South Dakota's Red Shirt Proposed Wilderness

Your Wilderness - January 2013

The grasslands of South Dakota represent one of America's great wild places. The windswept plains of Buffalo Gap National Grassland contain areas that look much as they did when Lewis and Clark marveled over them more than 200 years ago.

Buffalo Gap National Grassland is the second largest in the country and covers almost 600,000 acres in southwestern South Dakota. Made up largely of mixed prairie and chalky badlands, the area is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Within this grassland, the Cheyenne River watershed contains some of the finest examples of potential prairie wilderness left in the nation, including the largest remaining roadless area in the Great Plains. Three areas—Red Shirt, Indian Creek, and Chalk Hills—have been proposed for wilderness designation by the South Dakota Wild Grassland Coalition, which is working hard to protect these areas as a legacy to South Dakotans.

Red Shirt comprises approximately 16,000 acres and is characterized by colorful striped buttes, mounds and cones rising to stunning grassy plateaus and ridgelines, with Schumacher Canyon and its exposed layers of color-banded clays on steep slopes as its centerpiece.

It is northwest of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and was used by the Lakota for shelter, food, medicinal plants, and burial sites until the Indian Wars ended. One can still find remnants of that time throughout the area.

Red Shirt borders Black Hills National Forest, where the contrast in landscapes is marked. Black Elk Wilderness, which lies within the forest, contains Harney Peak, the highest U.S. pinnacle east of the Rocky Mountains. Hikers can get a stunning view of this from Red Shirt.

Rock hunting is the most popular recreational activity in the area. Rock hounds come from all around to hunt gemstones in the Fairburn agate beds.

Red Shirt is prized for another kind of hunting: A place away from the noise of roads and off-road vehicles to track animals in a wild environment. “These areas could provide a true pioneer hunting experience—and possibly some of the best muley [mule deer] and antelope hunting in the country,” Chris Hesla, executive director of the South Dakota Wildlife Federation, wrote in a 2006 op-ed in the Pierre (S.D.) Capital Journal.

South Dakota's grasslands aren't only a playground for sportsmen, hikers, birders, rock collectors, and the like. They also support the local ranching economy through livestock grazing. Ranching represents the heritage and traditions of the state and is part of the multiple-use management of the grasslands. If this area is protected as wilderness, grazing will continue.

Unfortunately, America's prairie grasslands are disappearing at an alarming rate; what once covered about one-third of North America is today only a remnant. Sen. Tim Johnson (S.D.) introduced legislation in the 111th Congress to designate 50,000 acres of wilderness in the grasslands. The bill did not pass, but we are hopeful that he will reintroduce legislation in the coming year to safeguard these areas for future generations to enjoy.  

View photos from Pew's Dispatch from Buffalo Gap National Grassland