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The debate over Custer campground expansion

This video is from SDPB's news program, South Dakota Focus.

Lawmakers across the state were flooded with phone calls and emails about a proposed expansion to campsites in Custer State Park. The vast majority of those messages told lawmakers to reject the bill.

To be clear: demand for campsites in the park is on the rise, and visitation rates in recent years have broken records, thanks in part to the pandemic pushing people to enjoy the great outdoors. But many fear their treasured state park is being loved to death.

The Game Fish & Parks Department defended the proposed expansion in the House Ag and Natural Resources Committee last week.

There are 389 campsites in Custer State Park. An earlier proposal called for another 175 sites, including new electric utilities, a shower house and paved roads.

After pushback from conservationists and private camp owners, the Game, Fish and Parks department offered a new proposal: 66 new sites in another part of the park. It was a less intrusive option than the previous plan, and about five million dollars cheaper.

Secretary of Game Fish & Parks Kevin Robling testified in favor of the expansion before the House Ag and Natural Resources Committee.

“The new location at Stockade Lake and revised budget are a product of listening to the public who sent an email, made a phone call to the department, to the governor’s office, and to this body,” he said.

“The land where the proposed site is located was purchased in 1974. It lies outside the fence boundary of Custer State Park. The Stockade location is adjacent to current campgrounds, it encompasses 50 acres, with 66 campsites. This represents less than one-tenth of one percent of the park’s 71,000 acres.”

Secretary Robling said the site is currently used as a haying ground for the park’s bison herd, but it’s not a unique habitat for any wildlife.

These points weren’t enough to satisfy opponents.

“Long time ago when I was a little kid growing up in Pennington County, a rancher told me, ‘No matter how thin the toilet paper, there’s always two sides.’ And there’s another side to this," said Craig Willan of Custer.  

Willan was the first of more than a dozen opponents who testified before the committee. He read the letter he’d sent to his representative.

“Let free enterprise fill the needs of camping and lodging outside the park, for both our own citizens and out of state guests. What’s next? The state government expanding to get into renting ATV’s, running horse stables, chuck wagon suppers, guided bus tours? And I’m not being facetious!”

Private campground owners echoed the desire to limit competition from state government. Steve Saint of Custer was one of them.

“This competition would have a perpetual funding source, pay no taxes or fees, and thus would be able to offer a product for a price that would be utterly unsustainable for the private sector.”

Saint says there are 44 private campgrounds within 15 miles of Custer State Park that offer hundreds of additional campsites. But beyond business competition, some worry that Custer State Park is following in the footsteps of crowded national parks.

Representative Taffy Howard described a recent family trip to Yosemite National Park in California.

“If you’re hiking on any trails outside of the valley, there are hoards of people! You are wall to wall. There is no peace and quiet in that camp or in that valley or in any of the trails.”

“Custer State Park is still our local state park. It is not a national park, it should not be treated like a national park. It is our local state park, and South Dakotans need to be put first and foremost. We need to be allowed to enjoy our own natural resources. Just as Yosemite and Yellowstone and Glacier are being loved to death, Custer State Park is heading in that direction.”

Just as Yosemite and Yellowstone and Glacier are being loved to death, Custer State Park is heading in that direction.
Representative Taffy Howard, District 33

The significant public outcry caught lawmakers’ attention. Senator Julie Frye-Mueller represents District 30, which includes Custer. She says the public response from all corners of the state has been overwhelming.

“We are the voice of the people. That’s why we’re elected by the people. And we’ve heard loud and clear from the people, ‘Please don’t change this.’”

Both of District 30’s representatives sit on the House Ag and Natural Resources committee. Representative Tim Goodwin offered an amendment to limit the proposal to tent camping only, saying that wouldn’t interfere with most private campground businesses.

“It’s only 66 sites, it’d be $15 a night. If you wanted to go camping in Custer–if you really wanted to go camping. Maybe I’m an army guy and I know what real camping is. You pitch a tent and camp and heck, if you’ve got a shower and a flush toilet you thought you were in heaven! So, with that I appreciate your support of this amendment," he said ahead of a vote.

But for Representative Trish Ladner, the decision was clear.

"Sometimes doing what you’re charged to do can be messy. This has been difficult, but the people have spoken from District 30. I have over 1,500 emails, and none of them in favor. So I will be opposing this amendment.”

The bill to expand campsites in Custer State Park ultimately failed on a 9 to 3 vote, inspiring brief applause from the audience. But the question of maintaining Custer State Park’s capacity for campers and visitors remains.