Spearfish Canyon State Park plan: better resource management for future or state land grab?

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Along Little Spearfish Creek below Roughlock Falls at Savoy

"How is it that I have heard so little of this miracle and we, toward the Atlantic, have heard so much of the Grand Canyon when this is even more miraculous?" -- Frank Lloyd Wright.


More miraculous than the Grand Canyon? That's what architect Frank Lloyd Wright said of South Dakota's own Spearfish Canyon after a visit there in 1935.

"Yes, Wright did rank Spearfish Canyon over Grand Canyon in his papers," says Jerry Boyer, president of the Spearfish Canyon Society. "He loved vegetation and found the canyon scene as inspiring as the scenes from the Ming Dynasty in China. He collected that art."

While perhaps not going quite as far as Wright and his Grand Canyon comparison, generations of visitors to Spearfish Canyon have collected their own visions of inspiration there among the 1,000-foot-tall limestone walls that loom above Spearfish Creek. For most, the canyon experience means driving and stopping along the 19-mile Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway on U.S. Highway 14A.

But there are plenty of opportunities to escape the highway and see the wonders of the place close-up. And if a guy's going to write about the place and a controversy that affects it, he should probably renew his relationship there. At least, that's what I figured last Sunday, while my wife and her friends were cross-country skiing farther up the canyon.

So I took a familiar cruise down the canyon, with meaningful stops along the scenic byway: I watched an ice climber grunt and chip her way up frozen Bridal Veil Falls; I did some creek sneaking with binoculars in hand to monitor the brown trout in Spearfish Creek, as they moved almost imperceptibly with the sluggish flow of winter; I had a chat with skiers -- downhill and cross country -- as they loaded up on side pork and eggs at the Cheyenne Crossing cafe before ambling off into the chill.

And I walked alone, soaking in the magic of the place on a clear cold January morning near Savoy, where the fight over the future of the canyon seemed far, far away.

But then, far, far away is also the location of some of the key components of the complicated land swap between the state and the U.S. Forest Service that Gov. Dennis Daugaard hopes will someday come together as a new Spearfish Canyon State Park.

It’s a plan that could add plenty to Daugaard's legacy as governor. But it already brings unrest to conversations about an extraordinarily peaceful place with a long history of being loved.

“I’m actually for the park plan,” a resident of the canyon who lives near the proposed park told me on Sunday. “But I won’t say that on the record. Everybody around me is opposed.”

The plan is for a state park of 1,601 acres centered near the center of the canyon, starting with the existing 133 acres of South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department property around Roughlock Falls, Spearfish Falls downstream at Savoy and Savoy Pond a ways up Highway 14A toward Cheyenne Crossing.

The key Forest Service ground being eyed by the state includes 1,468 acres and two existing federal campgrounds up Little Spearfish Canyon above Roughlock, a recreational trail and a film location for the movie Dances with Wolves.

After that, the real traveling starts. Because the plan also would get 524 acres at Bismarck Lake in the southern Black Hills near Custer, 70 miles away. That land would become part of Custer State Park, which adjoins the property, and almost certainly require the park entrance fee.

For all of that, the state would give 34 acres of GF&P land in the canyon itself,  1,280 acres of state School and Public Lands grassland on the prairies of Pennington County east of the Black Hills and another 640 acres of school land way over east in Lyman County.

“It’s an odd, arranged marriage,” says plan opponent Lynn Kolund, a retired U.S. Forest Service district ranger in Custer and, by way of full disclosure, the kid from just down the block I played with in Chamberlain when I was growing up. “I don’t understand why they’re trying to force us all into this marriage.”

After a professional marriage of 37 years with the Forest Service, Kolund has particular interest in preserving federal property that he believes is best protected for the future in federal hands.

“The public lands are part of our inheritance,” he said. “It’s the only land the vast majority of Americans will ever own. And these lands, these public facilities, are currently protected under the Black Hills National Forest and being used for the public good, not for revenue.”

The Bismarck Lake  part of the plan in particular rankles Kolund, because he was part of the effort leading to upgrades at the lake and its recreational facilities worth more than $500,000. And almost $300,000 has been spent by the Forest Service on the campgrounds in Little Spearfish Canyon.

Kolund and others also worry about the Bob Marshall Camp at Bismarck Lake, which includes historic Civilian Conservation Corps buildings. It has been used for decades as a 4-H camp and by the South Dakota Wildlife Federation for a youth outdoors camp.

Fears in Custer are that Bismarck could become the location of a new resort -- "Legion Lake West" is a term that gets tossed around derisively by conspiracy theorists -- if incorporated into the park, and the youth camp and valuable CCC buildings could be lost.

Daugaard staff adviser Hunter Roberts and GF&P Secretary Kelly Hepler are quick to reject the idea of a park resort at Bismarck.

“Absolutely not,” Roberts said.

“Heaven forbid,” Hepler added.

Nor, they say, will the camps or the CCC buildings be lost.

“We love their mission,” Roberts said. “We think it’s very important and see no place in the future to change that.”

They do want to change management at Bismarck and add it to the Custer Park facilities with the fee areas of the park. Some park facilities are already used, Hepler says, by campers at Bismarck who often slip across U.S. Highway 16A to the state's nearby Stockade Lake because of limited facilities at Bismarck.

Roberts and Hepler think the state is better prepared and will be better financed to manage Bismarck and the current Forest Service property and recreational facilities along Little Spearfish Creek. That would include low-impact improvements along Little Spearfish Creek and likely very little expansion of the campgrounds, Hepler says.

“We think long-term it’s in the best interest of that public resource to have the land in state hands,” he said.

Again, Roberts said, the idea that it would be the site of some grand development is delusional.

“We’re not planning any strip malls or vacation homes,” he said. “We’re doing this to protect in the long term for visitors across South Dakota and the world.”

Whether that would mean a park-access fee for the new Spearfish Canyon State Park is still unclear. It would mean continued camping fees, which are already charged at the Little Spearfish Creek campgrounds for the Forest Service and its concessionaire.

Obviously, driving through the canyon on 14A, which cuts through a small portion of the area proposed for the park, would not be subject to any user fees since it's a national highway/scenic byway.

Kolund believes the Little Spearfish Creek campgrounds will get upgrades by the state far beyond the basic camping experience they now provide. And that has already made the plan a target of some private campground owners in the Black Hills, he said.

“There’s no hook-ups in there now. They’re rustic,” Kolund said. “But the state campgrounds will be different.”

Hepler says upgrades will be done in a way that maintains the natural qualities of the campgrounds. The state would also make improvements in the road, a narrow, winding gravel lane that is often dusty and rutted. Initially there was talk of an asphalt upgrade, but now a less-aggressive improvement plan seems more likely, without pavement or significant road-bed expansion.

“I have a great deal of respect for the Forest Service,” he said. “But this is all about capacity. And we have the capacity to care for these areas, and protect them."

The key issue for the plan in the state Legislature this session is the $2.5 million needed to reimburse the School and Public Lands system for the land it would "donate" to the swap. That’s grazing land, in some instance of very high quality and in others not so high.

It would allow the Forest Service to consolidate its holdings, which are open to public use including hunting, on the Buffalo Gap and Fort Pierre national grasslands.

Kolund and other critics also argue that trading state grassland far from the Black Hills forest, in some instances in badlands-type environment, isn’t a fair trade.  Roberts argues that the swap could be good for both sides.

But he says it’s a step-by-step process that begins with legislation from the governor with money to pay for the land exchange, which is expected to be introduced next week.

“Next would come the question of turning it into a state park,” Roberts said. “And after that, much farther down the road, its fees and whether to charge or not. It’s highly likely we’d charge camping fees.”

An entrance fee at the Spearfish Canyon State Park would be another question.

“People like that it’s free to get in there now,” Roberts said. “We understand that.”

The state has begun a series of public meetings on the subject in the Black Hills. Kolund and other opponents of the plan will be vocal at those. He said spending $2.5 million in state money on a controversial idea seems like a bad financial decision in a year when a sluggish state economy is reducing state revenue and already forcing tough budget decisions.

“It just doesn't seem like this is a wise expenditure of state money in these times," Kolund said. "Our group continues to expand. There’s a lot of opposition to this, for a lot of reasons."

Roberts and Hepler think the massive backlogs in repair and maintenance in the existing federal forest system tell a compelling story on behalf of their argument that the state has more resources to manage the property now and especially into the future. And they believe there’s plenty of public support out there, too — or will be, they say, when they get a chance to explain the details of the plan.

They'll do that in front of state legislators and public groups across the Black Hills, and perhaps beyond.

Meanwhile, the canyon that so moved Frank Lloyd Wright so long ago will be there waiting to inspire much more than controversy, as always.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.