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Private campground owner worried about Custer State Park campsite expansion plan

Bison grazing in Custer State Park in the Black Hills
Custer State Park
Bison grazing in Custer State Park in the Black Hills.

The state Game, Fish and Parks Department wants the Legislature to fund a campsite expansion at Custer State Park, but the proposal could face opposition from private campground owners.

Officials say the park’s camping is at 100 percent capacity from May to September.

The organization is proposing 176 additional campsites in Barnes Canyon north of the park airport.

Kevin Robling is the secretary of Game, Fish and Parks. He says most campsites are booked a year in advance.

“Those 12 months go by pretty quickly,” Robling says. “A lot of times, if you’re not on the system, 12 months out on midnight or 12:01 that day, you’re likely not going to have an opportunity to reserve a campsite.”

The campground expansion would cost the state nearly $10 million. If approved, it will raise the number of campsites in the park from 345 to 521. There are also 50 cabins in the park..

That potential increase in state-owned campsites has at least one nearby campground owner concerned for the future.

Steve Saint owns Fort Welikit Family Campground, which is just south of the state park. He’s also the president of the South Dakota Campground Owners Association.

He says the campground expansion sounds good while outdoor tourism is high during the pandemic. Saint expects tourism to slow down in five years. He says that slowdown will negatively affect private campgrounds in the area, not the park.

“The private campgrounds are stepping up to handle the influx,” Saint says. “The state park doesn’t need to. Because in five years that state park is still going to be full and I’m going to have empty sites.

"How many campgrounds are going to go under because the state, in five years, finally when things start slowing down—we have direct competition?" Saint adds. "How many campgrounds are going to go out of business because they’re not getting customers because they’re all going to Custer State Park?”

State lawmakers will debate funding for the new campsites during the upcoming legislative session. Gov. Kristi Noem said in her budget address last month that she supports the funding.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.