Rolling landscape and some history have been added to Wind Cave National Park through the acquisition of a 5,555-acre ranch made available to the National Park Service by The Conservation Fund.
The ranchland, located on the southeastern edge of the national park, includes a 1,000-year-old buffalo jump -- a cliff used by Native Americans to drive bison over to their deaths -- and a homestead dating to 1882, according to park officials.
The addition boosts the park's overall size significantly, as Wind Cave covered roughly 30,000 acres before the acquisition.
“The addition of this historic ranch to the park will help ensure that people for generations to come can come to know and love this treasured landscape and have the opportunity to learn about the indigenous peoples of South Dakota,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in announcing the acquisition late last week. “The park is an important economic engine for the state, and the new site will no doubt drive more tourism to the area and be a boon to the surrounding communities. I thank The Conservation Fund for their work over the years to turn this vision into a reality.”
President Theodore Roosevelt set aside Wind Cave in South Dakota as the country’s eighth national park in 1903. Considered a sacred place by the Lakota, Wind Cave is one of the world's longest and most complex caves, known for its outstanding display of boxwork, an unusual cave formation composed of thin calcite fins resembling honeycombs. It was the first cave ever designated as a national park.
On the surface, the park now features more than 30,000 acres of mixed-grass prairie and ponderosa pine forest that provides important habitat for bison, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, coyotes, and prairie dogs. It is home to one of America’s most ecologically-significant bison herds, which dates back to bison relocated to the park from the Bronx Zoo and Yellowstone in the early 20th century.
Native Americans hunted buffalo on the newly acquired land over a thousand years ago, driving them over buffalo jumps, or cliffs. The tract also features Native American tipi rings and other cultural sites.
The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting important places across America, acquired the property at auction from the Casey family last year and transferred it to the Park Service. This completes a process begun in 2000 when the family approached the Park Service about selling the land to the park.
“We would like to thank The Conservation Fund for the critical role they played in acquiring this property,” Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said. “Because of their help, we look forward to providing educational programs about the buffalo jump and historic ranch to area school children and all our visitors.”
In 2005, with support from the South Dakota Congressional delegation, Congress passed legislation to expand the park pending an appropriation to purchase the land. When the land was put up for auction by the Casey family, The Conservation Fund purchased the property to hold for the NPS until federal funding became available.
Congress appropriated the necessary funding this year from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which enables federal and state agencies to acquire lands that feature important historic, natural, scenic and economic benefits for public use and enjoyment. The fund receives significant revenue from the development of federally-owned offshore oil and gas rights.
"Over 100 years ago President Theodore Roosevelt had the foresight to protect Wind Cave," said Larry Selzer, President and chief executive officer of The Conservation Fund. "Thanks to the outstanding bi-partisan leadership of the South Dakota Congressional delegation and the dedication of the National Park Service, we celebrate this achievement to preserve our nation's treasured lands for generations."
Park staff will now start the public planning process to allow visitors to experience this new land. This year-long process, a Visitor Access Plan/Environmental Assessment, is expected to begin this fall and will determine, among other things, where and if hiking trails will be constructed. Broader planning over the next year will address how to comprehensively integrate this land into the rest of the park and address whether or not any new visitor service facilities are needed and whether or not existing wildlife management plans are adequate.
“We are initiating a thorough process to develop a management plan for the land that will involve many opportunities for the public to participate,” said Wind Cave Superintendent Vidal Davila. “In the meantime, we are looking at ways to get people out on the land so they can help with the planning process.”
A public dedication for the new land will be held October 15 at 10:30 a.m. Gates into the property will open at 9 a.m. The ceremony will take place outdoors atop a small hill. Participants are encouraged to dress for the weather and wear sturdy footwear.
Access to the ceremony will be from Red Valley Road north of the 7-11 Road. People wishing to attend can access the 7-11 Road (County Road 101) north of Hot Springs from either Highway 385 or Highway 79. Directional signs will be posted to facilitate travel. The route onto the property is normally closed, but it will be open Saturday for the dedication ceremony.
Light refreshments will be served following the ceremony. Visitors will be able to walk to the base of the buffalo jump but will need to plan for a three-quarter-mile round trip walk. Arrangements have been made for visitors with mobility issues.