The tribe claims both actions are required by the 1976 agreement.
Brunnemann said the park began withholding the tribe’s half of the North Unit gate receipts in mid-2014 because of the tribe’s failure to produce required reports. He said the 1976 agreement directs the tribe’s share of the receipts to the tribe’s Parks and Recreation Authority but also requires the authority to submit an annual budget and audit to Badlands National Park.
“To my knowledge, there has never been an annual budget or an annual audit of those fees, and that’s not acceptable,” Brunnemann said.
Wilson, the tribal council member, claimed the budget and audit requirements are not in the 1976 agreement.
“I’ve studied that ’76 MOA upside and down, and I don’t see it in writing in there,” Wilson said, referring to the acronym for the agreement’s official “Memorandum of Agreement” title.
Another tribal council member, Collins “CJ” Clifford, also claimed there is no language in the agreement requiring tribal submission of budgets and audits. “We read it ourselves and had our attorney review it,” Clifford said.
But the Journal obtained a copy of the 1976 MOA and found plain language that clearly directs the tribe to submit annual budgets and audits to the park.
Why doesn’t the tribe simply submit the reports so it can collect its money?
“I don’t know,” Brunnemann said. “I really don’t know.”
As for the bison dispute, the language in the 1976 MOA says the Park Service “intends to reintroduce species of animals, including but not limited to buffalo and antelope, into the Badlands South Unit. Any surplus animals will be given to the Tribe for restocking purposes outside the Monument boundaries.”
The tribe interprets that as a promise of all the surplus bison from the entire park. But the park has never reintroduced bison to the South Unit, and park officials interpret the agreement as applying to only surplus bison that accumulate on the South Unit after a reintroduction. The agreement does not give the tribe rights to all the surplus bison from the North Unit, park officials contend, although the tribe is regularly given some of those surplus bison.
With the disputes over the money and the bison growing increasingly intractable, Wilson seems ready to cut ties completely. The ideal future for the South Unit, he said, is to remove the national-park designation and give the land back to the tribal members who originally owned it, or their heirs. Wilson said his family is included in that group.
“I think we need to do something right for our people instead of continually accepting federal land grabs and having more dictatorship from the federal government,” Wilson said.