A plan to develop the South Unit of the Badlands National Park into a tribal national park with a large buffalo herd is caught up in controversy.
Robert Two Bulls and others living adjacent to the South Unit near the tiny reservation community of Red Shirt fear some of their land could be taken for a planned buffalo range in the park.
One version of the bison plan would use about 60,000 acres of grazing land, with herd possibilities up to 1,000 animals.
Opponents have gone to court to fight provisions of the plan, including its boundaries, which has been developed in partnership between the National Park Service and the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
One of the most vocal critics is the 80-year-oldTwo Bulls, a retired Episcopal minister who served at the nearby Christ Church. He fears for both his land and the church and surrounding graveyard and other property if the large herd is developed and range in that area.
"To use this condemnation to obtain this land, that's their intent," Two Bulls, who hopes to live out his life on his land near the Badlands edge, said. "They're not going to back off. That superintendent's pushing that."
Two Bulls is talking about Eric Brunnemann, superintendent of Badlands National Park, where widely known North Unit is heavily traveled by tourists and contains most of the park facilities. The more-lightly visited South Unit includes a former military bombing range, from which tribal families were displaced decades ago, and sites sacred to Native Americans. It is already managed by the National Park Service in cooperation with Oglala resource specialists, a partnership that aims to develop a national tribal park, complete with bison herd.
Brunnemann says the future of the park's South Unit is likely to include a large buffalo herd, something that tribal leaders have wanted since the mid-1970s. But the National Park Service isn't likely to take anyone's land for that project, Brunnemann says.
"There's been a lot of concern about the use of the term condemnation. It was a process that was used in World War II for the aerial combing range, and I realize that was a very hurtful time in the relations between our government and the people of the Pine Ridge Reservation," Brunnemann said. "Ultimately, what we have here is a congressionally designated South Unit and that boundary has been set up through Congress in 1968. We, as a National Park Service unit, will not use condemnation to do anything different from what we have in the 1968 legislation. We have a boundary on the ground. We don't condemn land in the South Unit. The National Park Service will not."
Brunnemann can't speak for the Oglala Tribe, however, which has separate powers as a partner in the South Unit management. Brunnemann says he can guarantee, however, that the bison plan will not move ahead until an environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is complete and landowners, grazing permittees and others have had a chance to air their concerns.
The National Park Service will be having informational meetings this week on the reservation and in Rapid City. And Brunnemann says he will visit Two Bulls and other landowners personally to discuss their concerns, if they wish.
"There are some concerns that I'm not willing to listen, whether the government's not willing to listen. And that's what the NEPA process is all about. It's more than just lip service, if you will," Brunnemann said. "We have to work with adjacent landowners, with the tribe, who is our legal partner in this, and until that happens, they will not be reintroducing buffalo into the South Unit."
But Two Bulls says he won't relax until the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council rescinds an ordinance passed last year in support of the bison range. The ordinance mentions the power of condemnation, while not saying anything specific about using it.
That mention is enough to worry Two Bulls and others. They are looking forward to a tribal court hearing on the issue this summer.
"We just want this law repealed, altogether. Repeal it," Two Bulls said. "We don't want it."
Two Bulls said it would be easy to ease property owners's concerns by changing the possible boundaries of the bison range to take it away from their area.
"What they can do is simple: just make another law, and this time ask people what they think before they pass it," Two Bulls said. "Move the boundaries of that plan away from us, to the east."
Informational meetings on the plan began Monday on Pine Ridge Reservation and continue through Friday.
The remainder of the schedule is:
Tuesday: 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the CAP office in Allen; 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the LaCreek CAP office.
Wednesday: 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Wounded Knee CAP office; 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Porcupine Clinic.
Thursday: 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Wanblee CAP office; 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Kyle CAP office.
Friday: 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. Brother Rene Hall in Oglala; 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Alex Johnson Hotel, Rapid City.
Comments may also be sent to the Bison Management EA, Superintendent's Office, Badlands National Park, P.O. Box 6, Interior, S.D. 57750. Online comments can be made on the National Park Service Badlands website; details are on the Park Planning page.