Spearfish Canyon Land Swap Proposal Only The Beginning

Jan 31, 2017

Little Spearfish Dam
Credit Lee Strubinger / SDPB

The first of four public input sessions was held last week regarding a land transfer between the state of South Dakota and federal government.

On the table is a similar amount of grassland acreage for an area of Little Spearfish Canyon. Governor Dennis Daugaard says he’d like to see a state park. Critics of the land swap want to see the land stay in the hands of the National Park Service.

I’m walking along the Roughlock Falls Hiking Trail with my friend Marcel. The trail winds along Little Spearfish Creek from the dam near Savoy and on back.

Everything is covered in snow from the storm last week. Conditions are perfect for snowmobilers ripping up and down the canyon.

Even the trail is packed down well enough for an easy hike. Around every corner is a stunning collage of limestone canyons, snow, pine trees and deep blue skies.

The state of South Dakota wants to swap grassland it owns in exchange for around 12-hundred acres of canyon land. The land swap also includes about 500 acres at Bismarck Lake near Custer, about 70 miles away from Little Spearfish Canyon.

Governor Daugaard says the state is only considering the land swap at this time.

“The state already owns land in Spearfish Canyon and the federal government already owns land in Spearfish Canyon," Daugaard says. "So, shall we exchange land so that the state has more of it? I think we should and the reason I think we should is because the state is more nimble, more able to quickly provide resources to satisfy the needs of our citizens, wishes of our citizens and protect the environment.”

Daugaard says the state may consider paving the gravel road that runs through the canyon. He says the state may also add additional trails to connect existing trail systems.

But it’s that development which drew around 500 people to the first of four public input sessions regarding the land swap and potential state park.

“The forest service, you can just walk in, unchecked, you can experience the hills in your own way…”

Tim Palmer of Rapid City is a student at Black Hills State University. He says he came to the meeting out of concern for the canyon…

“State Park, you have to drive through a gate, you have to talk to somebody, show proof that you bought a pass to get in there," Palmer says. "I think that people just want to be able to go in there without question. They want to be able to enjoy it the same way they always have. And I think people are afraid that once the ball gets rolling that it’s not going to stop where they say it is. That they’ll keep going.”

That’s despite an announcement from the Governor earlier saying the park will have no entrance fees.

Larry Ebbert, of Piedmont, echoes Palmer’s sentiment.

“Nobody trusts what their real plans are because they haven’t really been open with us about it.”

Ebbert says he owns a cabin in Spearfish Canyon. He says he thinks the hidden reason for the land transfer is because of money.

“Maybe it’s the people in the eastern part of the state thinking ‘Maybe we could make a lot of money with a state park out there at Spearfish Canyon.’ Well, maybe that’s true but I don’t want there to be a park out here,” Ebbert says.

Other residents and concerned citizens say they think the state is undervaluing the canyon by swapping similar amounts of acreage of grassland.

Roughlock Falls
Credit Lee Strubinger / SDPB

The Secretary of South Dakota Game Fish and Parks says the land swap project is going to take time. Kelly Hepler says the state hears resident’s concerns. He says the dialogue is just getting started

“What enhancements can we do to ensure we meet the quality of the area we want to maintain, the beauty of the area we want to maintain, and still have public access—we’re not trying to create a McDonalds of the visitor’s center and have people come left and right either," Hepler says. "So, we’re conscious of trying to balance what we need to protect what’s there naturally, as well as providing public access… I’d say responsible public access.”

Hepler says the state has effectively managed public land for decades. He says the state has the expertise.

Back in Little Spearfish Canyon, we reach Roughlock Falls, the edge of what land the state owns. Around the next bend is park service land. For us, our trail ends so we turn back. The debate on this land is only beginning.

Officials with Game Fish and Parks say the next public meeting regarding Little Spearfish Canyon and Bismarck Lake will be in the next two to three months.