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Arts & Life

Woster: New campground plan raises questions about Custer Park future

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Courtesy Custer State Park
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When Gov. Kristi Noem first announced a $10 million plan to add 176 new campsites in Custer State Park, it seemed to make sense.

The park’s campgrounds are full from year to year. And many, including South Dakotans, who would like to stay in a Custer State Park campground complain that they can’t get a reservation.

At least, that’s the situation now, both because Custer State Park is an amazing place and popular with knowledgeable travelers from across the nation and also because the coronavirus has made camping and other outdoor activities a popular recreation option.

Adding some campsites? Sure. Why not?

But that was before I talked to Rollie Noem and thought about it a bit. Quite a bit, actually. But then, there’s a lot to think about with Custer State Park and anything that affects its future.

The name, for one thing. Before we get to the campsites, let’s talk about the name. And changing it. I brought that up in this blog and for radio discussion on In the Moment with Lori Walsh a few months back.

In my blog, I said it’s time for a serious discussion about changing the Custer State Park name. The name George Armstrong Custer carries some baggage, of course, especially with Native American people. And the idea of his name on one of the most important parts of the beloved Paha Sapas is offensive to many indigenous people, perhaps the Lakotas in particular.

In my previous blog piece, Native American writer Lanniko Lee suggested renaming the park with Lakota words for “Land of the Singing Elk” or “Land Where Elk Sing” park. Which I liked, a lot. Lakota spiritual instructor Craig Howe said that whatever the new name might be, it should not be a person’s name.

Consider Wind Cave National Park, for example, or Jewel Cave National Monument, or Badlands National Park, or Yellowstone National Park.

Former park director says name change needs discussion

Rollie Noem — who is an uncle to Gov. Noem’s husband, Bryon — liked what Lanniko Lee and Craig Howe had to say about the park and its name. He also agrees that it’s time to seriously talk about another name for the park he oversaw for 20 years.

“I love the idea of naming it after something about the elk,” Noem said. “And I agree that it shouldn’t be named after a person, as worthy as Peter Norbeck might be.”

Rollie Noem says that over the years that he was at the park, he received several comments about the need to change the name.

“It wasn’t something I thought much about at the time,” he says. “But my thoughts on that have changed, especially with such recent changes as Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak) here in the hills and the Little Bighorn Battlefield (formerly Custer Battlefield) over in Montana.”

“I’ve thought about Paha Sapa State Park,” Noem says. “Whatever it might be, it’s really time for that discussion. We should be able to talk about it.

He also thinks we should be able to talk about the plan for 176 more campsites in Custer State Park. We need to talk about it a lot, he says, and not just during legislative hearings.

“It’s too rushed,” Noem says. “It hasn’t been thought through before taking it to the Legislature.”

But that’s where it is, before the South Dakota Legislature, in HB1048, which would appropriate $9.9 million from the state general fund for “the purpose of expanding Custer State Park.” That expansion, we can presume, is the new campground.

The bill has been referred to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, where it was expected to be discussed this week.

Past upgrades were needed at areas already developed

Rollie Noem knows Custer State Park as well as anyone ever has, I’d argue. He was with the state Parks Division within the Game, Fish, and Parks Department for 33 years, 20 of them as the superintendent there. And he oversaw some dramatic development at the campgrounds and at the park’s four state-owned resorts, developments that I covered closely as a newspaper reporter.

Upgrades at those resort areas have continued since Noem’s years there. And another upgrade in the way of more campsites might seem to fit, except for a few things.

First, the other developments were largely in areas that were already developed. The long-time resorts have been there for generations and needed upgrades badly. Camping cabins and additional campsites were added, again in areas that had already been developed.

This is different. This is a whole new campground. A big one. And it’s in an area that hasn’t been developed called Barnes Canyon.

It’s not too far from the park’s airport on one side and existing campgrounds, the State Game Lodge, and the new park visitor center on another.

But not far in Custer Park can be a big deal, for wildlife especially. And in this case for elk in particular.

“That area, Barnes Canyon, is prime elk habitat, and right now it’s undisturbed. It’s really a pristine area,” Noem said. ‘When I first heard of this proposal, I’m sure my mouth dropped open. I just couldn’t believe it.”

Gov. Noem is promoting the new campground, which she mentioned in her budget message to the state Legislature in December and again in her State of the State address on the first day of the 2022 state Legislature.

Governor argues surge in park visitation merits expansion

Gov. Noem noted a 10 percent increase in the purchase of state parks entrance licenses last year over the previous year, which was a record. And she said camping nights in state parks overall have increased by 100,000 since 2015.

At 71,000 acres, Custer State Park is the largest park in the state system. It is also the best known and most visited. GF&P officials say park reservations are full from May through September.

If the 176 campsites are added, it will take the total number of campsites in the park from 345 to 521. Rollie Noem worries that it will also change the nature of the park, and not in the best of ways.

Barnes Canyon is west of the Wildlife Loop Road south of the Highway 16 Junction in the park.

“There’s really no development now between the Highway 16 Junction and the buffalo corrals,” Rollie Noem says. “ Can you imagine 176 units and all the camping rigs and motor homes and fifth-wheels, all that traffic going back and forth?”

ATVs and side-by-side vehicles that can travel off-road but can also use highways have exploded in popularity, and would likely be part of the caravan of visitors to the new campgrounds.

“There’s a lot of that kind of traffic these days,” Rollie Noem says. “People haul them in on trailers and ride through the hills. I’m not speaking one way or another on them, but you’ll often run into caravans of them because they can legally run on roads. And they’re noisy little buggers.”

Plus the infrastructure for electricity, water and sewer, access roads, and other amenities that would be needed with the campsites. It might be a great camping area. But it certainly wouldn’t be the place it was for elk and other wildlife. Never again would it be that.

Among other harmful effects, the disruption to elk could cause them to change their typical movement and grazing habits. The animals have long migrated back and forth from the park to private ranch land east of the park. Over the years, landowners adjoining the park there and elsewhere have complained about damage to feed supplies and fences from elk.

Rollie Noem fears those damage complaints could increase because of the new campground.

“This kind of increased development and activity has real potential to push those animals outside the park and onto private land — to the grasslands and hay lands of those ranchers,” he said. “That needs to be considered.”

Noem also worries about potential impacts on the popular Wildlife Loop Road, a narrow, low-speed asphalt road that winds its way through the southern portions of the park for 18 miles. The route is part of a scenic-drives network that also includes the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway and the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway.

“At some point, could they talk about the Wildlife Loop Road not handling enough traffic?” he wonders. “And then would there be talk of widening the road and straightening it?”

Public needs more time to consider campsites plan

I’ve known Rollie Noem a long time, way back since he was in eastern South Dakota with the Parks Division. He’s never been an alarmist. But he admits to some alarm over this plan. And he thinks it hasn’t had nearly enough public review and discussion to be so far along in the process of approval.

“I don’t like the idea at all. But that said, at a minimum, this has got to be thought through, and the public deserves the opportunity to be part of the discussion,” Noem says. “Legislative scrutiny shouldn’t be the only step in this. The public deserves a chance to weigh in, ask questions and learn about it.”

Rollie Noem would also like to see “some kind of environmental impact review, not just for the elk herd but for that whole ecosystem. And none of that has been done.”

Noem thinks the bill in the Legislature should wait so the issue can be referred instead to a series of public meetings on the plan, along with some review of potential wildlife impacts.

Public comments have already begun without a formal process, of course, as word got out about the plan. Private campground owners, who often worry and complain about undue competition from state campgrounds, complain that the expanded campsites in Custer Park will hurt their business and perhaps over time force some to close down.

While visitation is breaking records now, some campground owners suspect that after the pandemic settles, the feverish push to recreate outdoors might abate. Then, between the new camping capacity in the park and existing capacity in private campgrounds, campsites will go unused, they say.

Rollie Noem believes those fears are legitimate.

“The government’s got deep pockets and the private sector should not have to unduly compete with that. I don’t disagree that there’s probably that demand right now,” he says. “But is that going to be sustained going forward?”

If residents, in particular, are having trouble getting reservations to camp at their park, could the reservation system be adjusted to set a percentage aside for residents during certain periods? Noem wonders.

They seem like fair questions. And after two days of emails to Game, Fish & Parks officials in Pierre, I was unable to get answers from the agency. I suppose they’re awfully busy with legislative matters.

But then, they’ve been busy. The bill seemed to be in trouble in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. And while there are other options to get it passed, rejection there would be a setback.

So maybe all the tough questions will get asked by state legislators and lobbyists and reporters and everyday citizens before the fate of the bill is decided for certain in this legislative session.

But maybe not, too. The idea of slowing down a bit for more careful public consideration makes a lot of sense to me, and to Rollie Noem.

After all, the very nature of a place we call the jewel of our state park system could be at stake.