Unexploded bombs lie in ravines, a reminder of when the military confiscated the land from the Oglala Sioux tribe during World War II and turned it into an artillery range. Poachers who have stolen thousands of fossils over the years have left gouges in the landscape. On a plateau, a solitary makeshift hut sits ringed by empty Coke cans and shaving cream canisters. It is the only remnant of a three-year occupation by militant tribal activists who had demanded that the land be returned.
Now the National Park Service is contemplating doing just that: giving the 133,000-acre southern half of Badlands National Park back to the tribe. The northern half, which has a paved road and a visitor center, would remain with the park system.
The park service has dissolved 23 parks and historic sites since 1930, but none has been returned to tribes. "It's really exciting for us to think about walking down this road," said Sandra J. Washington, head of planning for the service's Omaha office, which oversees Badlands. "The intention is to be as honorable as possible."
The change would require congressional approval and the process is in its earliest stages, with officials still to decide whether the south section should be handed over solely to the tribal government, become a separate park run by the tribe with help from the park service, or left as is.
Tribal members seem torn. Some say they should be able to build homes there. Others push for a pristine nature preserve. Still others want more development to draw tourists to the massive fossils that remain.
The park service recently held several forums on the reservation and elsewhere in the region to gauge public support for these options. At a forum at Crazy Horse School in Wanblee, S.D., William La Mont, 44, was one of several who argued that the tribe would still need the service's help. "The tribe's not ready," he said. "The tribe's in the red."
Keith Janis, 48, one of the activists who staged the 2000 occupation, believes the land should be returned to its original owners or their descendants to do with as they please.
"That's not respecting the rights of the people who have nothing," Janis said of the proposal that the land remain a park. "The whole national park system is environmental racism against the Indian people of this country."
Many of the most renowned national parks -- Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon -- were formed after the federal government forced tribes from the land.
"The national park is a sort of wonderful ideal, but it's an ideal that was created," said Karl Jacoby, a professor at Brown University who studies Western history. "There weren't empty wilderness areas in the United States. They had to be created by the removal of Indians."
The confiscation of the land that is now the south end of Badlands National Park is fresher in locals' memories. In 1942, the military gave more than 800 people a week to move out.
Anita Ecoffey, 65, remembers her father describing what it was like to flee from his home taking only what he could carry, leaving the land where he had buried his parents.
"To me this is worse than what happened at Wounded Knee," said Ecoffey, recalling the infamous 1890 massacre of Sioux by the U.S. Army. "These were people's homes."
Legally, the land remained tribal property. But the government continued to oversee it after the war.
Control of it was handed to the National Park Service and the area was incorporated into Badlands National Monument, which became a national park in 1978.
Under an agreement signed in 1976, the park service operates the south unit jointly with Oglala Sioux park officials.
But the tribe has complained that the service has never lived up to many of its promises.
The government said it would build a cultural/visitor center to draw tourists to the southern half of the park, about 40 miles southeast of Rapid City. Instead, the only visitor center in the south is a converted trailer along an isolated stretch of blacktop. Until recently, Oglala Sioux rangers complained that the park service barely gave them any support, making it impossible to patrol the area and giving fossil poachers free rein.
"Everybody just takes advantage of it," said Birgil Kills Straight, executive director of the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority.
Relations have improved since Paige Baker, a Mandan/Hidatsa Indian raised in North Dakota, became superintendent of Badlands National Park in 2006. Baker stocked the park gift shop with books on Indian history and argued for a change in the southern section's status. Top Interior Department officials in Washington have agreed to abide by his recommendations, he said.
The park service "has got to listen to tribes," Baker said. "We have not done that as well as we should."
On the 30,000-member Pine Ridge Reservation, a patchwork of tiny towns and ranches centered in the nation's second-poorest county, tribal members aren't accustomed to trusting the federal government. But they say they believe the talk of the park's return is legitimate.
At the Wanblee forum, Marie Randall, 88, pointed proudly at the photos of the south unit on a bilingual flier the park service was handing out. "This is our foundation, this is our life," she said. "As long as we have this, the Indian will never end."
Washington, of the park service's Omaha office, said that the south section of Badlands is one of two national parks where the land is owned by a tribe and operated jointly with that tribe. The other is Canyon de Chelly National Park in Arizona, on Navajo land. Other parklands were taken from tribes long ago and their acreage is not currently owned by tribes. It's unlikely the park service would take similar steps with those parks.
Park service officials say they were already contemplating the hand-over before the 2000 occupation. A handful of tribal members took over a high tableland known as the Stronghold, believed to be the spot where the Sioux made their last stand against the U.S. military after fleeing from Wounded Knee.
Janis said he believed it was the aggressive stance during the occupation that pushed the park service to propose giving back the land. He said the terrain would be more protected that way. "The people took better care of it when it was theirs," he said. "Even the fossils were respected."
Some environmental groups are enthusiastic about the proposal. Jonathan Proctor, Southern Rockies/Great Plains representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said the Oglala Sioux had been better environmental stewards than many states. Pine Ridge has already helped restore declining populations of long-tailed fox and black-footed ferrets.
"The tribes don't get enough respect for what they do for wildlife," Proctor said. "It's not our land; it belongs to the Oglala Sioux. Who are we to tell them what to do with their land?"
© 2008 Los Angeles Times