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The bad end of beyond

America’s National Parks system was created a hundred years ago. Simon Barnes understood their value when he met a buffalo at Badlands in South Dakota

Simon Barnes | January/February 2016

The Oglala Lakota people called it Mako Sica, the land that is bad. French fur-trappers of the 18th century called it La Mauvaise Terre. The federal government called it “sub-marginal land”. These days it’s the Badlands National Park.

So how come this land is now good?

A million people will come here in the course of the year for no reason other than pleasure. They will gaze at the impossible Badlands Wall, as dramatic a piece of landscape as exists on the planet, with its mad peaks, crazy ridges and thrilling plunges, all of them striped and coloured as if by an artist’s hand. They will feel kinship with the wild beasts that roam the Badlands prairies and feel a sense of awe at those who came before and tried to make a living here.

National Parks are an integral part of the nation of the United States: 3.6%, to be precise, though they represent a higher percentage of the American soul. They cover 52.2m acres, and in 2014 they welcomed 292,800,082 visitors. They owe their existence to reasons that are quintessentially American and yet utterly universal. This is the fabled frontier: the place of the young men who went West to grow up with the country. They fought nature and they fought the indigenous people: that’s part of history, but it’s also part of mythology. That mythology is owned by America and they gave it to the world.

A river runs through it: a precious stream near Sage Creek

The heroes of these myths went into the wild and tamed it. They possessed “the stern manly qualities that are invaluable to the nation”, as Theodore Roosevelt put it, though he really should have mentioned the equally essential – and no doubt equally stern – womanly qualities that made it all possible.

But perhaps the greater heroes were those who first noticed that this taming business was getting out of hand. They realised that when it came to subduing the wild places of America, humans were doing the job with devastating effectiveness. These latter-day heroes were the first people to see that wilderness matters at least as much as civilisation. They also saw that the two were not mutually exclusive.

One hundred years ago the National Parks Service (NPS) was created “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” It was signed by President Woodrow Wilson, and it separated the National Parks from the commercial concerns of forestry and farming. Roosevelt was a crucial inspiration to what was known as the Organic Act. Although there had been national parks since 1872, when Ulysses Grant signed Yellowstone into being, it was only during Roosevelt’s presidency – 1901-09 – that federal protection was extended to 230m acres and wild places were established as a meaningful part of national (and by implication global) heritage.

For Roosevelt, the wild world was a personal matter. Before he landed the top job he spent much time on the Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota, not far from the Badlands National Park and much the same kind of territory. He was 25, a skinny bespectacled New Yorker, and he fell for the frontier with a convert’s zeal. He learned to ride Western-style, and to rope and hunt. When he visited Britain in 1910 he played truant and went birding in the New Forest with Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary.

In the early 20th century people were more equivocal about wilderness. The trend – and this counted double in the United States – was all for breakneck development, and among people in power there was almost a sense of embarrassment about undeveloped places. They were an affront to American values. Wilderness meant that opportunities had been missed. But for Roosevelt, wild places were a source of American pride: treasures for his country and for the world. He was the first person with real power who saw that bad land is actually good land – and did something about it.

Rest and discovery: looking over the endless landscape

There are now 59 National Parks in the United States: the most recent, Pinnacles in California, was established in 2013. There are National Parks in 27 states; California is the leader with nine, while Alaska has eight. The largest is Wrangell-St Elias in Alaska with more than 13m acres, making it larger than ten states. The smallest is Hot Springs in Arkansas at just 6,000 acres.

National Parks are part of national life. An American – a human – essential. As Huckleberry Finn says in the last lines of the novel: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

Nebraska is not pretty. It’s not trying to be. A Nebraskan farmer would probably be offended if you found the landscape pretty and certainly be baffled if you suggested that prettiness was something desirable in a landscape. Nebraska is an open-air food factory. It makes maize, soy and beef in prodigious quantities.

We took a route north from Denver. It was a journey of over 400 miles, that took us through American history, American embarrassment and America’s complex response to both. The road took us right through Nebraska, where we saw nowhere to go for a nice walk. No country pubs or village greens. No restaurants with sweeping views. No sense of reverence for place. No evidence of previous generations. Trees, it seems, are permitted to shade a home and to protect the inmates’ eyes from the bruising landscape beyond, but elsewhere there is no need for them. It’s all sky, cows, corn, tractors, trucks. This is a place to work.

To an outsider’s eyes it is as if the West has been tamed with matter-of-fact brutality. There seemed to be no thought of integrating food production with human recreation. Planners talk about land and its amenity value: its importance as a resource for humans seeking things other than hard work and its rewards. It didn’t seem that anyone had considered such matters for the entire length of the road on which we travelled.

To understand the National Parks, to understand what made them and to understand America’s view of the wild, it helps to travel through Nebraska, preferably with Badlands National Park as your ultimate destination. As you do so, you discover that the wild world and the places where humans live and work are utterly separate.

Road to nowhere: a raised wooden walkway makes up part of the Castle trail

We crossed the state-line into South Dakota just after White Clay. Once beyond, we were on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which is officially dry. It follows that White Clay is full of liquor stores, selling drink on the moral basis that “if I don’t do it somebody else will”. It’s full of native Americans standing, sitting, lying. Once on the reservation, things are a good deal better, but a long, long way from perfect. This was the place where what has been called “the last cowboy-and-Indian war” was fought. It’s not exactly coincidence that the losers now live on a reservation next door to a place named for the poor quality of the land.

We went past Wounded Knee Creek – uncompromisingly labelled “Massacre Site”. Here Big Foot’s people were corralled by the US Army in 1890. A gun went off during a search for weaponry and the army let rip with four Hotchkiss machine-guns. In a few minutes, more than 200 native American – men, women and children – some estimates put it as high as 300 – and 25 soldiers were dead. In this place you can never forget that land is a serious business. Good and bad, land matters.

We stopped at the Common Cents convenience store on the reservation for a snack. I fell into conversation with Monica Lone Hill. She had fine eyes and a mouth that had never troubled the American orthodontic industry. We established that I was from England, she from the reservation, and that I was heading for Badlands. Not far to go now.

“Will I like it?”

“I don’t know. It’s weird.”

She was right.

We arrived with an hour of daylight still left. The heart of the Badlands is the 50-mile-long Badlands Wall. There are a few – just a few – landscapes on Earth that make the first-time observer feel as if he had walked into a glass door. This is a deranged fantasy of a place: it’s as if Gaudi had cast aside all the restraint he showed when he designed the Sagrada Familia and really let himself go. Here is madness: glorious and forbidding at the same time. Both aspects are joyful things to those of us who are used to softer places and a softer life. But you can also feel the ancient desperation of all the humans and all the races who came here to travel through this land or, worse, to try and set up home in it.

If hell was beautiful, it would look pretty much like this. And right from the start I could feel my 21st-century heart soar in the delight that such demented places still exist.

A bus-load of visitors stopped at a viewing point, for the contemplation of the Badlands Wall at sunset has become one of the great American bucket-list experiences. They lowered themselves stiffly out of the bus, walked painfully over to the edge, took a picture or two and, a couple of minutes later, hobbled thankfully back into the bus.

A little bighorn: a sheep enjoys the view at sunset

Gene Williams is a cattle-rancher with land that lies just beyond the park’s boundaries, though his son Trevor runs the ranch these days. He was sponsoring a local school visit – the Youth Range Day – and the children, about a hundred 13- and 14-year-olds, were gathered on his land to learn about the place. “I do it every year,” Williams said. “The kids have no understanding of how this area works.”

The Williamses have 200 mature cattle and 100 yearlings on their ranch, spread over 5,000 acres. If the land had been in, say, East Anglia in England, they’d have had more than 5,000 cattle: one cow per acre is the usual – slightly conservative – reckoning. This is not good land – for a cow.

There’s naturally occurring water in the Badlands, but not much, an average of 16 inches a year. What there is tends to be full of sediment: “Too thick to drink, too thin to plough,” as the Badlanders traditionally say. That’s because the Badlands landscape is eroding at a rate of a little more than an inch a year. It wasn’t there half a million years ago; it won’t be there in half a million years’ time. In geological terms this is an ephemeral place. The great outcrops look like mountain formations pushed up from the guts of the earth, but the opposite is, in fact, true.

Half a million years ago this place was a flat plain. Before that, more shockingly, it was ocean. The plain changed its character at the end of the last ice age when water began the process of erosion, creating this mad landscape with its humbug striations. The combination of rich sediments and rapid erosion makes it one of the great fossil-beds of the world. It’s especially rich in the strange mammals that prowled the Earth in the Oligocene epoch, from 34m to 26m years back. Ed Welsh, education technician with the NPS, told the visiting children about Brontothere, a kind of horned horse, and Titanothere, a rhino-like beast with a funky double-horn like a rear-gunsight. He spoke about a gorgeous sabre-toothed cat, Hoplophoneus primaverus. One of the children was wearing a T-shirt reading “Badlands Cowboys for Christ”.

Big bull country: a lonesome buffalo eats breakfast on the hoof

Elsewhere, Dakota McCoy and Sarah Nevison, park biologists, were talking about the present-day fauna. “Who’s seen a bobcat?” A forest of hands: these are ranch-kids. For some, ideas about extinction and evolution come as a distinct novelty. This is not always a comfortable place for biologists. “I couldn’t live here if I insisted on arguing about it,” McCoy said. “You have to accept that people believe what they believe. And I love this place. I love the wildlife. And especially I love the black-footed ferrets. They’re endangered and we have them in the park. ”

My breath seemed to suffocate me for an instant. The greater your taste for wildlife, the more frequently you have such experiences. They come when you see something so utterly momentous that the processes of life seem suspended, and the brain half-rejects the information that enters through the senses. I looked down across the stripes, the pinnacles, the saw-edges and the troughs of the Wall, and beyond, on a patch of green prairie, head-down, all hump and shoulders, quite impossibly, grazed a bison – or buffalo as they’re known round here. That unmistakable silhouette. I realised at once what I had never known before: that all my life I had longed to see one.

Here was an animal that was food and survival for, among many other Plains Indians, the Oglala Lakota, who hunted them down on horseback. The buffalo were later shot systematically by the white people as a genocidal method of taming the West: without the buffalo the Plains Indians could no longer continue with their traditional lives. This animal is now an emblem of all that was lost in the processes of civilising.

Future Davy Crocketts: park ranger Sarah Nevison teaches school children about local species

Sixty buffalo were reintroduced to the park in 1963. There are now more than 800. Water is provided for them in stock-dams. The National Parks have been getting wilder in recent decades: here in Badlands, bighorn sheep, swift fox and black-footed ferret have been reintroduced. The place is richer than it was.

Mike Pflaum is superintendent of Badlands National Park, and he’d been in post for five weeks when I got there last October. “I’ve worked for the NPS all my life and it’s always the same challenge in different forms: balancing the protection of resources with visitor use. We need the park to be both accessible and wild.” He talked about the complex matters that must be dealt with if the park is to run smoothly. Among them – possibly the greatest, though he is far too diplomatic to say so – is the relationship with the tribal people. A great deal of the South Unit of the park lies on tribal land and is managed in partnership with the Oglala Lakota; the income is shared.

I spent a morning driving out with the chief ranger, Casey Osback. “I do a lot of windshield time. We’re rangers, man. We range. I tell you this is an awesome job. I started as a junior ranger when I was 14, and I’ve never worked outside the NPS. Never wanted to.”

Law enforcement is a big part of his responsibilities. People shoot here and graze cattle illegally. Eagles are poached because their feathers, full of significance for tribal people, fetch a high price. People also come to steal fossils. A good turtle shell will fetch $500. Add a couple more zeros for a sabre-tooth skull. Osback showed me a turtle fossil covered in electrical tape where a fossil-hunter had failed to extract his quarry. We stopped a wanderer, apparently native American, carrying a staff and wearing a long knife. Osback passed the time of day pleasantly enough, but with a coded warning. It was the traditional cop’s I-got-your-number routine. “Fossil-hunter. On recon. One hundred percent. Got the licence plate.”

Walk on the wild side: the author on the hunt for an American buffalo

The prairie stretches either side of the wall. It’s a tough place. Wildlife is sparse and for that reason special. The bighorn sheep is an impressive beast, lithe and agile but bearing a colossal headpiece, weighing up to 20lb (9kg) apiece, that looks as if it should topple the animal. On the grassy plains the prairie dogs forage hectically. They’re rodents, not carnivores, and they live in tight, well-run colonies that spread across the landscape. This is a horribly exposed place and there is danger all around. To avoid it they have developed a language of squeaks to give warning of different forms of attack, or to signal the all-clear. They are jaunty, fat-arsed little things that have attracted the attention of specialists in communication. For the non-specialist they are also joyously comic. Their characteristic manoeuvre is a squeak – known as the yip-jump – emitted while standing on their hind legs, throwing their front paws into the air, as if they were doing the Mexican wave. Sometimes they perform it with such enthusiasm that they fall over onto their backs.

Overhead, I spy a ferruginous hawk, then hear a series of squeaked warnings as the prairie dogs dive headlong for the burrows. All around is the pleasant murmuring of meadowlarks: these birds possess a double syrinx, and so are capable of singing two notes at once. There is a special joy in finding life in forbidding places: a profound reminder of what an extraordinary thing life is, how it finds a way to carry on in the least promising circumstances. It’s a thought that fills human hearts, an empathy that reaches out beyond the barrier of species.

The American scientist and science writer Edward O. Wilson coined the word biophilia, to express the human need for non-human life. If you’ve ever patted a dog and smelled a rose you know what it means. If you’ve walked with buffaloes and heard the dusk chorus of coyotes, you understand it still more deeply.

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