South Dakota’s Badlands National Park

I went to the Dakotas to see how Nature Needs Half can be approached through a mosaic of different land protection types—public, private, communal, etc – encompassing wilderness, national parks, working landscapes, recreational areas, and more. What’s more, HALF is as cultural and personal as it is scientific and practical. I started in South Dakota….

The Badlands landscape felt mystical, and I was unprepared for the impact it would have on me when we visited South Dakota’s Badlands National Park and wilderness area.  In hindsight it was a mixture of numerous aspects that converged to form a multi-layered psychic impression.

First and foremost, of course, is the landscape itself. The black, brown, red and purple formations of fantastical ridges, mesas, and canyons interspersed and contrasted with expansive swaths of grass (made green by spring rains) is the result of some 75 million years of varied geological activity. The oldest (and lowest) part of it is fossilized mud from the bed of an ancient sea that extended from north to south for thousands of miles in the middle of what is now the United States. The succeeding upper layers of different sandstones and other rocks were laid down as the sea receded and primordial rivers deposited sediment on the floodplains, after which forests took over, followed by grasslands and eventually volcanoes.  In the last 500,000 years, this process of earth-building reversed and erosion took over, with wind and rain crafting a surrealist landscape masterpiece.

The large complex of protected areas – the 244,000 acre (100,000 ha) National Park contains a 64,000 acre (25,600 ha) Wilderness Area, all of which is surrounded by the nearly 600,000 acre (240,000 ha) Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, and adjacent to the famous Pine Ridge Reservation – is a wildlife treasure house.  It’s here that the black footed ferret, once thought to be extinct – has staged a comeback through the efforts of a well-managed species survival and reintroduction program.  The American bison, or “buffalo,” also once almost driven to extinction by humans, is expanding its numbers.  Less easy to see is the diminutive Swift Fox, bobcat, and bighorn sheep, plus of course the ubiquitous coyote, blacktailed prairie dogs, and more.  When I visited in late spring the birds were busy nesting, and the trill of the red-winged blackbirds blended seamlessly with the constant, lilting call of the western meadowlarks. All of this was framed by a cloudless blue sky…what a couple of days!

Finally, the human culture of the landscape is high intensity stuff. The Lakota spirit is everywhere and palpable, even though they only came into the upper Great Plains in the 18th century, pushing out the Arikara and assuming control of the vast grasslands and herds of buffalo, before they too were ruthlessly pushed out and their culture almost destroyed by white pioneer settlers, miners, and the US Cavalry — not a proud moment in US history.

The Badlands are just a tiny part of South Dakota, an amazing place.  I was further west in the expansive Black Hills the next day, looking at a piece of petrified wood I picked up when I was told  by a private land owner that  136 “minerals of interest” had been identified across the state.  His comment made me consider again how virtually all of the human drama played out across the US and global landscapes has been and continues to be in pursuit of nature’s riches – wildlife, minerals, water, trees, even grass.

Our Nature Needs Half initiative is an attempt to alter the course of this human combat with Nature and each other, to go beyond thinking only about what we need, and to consider even briefly, “What does Nature need?”

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