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Forest Magazine’s “Out There” column, Fall 2009

Where History Lives On

Harney Peak in South Dakota

Harney Peak, the highest point in South Dakota, provides a 360-degree view of the surrounding plains. Photo © George Wuerthner

By Mac Nelson
Forest Magazine, Fall 2009

South Dakota’s Black Hills—rising cool, damp and dark green from the surrounding hot, dry summer plains—are one of the lovelier places in our nation. But few areas are more exploited and degraded.

In the Black Hills you can see what the American West might become if we let it: raunchy gift shops and cheesy tourist attractions. The streets of Keystone, South Dakota, in the evening shadow of Mt. Rushmore, are lined with fast food joints and stores that sell T-shirts depicting an alternative backside of Mt. Rushmore: the presidents mooning the world. The town of Deadwood, on the north side of the Black Hills National Forest, was once an interesting and well-preserved old Wild West town—the last resting place of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. It is now wall-to-wall casinos. Other areas of the northern Black Hills boast reptile gardens, tic-tac-toe playing chickens and bears in cages.

In addition to Mt. Rushmore, one of the Hills’ hottest commercial attractions is the Crazy Horse Memorial, under construction since 1948. So far there’s just a mountain with the imagined face—since no photographs of Crazy Horse exist—of the great Oglala Lakota leader blasted into its granite. The project was started by Korczak Ziolkowski, a sculptor who worked on Mt. Rushmore in 1939, and the work has been carried on by his family since his death in 1982. The memorial is billed as becoming, someday, the world’s largest statue.

It’s ironic that all these commercial attractions exist in inholdings within, or adjacent to, the gorgeous, million-plus-acre Black Hills National Forest. When you steer past the garish signs and billboards and round enough curves, you’ll be in the highest mountains east of the Rockies. Established in 1897 as a forest reserve, this land of lodgepole and ponderosa pines, spruce and aspen has “got out the cut” for more than a century, yet has still managed to preserve much of the beauty the original inhabitants—the Arikara, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee and Lakota—found here. These American Indians especially prized the lodgepole pines, whose trunks they used for tepee poles and whose dark, evergreen foliage gave the Black Hills their name.

Large animals—elk, blacktail and whitetail deer, pronghorn antelope, coyotes and even some famous feral panhandling burros—are plentiful in the Black Hills. So are great hikes and lakes for swimming and boating. At 7,242 feet, Harney Peak, the highest point in South Dakota, is a tough climb, but the summit offers a magnificent view of the surrounding hills and plains. In his autobiography, Black Elk Speaks, the Oglala Sioux holy man recounted a vision he had atop the mountain in 1872, when he was nine years old. And here’s more irony: the peak is named after an Army general whose job it was to root the American Indians out of the Hills.

For less vigorous adventurers, the spectacular drive along the Needles Highway passes granite outcroppings and spires. One autumn evening I saw a massive bull elk in my headlights while driving the highway. I won’t soon forget it.

Within or adjacent to the national forest are other natural attractions. Wind Cave National Park was established here in 1903. Its main attraction is the cave, which is well worth the hike. But rumor has it that some in the Department of the Interior felt the area was not up to national park standards and should be decommissioned. Wind Cave saved its park status partly by becoming an animal preserve. Elk and pronghorn from Jackson Hole arrived in 1914; bison from Yellowstone National Park came two years later. Today, the Wind Cave herd, and the herd of its neighbor, Custer State Park, contain more than a thousand bison. The park is small enough that you can usually find the bison in the spectacular Red Valley. If you spend a day with the herd in late July, you can watch (and hear) the noisy mating rut. At the other end of the scale, prairie dogs—protected here from stockmen’s poison—provide comic relief. The rodents carry on their busy lives right under the hooves of the grazing bison.

In 1868, a treaty reserved the Black Hills for the Sioux “as long as the grass shall grow and the rivers shall run.” The federal government wanted the Indians there rather than further south, where they would be uncomfortably close to the new transcontinental railroad. Six years later, George Armstrong Custer led an Army expedition to the Black Hills and confirmed reports that there was “gold in them thar hills.” The land grab was on, and the hell with treaties.

Attempts by the government to rectify the broken treaty still smolder. The Lakota have refused a sum approaching $1 billion in federal payments and interest for the land because the tribe refuses to accept the legality of its loss. When he left the U.S. Senate in 1996, Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat, tabled a bill that would have given all the federal land in the Hills back to the local Indians. That wouldn’t have amounted to all the tribe’s original land, to be sure, but it was still a huge amount: more than a million acres in South Dakota and Wyoming that included all the forest divisions, parks, monuments, preserves and reservoirs. (The original reservation included the western portions of present-day North and South Dakota.) This transfer of the Hills back to the Lakota will likely happen when elk fly, but the story is a reminder of the cultural injustice that is part of the history of the Black Hills National Forest.


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Forest Magazine is published by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, P.O. Box 11615, Eugene, OR 97440. The views expressed in Forest Magazine are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect FSEEE’s position or that of the Forest Service. Copyright © 2008 Forest Service Employees For Environmental Ethics.


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