PICKSTOWN — The Yankton Sioux Tribe (YST) will soon receive free access to four state parks adjacent to their traditional homeland.
The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks (GFP) Commission finalized the exemption at its July meeting. The action covers only the park entrance at the four designated sites near Fort Randall Dam in southern Charles Mix County.
The new rule allows YST members and their families to access those park areas without purchasing a park entrance license (PEL). The areas include North Point Recreation Area, South Shore Lakeside Use Area, Randall Creek Recreation Area and the Spillway Lakeside Use Area.
The discussion on granting free park access has been under way for most of this year, according to Scott Simpson, the GFP director of parks and recreation.
“We began talking with the Yankton Sioux (leaders) in February, and it has continued since then,” he told the Press & Dakotan. “The proposal has gone through several processes. This was just approved by the Game, Fish and Parks Commission, and now we’ll be talking with the tribe about details.”
Simpson doesn’t see any remaining major hurdles. “We look to finalize things around the middle of August,” he said.
This exemption does not apply to other fees such as camping, lodging, picnic shelter reservations or equipment rentals, Simpson said. However, it does open up new avenues for tribal members’ enjoyment, he added.
“We’re excited to work with the tribe in this way,” he said. “This exemption would provide members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe and their immediate families greater access to local outdoor recreational opportunities and the educational programs that parks provide.”
A sticker or pass will be developed for Yankton Sioux tribal members, as the exemption would not extend to every state park and recreation area.
In a statement, two Yankton Sioux leaders on the tribe’s Business and Claims Committee praised the free park access.
Vice Chairman Jason Cooke noted the importance of the GFP decision for tribal members.
“The decision by the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks Commission to open free access to the Inhanktonwan Nation to the four state recreation areas adjacent to our community is great news,” he said.
“Removing the financial barrier that has prevented some of our members’ access to the Missouri River recognizes our special connection (to the river).”
Derrick Marks, a member of the YST Business and Claims Committee, stressed the ability now for all tribal members to access the parks regardless of resources.
“The connection with the water is what our people desire and need,” he said.
Cooke expressed his appreciation for the cooperation between the GFP and tribe in making the agreement a reality.
“I want to thank (GFP) Secretary Kelly Hepler, the (GFP) commission and the team at the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks for working with our Business and Claims Committee and lobbyist to make this possible,” Cooke said.
Marks also recognized the joint effort. “I too thank all those involved and the leadership of our vice chairman (Cooke) in seeing this accomplished,” he said.
Both Cooke and Marks used the phrase “Mni Wiconi” — meaning “water is life” — to describe the importance of the river to their tribe and its culture.
Over the next few weeks, the tribal council will work with the agency to develop a tribal identification that can be used on vehicles entering the recreation areas.
The GFP discussions with the tribe have yielded one suggestion, Simpson said.
“The tribe suggested we work together to come up with a sleeve or placard — something that can be put on the rear-view mirror,” he said. “That way, they don’t get written a ticket that may cause problems for those folks.”
The GFP has provided free park access before for Native Americans who are visiting a site for religious ceremonies, Simpson said. “Bear Butte (in the Black Hills) would be one of those areas for Native American religious ceremonies,” he said.
However, the extension of the free park access for recreational use is relatively new, as the Yankton Sioux will become the second tribe in the state covered by the agreement, Simpson said.
“It’s the same arrangement we have with the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and West Bend (in the central part of the state),” he said. “Once the rule is in place, it remains there. Things have gone well with the Lower Brule agreement.”
The GFP pursued the free park access for the YST because of past connections with the tribe in the southeast part of the state, Simpson said.
“We’re working with the Yankton Sioux Tribe and have some geographic relationships there,” he said. “It makes sense for us to partner with them and try to offer a little more outdoor recreation for them.”
The free park entrance comes at a particularly good time. The area suffered extensive flooding last year, including the loss of the Randall Creek bridge that cut off access to the campgrounds. The bridge reopened earlier this summer.
The response from campers and other recreationists to the reopened bridge and accessible campgrounds has been tremendous, Simpson said.
“When we lost the Randall Creek bridge last year, we didn’t have anybody camping there,” he said. “But as soon as they re-opened the bridge and access to the campground, it was just amazing how much it was used. Every week, a lot of people are using the park and camping areas.”
The money spent on the bridge replacement can be seen as an investment which benefits both tribal members and recreationists, Simpson said.
“The (Randall Creek) project came with a price tag of $2.3 million to put the bridge back in, but it really makes a difference for that area,” he said. “Also, a big part we don’t talk about a lot is the economic impact to the people in Pickstown with the convenience stores or café or other sites down there. It isn’t just the campground, but there is a lot of economic activity with more campers.”
Pickstown isn’t the only town which may benefit from the greater park access, including Yankton Sioux tribal members and families.
Flooding closed Highway 18/50/281 east of Lake Andes, shutting off an important connection to the community and recreational areas to the west. As a result, Lake Andes and other communities took a major hit not only to their economy but also to services and sales-tax revenues.
“For the small towns that are located nearby, there are economic impacts,” Simpson said. “(Tourism and recreation) isn’t as large as agriculture, but it’s still a big driver for the economy.”
At its latest meeting, the GFP Commission asked whether the park agreements with the tribes will create major revenue losses, Simpson said. They also asked about any other future plans for free park access, he added.
“Each park is different, and we take things on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “The park entrance fees represent a revenue stream for us, and this (agreement with the Yankton Sioux) involves a really small group. We don’t feel it will create a major economic impact for us.”
The GFP agreement with the Yankton Sioux forms only part of an effort to expand recreational opportunities, Simpson said. Those offerings have become especially important with the pandemic, which has greatly limited other vacation and recreational options, he added.
“People right now want to be outside because they’ve been cooped up for so long. This provides them with those opportunities,” he said. “We want them to be as socially responsible as they can, but they can get out and enjoy recreation while remaining socially distant.”
The YST agreement will hopefully create more possibilities for tribal members to enjoy the outdoors, Simpson said. For some members, it might allow them to spend more time along the river. For the younger generation, it might provide them with a greater — or even first — chance to explore nearby recreation.
“It’s a really neat deal,” he said. “It’s not the circumstances we want (with the pandemic), but it’s a great way for the public to get outside and allows us to promote some of that. And when people can enjoy the great outdoors, that’s a good thing.”
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