I ran across an article on Yahoo! Travel today called, “Our Tax Dollars Pay for What? The Nation’s Worst National Parks.” I’m a writer and a marketer so I know the title was an effort to draw the reader in, and you know what? It worked. I read and then took offense to Mr. Bill Fink’s reviews, in particular with his review of Badlands National Park. He states, “The place is a dusty monument to erosion, sort of a half-assed Grand Canyon without the majesty, but with extra rattlesnakes. You could really get much of the visual effect by going down to your local stream or beach and watch the water swirl around the dirt or sand.” For those willing to hear another side of the story allow me to share my experience.
The summer after I graduated college from the University of Montana, I applied to the National Park Service. I’m not sure how the application process works now but back then you were allowed to rank the parks you wanted to work in most. The more senior you were in the system the more priority you got in your park of choice. Not having any seniority, I was assigned a park I had never really heard of: Badlands National Park. I’ll admit that at first I was disappointed, my fantasies of climbing El Capitan in Yosemite quickly whisked away. What was South Dakota famous for again? Wasn’t that where Dances with Wolves was filmed? Full of questions I headed out into the unknown.
Most park ranger positions in National Parks are seasonal. The seasonal rangers show up before the season begins to receive formal training; so that May I loaded up my station wagon with all my earthly possessions and started my journey towards the Badlands of South Dakota. It was a two day drive and around sunset on the second day I came upon the entrance to my destination. I specifically remember it being sunset because as I descended from rolling fields that lined the Interstate into the Badlands, the world exploded around me in a display of colors I’ll never forget. Deep reds, shades of pink and orange that filled the sky reflected off the rock around me. It was the stuff of which movies are made. It was breathtaking.
The Mixed-Grass Prairie
The unusual rock formations comprised of buttes, pinnacles and spires are surrounded by the mixed grass prairie. The prairie, one of the park’s natural resources, quite literally moves in waves of soft greens and golds and feels alive around you. It’s home to the once endangered black- footed ferret, as well as, prairie dogs, swift fox, bighorn sheep and of course bison. Yes Mr. Fink, there are snakes there too, so what? I hate to break it to you but snakes live in the outdoors. The prairie is sprinkled with wild Yucca plants, Phlox and Primroses among many other colorful wildflowers. I actually lead the prairie hikes in the early morning and early evenings and they were always packed with people. Mr. Fink If you can dismiss that prairie as “sad shrubbery” either you went at the wrong time of year or you never once left your car.
Not Your Average Rocks
The other natural resource the park is mandated to protect is of course the main attraction, The Badlands. The buttes, pinnacles and spires of the Badlands are actually layers upon layers of sedimentary rock that began 69 million years ago! Here in the US we think things are old if it’s built around the 1800s so…keep things in perspective. Each layer of sedimentary rock is from a different geologic era and colored differently. Because of this the park is literally covered with fossils of plants, dinosaurs and mammals. It’s the park’s most precious resource. When I worked there they had an open paleontological Pig Dig the public could visit. Adults and kids alike got lost in stories about the ancient sea that once covered the very spot they were standing on, as they saw in front of their very own eyes the remnants of an animal who had once roamed the earth millions of years ago. And then there’s the sky.
Then There’s The Sky
They may call Montana Big Sky Country but no place is more deserving of the name than The Badlands of South Dakota. It’s an interesting mix of open plains, prairie, Badlands and elevation. I was told that the elevation was the reason for the amazing lightning storms they experience. When lightning strikes, I swear you can see the effects of it reach out into the sky for miles on end, in shades of blue and purple like you’ve never seen. One night a few of us rangers decided to go backcountry camping. We chose a spot and set up camp. We had checked the weather before embarking but the weather quickly changed and a giant storm began brewing. That night we watched as a thunderstorm raged around us while we somehow sat just out of reach under a patch of starry skies…the entire night. It was one of those moments I’m sure I’ll see again if my life ever flashes before my eyes.
When I read Mr. Fink’s article I took offense as he so casually dismissed the park. I wonder if he had ever ventured to the White River in the summer and felt how soft your skin feels after you wash away the clay from the river bed. Had he even taken the time to read about the history of the fossils found there and realized that the area is one of the epicenters of paleontology in the world? Had he viewed a bison up close, seen the night sky in all it’s glory? Had he learned about the history of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who co-manage the park? I think not.Nor had he given any thought to the people who work there as the park is the adjacent small town of Interior’s major employer.
There are a lot of things that I could complain about paying tax dollars for but National Parks is not one of them. Plan another trip for Badlands National Park Mr. Fink, you didn’t see a thing.
Written by, Natalie Cagle