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Fundraising begins for new visitor center at Badlands National Park

Badlands visitor center 2
Arielle Zionts
Badlands National Park and nonprofit leaders celebrate donations for the park's new visitor center.

The visitor center at Badlands National Park was packed on Monday even though the tourism season is winding down.

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is a simple, tan, one-story building. It's reached after climbing and descending the stunning Cedar Pass, which is surrounded by pointed Badlands formations, wildflowers, and rugged trees.

Behind the center, officials gathered to announce plans for a bigger, modern and more culturally diverse visitor center to serve the park's tourists.

"A world-class park deserves a world-class visitor center and we're finally getting that," South Dakota Tourism Secretary Jim Hagen said through rain and gusts of wind.

Three nonprofits announced they are raising money to replace the center, which was built north of Interior in 1959.

Badlands visitor center 9
Arielle Zionts
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center at Badlands National Park

The Helmsley Charitable Trust has provided a$3.3 million grant and the Badlands Natural History Association has pledged $1.8 million, while the Badlands National Park Conservancy presented a $100,000 check.

Officials did not say how much more money they need. It will take several years to design, fundraise for and finally build the visitor center, said Park Superintendent Mike Pflaum. The design process will begin in a few months.

The visitor center will highlight the park's recreational opportunities, animals, environment, paleontology, and geological and human history.

Badlands visitor center 7
Arielle Zionts
An overlook at Badlands National Park

Park, state, tribal and nonprofit officials said the Oglala Sioux Tribe will be involved in developing the center and its exhibits. The tribe will also provide tours, performances and storytelling sessions.

"Oftentimes our stories get watered down or told so many times that it's not authentic," said Angela Koenen, cultural liaison for the Oglala Sioux Tribe. "So I think that having our knowledge keepers a part of this project is really, really important."

Badlands visitor's center 5
Arielle Zionts
Angela Koenen, cultural liaison for the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

"There are some limited exhibits and storytelling in the current visitor center about Lakota history, tradition, culture, but we hope to greatly improve and expand that," Pflaum said.

Koenen said she'd like to see the tribe profit from tours and other programming.

Ranger-led tours are free and tribal-led ones are paused due the coronavirus, Pflaum said. He said a share of the entrance fees goes to the tribe, and paid tribal tours are an option for the future.

The National Park Service will help fund part of the visitor center as the nonprofits continue to fundraise.

Donations can be made through the National Parks Foundation or the Badlands National Park Conservancy.