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Lunar Landscape, Wildlife, Fossils, Cold War History Draw Visitors to Western South Dakota

5/14/2009
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BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK, S.D. (5/8/09) -- Each year 1 million people from all over the world make their way to Badlands National Park, an area of 244,000 acres of tall spires, deep canyons and sweeping vistas. The nearby Minuteman Missile National Historic Site offers a first-hand look at an important chapter in American history.

“The first thing that draws people to the Badlands is the beautiful scenery, which reminds many people of a moonscape,” said Judy Olson, Chief of Interpretation for Badlands National Park.

Eight miles north of the park, on South Dakota Highway 240 -- the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway – the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site houses one of the missile silos and launch control facilities created during the Cold War.

According to Chris Wilkinson, Interpretive Park Ranger at the Minuteman Missile Site, “People learn not only about the missile, but about the policy of the Cold War, a policy that held the world hostage.”

Underground silos housing the Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missiles were once scattered across 13,500 square miles of western South Dakota. In all, there were 150 missile silos and 15 launch control centers, where Air Force personnel were on duty 24 hours a day. The missiles were part of the decades-long nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991, the Minuteman II arsenal was deactivated. All of South Dakota’s silos were destroyed and the launch control centers were shut down. However, one silo and one launch control center were preserved to commemorate the historic role that the Minuteman II played in U.S. history. These two facilities are now the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.  

Nearly 21,000 visitors from six continents visit the Minuteman Missile Site yearly. The site consists of Delta 1, the above-ground support station with an underground launch center, and Delta 9, an 81-foot-deep missile silo containing an unarmed practice missile.

The Badlands area is not only world-renowned for picturesque beauty and distinctive terrain, but also for the region’s spiritual and historical significance to the Lakota people. The Badlands were the site of Ghost Dances in the 1890’s, the last of which believed to have occurred at Stronghold Table in the South Unit of the park. Today, the South Unit of the Park belongs to the Lakota Nation and is co-managed by the National Park Service.

The Badlands area is also one of the world’s richest mammal fossil beds. More than 15,000 bones have been excavated, including those of a 3-toed horse and a saber-toothed cat. The Badlands were also the site of the “Big Pig Dig,” a 15-year excavation project done in collaboration with the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. The site was found when tourists discovered the backbone of what was later confirmed as a hornless rhinoceros in 1993.

A wide array of wildlife also adds to the area’s a unique qualities. Many species have been reintroduced to the area -- black-footed ferret, bighorn sheep, swift foxes and bison.  The Badlands are also habitat for magpies, bobcats, rattle snakes and prairie dogs.

Two visitor centers are available at Badlands National Park. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is located at the northern half of the park just off of the “Badlands Loop Road” on South Dakota Highway 240. The White River Visitor Center is 20 miles south of Scenic, South Dakota. A listing of hours and fees can be found at www.nps.gov/badl.

The Minuteman Visitor Contact Station is located at the south side of interstate 90 off exit 30. Anyone interested in taking a tour of the Minuteman Missile Site needs to call and make reservations in advance. A complete listing of hours of operation and tour schedules can be found on the site’s webpage, www.nps.gov/mimi.

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