Baker sets sights on first national tribal park
KYLE – The other day, I just stopped and lstened to the land, the wildlife, the wind and it was beautiful; I hadn't done that for a long time,” said Gerard Baker, the new interim director of the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority at the end of his first week on the job, “we don't have the stony peaks of the Tetons or the terrain of Yellowstone but what we have is beautiful, from one end of this reservation land to the other; its a blessing to come to work each day.”
Baker is 58, a member of the Mandan Hidatsa on Fort Berthold growing up in a log house just outside of Mandaree. Gerard went to Mandaree high school and graduated from New England St. Marys; along the way he earned all state honors in basketball then played NCAA Division I basketball for Southern Oregon State University before earning a bachelors degree in criminal justice and sociology in 1975. He retired from the National Park Service in 2010 after spending 35 years working at park service sites all over the country including stints as superintendent of Little Big Horn Battlefield and Mount Rushmore National Monument, director of the Bicentennial for Lewis and Clark before becoming assist NPS director for American Indian Relations.
“My first job was cleaning toilets in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and then I worked my way down to management,” said Baker, “a month ago, long time director, Birgil Kills Straight, had heart surgery and the board asked me to help out, I consider it a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
In 1976, the National Park Service entered into an agreement with the Oglala Sioux Tribe to manage the South unit as part of an expanded Badlands National Park; the 133,000 acre piece of land had been recently returned to the Tribe after being used as a bombing range during World War II. The South Unit has been the focal point of discussions between the Tribe and the National Park Service since 2005, the process has been looking at developing a management plan for the South Unit, its been under federal review since late last summer and if nothing comes up it is to be published and dissiminated for a 30 day public review then implemented.
“We're really excited to have Mr. Baker here at OSPRA, he has a great wealth of experience and a vast array of networks and potential resources,” said Virgil Bush, chairman of the OSPRA board of directors, “OSPRA is not ours, it belongs to the people, to the communities; we always remember our ancestors, our grammas and grandpas that were forced off this land, we keep them in mind as we move forward as we work towards putting together the first national tribal park.”
Once the management plan is signed off on, the NPS is able to draft legislation to turn the area into a national tribal park. The management plan provides a structure to do an environmental impact statement, put together a 20 year plan that looks at staffing and developing certain areas of the park. Currently the overall Badlands National Park totals 244,000 acres, has a budget of roughly $4.3 million drawing one million visitors a year. In that budget, the South Unit has a budget of $200,000 and has about 9,500 annual visitors.
“We're going to do training and we're going to focus on tourism and youth projects,” said Baker, “I learned my appreciation for the land growing up in my family's cabin, I learned from my grandfathers Yellow Wolf and Black Hawk; we're going to start with the White River Visitor Center, we're going to get it promoted better, we're looking at having cultural experiences there for visitors, brain tanning, bow making, we're going to get the youth involved as well, help them to develop a better appreciation for the land, the natural resources and their history and culture.”
OSPRA has 16 employees presently; MJ Bull Bear will be supeervising the staff at the White River Visitor Center and parks will be advertising for three interpreters and an alternate for the center.
“This has to be a collaborative process, I'm moving ahead right now as if the agreement is already signed; I'm planning on tapping the many contacts I've gained after 35 years in the NPS and look at finding resources,” said Baker who lives on five acres of land in the Black Hills outside of Hill City, “I drive across Cuny Table every day, the gravel is OK, it makes you slow down and enjoy the environment as you travel through it – we plan on working with the college on student internships, we're going to local businesses like Kmart and Walmart for materials, we want to sponsor youth fishing derbies across the reservation.”
After college, I spent a lot of time on Pine Ridge, I played a lot of ball here with Randy Plume and Wally Big Eagle, I know and appreciate the land and the people, Baker added, we want to add a tourism division, work with local bed and breakfast outfits, renovate the cabins we have for hunters and make them for families as well.
“This is going to be a partnership with the NPS, we'll manage it together,” said Baker, “I'm excited; we have the opportunity to be the new warrior with the challenging role of taking care of the land, educating our staff, working with our youth and sharing the knowledge and wisdom of our elders.”