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Connection With Billionaire’s Heir Drives Custer State Park Project

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SDPB

A billionaire’s heir is the driving force behind a proposed $5 million Bison Interpretive Center at Custer State Park. 

Walter Panzirer is the grandson of the late East Coast developer Leona Helmsley. He’s also a trustee of the Helmsley Charitable Trust, which has funded numerous projects in South Dakota.  

Last summer, Panzirer, a former Mitchell police officer who now lives in Pierre, was in Custer State Park with his wife and children when the inspiration for the interpretive center struck. 

Scott Simpson, director of parks and recreation for the state Department of Game, Fish & Parks, told the rest of the story recently to a legislative committee. The committee was hearing testimony on a proposed $500,000 state contribution to the project. 

“And he was out working in the park with his family, his wife and children, on an Eagle Scout project. And they were working down at the buffalo corrals actually painting some of the corrals, and as they were working throughout a couple of days down there, Mr. Panzirer asked, ‘What are all these buses stopping for? What are these cars stopping for?’ And they seemed to be stopping and kind of jumping out and not really knowing what they were looking at.”  

Park staff said the tourists were looking for information about the bison herd and the roundup. But there was nothing to see while the corrals were dormant.  

“And he said, ‘Well, what can we do to help out with that?’”  

The staff said interpretive material and signs would cost about $20,000.  

“And Walter said, ‘No, I think you guys need to think a little bit bigger than that.’ And so they said, ‘Well, how big are you talking about?’ And he pointed up towards the east gate and said, ‘Something the size of that visitor center.’”  

The idea went public last fall when Panzirer made an announcement at the park’s annual Buffalo Roundup. He said the Helmsley Charitable Trust – for which he was named a trustee after Leona Helmsley’s 2007 death – would donate $4 million to help build the interpretive center. 

“It’s going to be huge upgrades – picnic facilities and an interpretive center to tell the true story of the buffalo here,” Panzirer said at the time. “To tell why we are vaccinating buffalo, why the park manages the herds to such pristine levels as they do now, and really lay out the history that this was one of the five genetic lines that saved the buffalo in the United States.”  

The history of buffalo in the park began in 1914, when South Dakota bought 36 bison from Fort Pierre rancher Scotty Philip.   

The park conducted roundups every few years in those early days to manage the herd’s size, and butchered the excess bison. Annual roundups began in the 1960s, and park officials started auctioning the surplus animals instead of sending them to slaughter. 

Over the decades, the roundup and auction grew in popularity, becoming the spectacle it is today. About 20,000 people show up every September to watch horseback riders herd bison into corrals.  

At the roundup last fall, Panzirer and his family committed $100,000 to the Bison Interpretive Center, in addition to the Helmsley Trust’s $4 million. The South Dakota Parks and Wildlife Foundation wants to raise $400,000, and Gov. Kristi Noem is asking lawmakers for the final $500,000 to pay for the $5 million project.  

The Legislature is considering a bill to appropriate the state funding. Park officials hope to open the center in the spring of 2022.  

-Contact reporter Seth Tupper by email.

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