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Pruning the Parks: North Dakota’s Sullys Hill National Park (1904-1931)
One hundred and six years ago today, on April 27, 1904, Congress enacted legislation authorizing the disposition of certain lands of the former Devil’s Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota. A little over a month later, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive proclamation designating Sullys Hill Park on part of the former reservation. The little park was named for a hill that had been named for a general who didn’t show up when he was supposed to. The park turned out to be pretty much of a no-show too. After attracting little attention and few visitors, it was delisted in 1931, re-purposed as a big game preserve, and is now part of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Alfred Sully (1821-1879), the son of well-known portrait painter Thomas Scully, became an Army officer after graduating from West Point in 1841. He served with distinction during a decades-long career, rising to the rank of (brevet) Brigadier General by 1862. In 1863, while the Civil War was raging in the east, Sully was reassigned to Indian War duties in the northern Great Plains, where he had served during 1854-1861. There he was put in charge of the North Western Indian Expeditions (1863-1866) and earned a measure of fame as an Indian fighter while commanding cavalry units in various battles fought in the Dakota and Nebraska Territories against the Arapaho, Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes.
General Sully is remembered for many achievements, and for at least one inglorious non-achievement. At one point in his Indian Wars service, Sully was supposed to rendezvous with a cavalry unit on the south shore of Devil’s Lake in north-central North Dakota. The troopers camped on the highest hill in the vicinity and kept a close watch for him. When Sully didn’t show up, they named the hill for him.
The landform known as Sullys Hill became part of the Devils Lake Indian Reservation, which was superseded by the still-existing Spirit Lake Indian Reservation. On April 27, 1904, Congress passed legislation (33 Stat. 319) providing for homestead, townsite, and other appropriate uses of land in the former Devil’s Lake Indian Reservation. Article V, section 4 contains this statement: "...The President is also authorized to reserve a tract embracing Sullys Hill, in the northeastern portion of the abandoned military reservation, about nine hundred and sixty acres, as a public park." [italics added for emphasis] On June 2, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive proclamation creating Sullys Hill Park (known later as Sullys Hill National Park) on a 780-acre tract of hilly, wooded reservation land extending about two miles along the south shore of Devil’s Lake.
Exactly why Teddy Roosevelt chose to make a national park out of this 1.25 square-mile piece of the northern Great Plains (which he never visited) may never be fully explained. TR’s fond recollections of his ranching experiences and frontier adventures in western North Dakota (a story that is told well at Theodore Roosevelt National Park) doubtlessly inclined him toward favorable treatment of North Dakota, a place that few easterners knew or cared about. Some critics have claimed – rather plausibly, it seems -- that Roosevelt’s Sullys Hill Park proclamation was politically motivated. True or not, this particular park concept was ill-conceived and poorly executed.
To say that Sullys Hill National Park was remote and neglected is quite an understatement. In 1909, the Department of the Interior Report on Wind Cave, Crater Lake, Sullys Hill, and Platt National Parks, Casa Grande Ruin and Minnesota National Forest Reserve stated that the park, which was situated at least two miles from the nearest riverboat landing, had no decent road access, no buildings or improvements, no budget, and no staff. An official from the nearby Fort Totten Indian School was keeping an eye on the property, but that was about it. Annual visitation was estimated at about 50 campers and perhaps 200 day-trippers.
Although Sullys Hill Park continued to receive little attention with the passage of the years, officials did decide to restock the property with game animals that had been extirpated by unregulated hunting. During 1917-1918, 15 elk were translocated from Yellowstone National Park and six bison were translocated from Portland, Oregon. White-tailed deer were also reintroduced. The park’s woodland and wetlands ecosystems transitioned toward a more natural state.
If Sullys Hill National Park was pretty much of a bust as a visitor attraction, it was at least justifying its existence as a wildlife preserve. Then the Roaring Twenties gave way to the Great Depression, the federal budget came under terrific pressure, and it became clear that there would be no money to develop and staff remote, marginal National Park Service properties like Sullys Hill. On March 3, 1931, Congress delisted Sullys Hill National Park and transferred the land to the Department of Agriculture to be re-purposed as a big game preserve.
Congress made it very clear that the Sullys Hill tract would retain some important national park attributes – specifically, public recreational access, but without sport hunting. As spelled out in the enabling legislation for the new preserve (16 U.S.C. § 674a : US Code - Section 674A: Sullys Hill National Park; transfer of control; change of name to Sullys Hill National Game Preserve; boundaries; use by public; hunting):
The Secretary of the Interior shall administer [the former] Sullys Hill National Park, together with all improvements thereon, in the State of North Dakota, as a big game preserve, refuge, and breeding grounds for wild animals and birds, which shall be known as the Sullys Hill National Game Preserve and shall embrace within its boundaries the lands described in the proclamation of June 2, 1904, establishing Sullys Hill Park, together with all unsurveyed or public lands uncovered by the recession of the waters of Devils Lake in front of said reservation,....Provided, [t]hat the said game preserve is to be made available to the public for recreational purposes insofar as consistent with the use of this area as a game preserve: Provided further, That hunting shall not be permitted on said game preserve. [italics added for emphasis]
Today, Sullys Hill National Game Preserve, which has been administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since the agency was created in 1940, is a unit of the nearly 590-unit National Wildlife Refuge System. It encompasses 1,675 acres of hilly woodlands (oak, ash, basswood, and aspen), wetlands, and mixed-grass prairie lying south of Devil’s Lake and entirely within the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation. On its premises are several dozen plains bison and Rocky Mountain elk, around 30 white-tailed deer, over 250 species of birds (including turkeys and migratory waterfowl), a black-tailed prairie dog colony (introduced in 1975), and other wildlife.
The absence of sport hunting is not the only thing that distinguishes Sullys Hill National Game Preserve from most other units of the National Wildlife Refuge System. Thanks to game restockings dating all the way back to the World War I era, Sullys Hill is one of the very few national wildlife refuges (apparently only four) inhabited by bison and elk.
In sharp contrast to its Sullys Hill Park predecessor, Sullys Hill Game National Game Preserve draws a very respectable number of recreationists. About 60,000 people a year enjoy activities such as birding and other wildlife watching, nature photography, hiking, cross-country skiing, and scenic drives (the four-mile, self-guided auto tour is very popular with motorists). The preserve also has a Regional Conservation Learning Center and regularly offers programs and events for visitors, area school children, and others.
Postscript: It is highly unusual for a National Park-designated property to be abolished without being incorporated into another national park or redesignated as a National Park System unit. In fact, the only other instance is Mackinac National Park (established 1875), which was abolished in 1895 and transferred to the state of Michigan for administration as Mackinac Island State Park.