Last June my family went on a vacation to the Black Hills. We spent a fair amount of time in Spearfish and went through the canyon a few times. We stopped at Roughlock Falls, a place I had visited many times.

It looked very different than it did when I attended college at Black Hills State University in Spearfish. There were paved asphalt paths and fences everywhere. There were picnic tables on concrete slabs and other superfluous structures.

It was all very nice if it were a random city park or a rural park built from nothing in a place of little significance, but this was Roughlock Falls, a place that looks like Eden in South Dakota.

In the 13 years since I moved away, that area, once owned by a mining company, had suffered serious streamside erosion problems from heavy use and needed to be fixed up. The land was acquired by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks and was subsequently upgraded.

However the GFP strategy was akin to using a sledgehammer to push in a thumbtack.

Because of this and other factors I fear that, under a plan hatched by our state leaders under the guise of preservation, one of the most beautiful and relatively untouched natural places in the state will be ruined.

Here's the quick version of what has happened and is happening:

February 4, 2016

Governor Dennis Daugaard announced a plan in that Spearfish Canyon, currently owned by the National Forest Service, should become a state park. It would require a "small fee" to gain entry and "maintain facilities." He wished to acquire mining land so that Spearfish Falls may accessible to the public.

July 14, 2016

To gain ownership of the land and turn it into a state park, Senator John Thune, co-sponsored by Senator Mike Rounds and Representative Kristi Noem, introduces federal legislation to trade some relatively worthless school and state prairie land in Lyman County owned by the state for the much more valuable land in the Black Hills owned by the federal government, including the upper Spearfish Canyon area from Cheyenne Crossing to Timon Campground, and also 524 acres around Lake Bismarck adjacent to Custer State Park.

The legislation states that the land shall be treated equal in value when in reality the value is certainly not equal. If it were the state could build this park in Lyman County, but they aren't interested in that.

October 7, 2016

Governor Daugaard further pushes his plan for Spearfish Canyon State Park so that it can be "protected" and become "more accessible." The land is already accessible and open to the public free of charge and is managed sufficiently by the Forest Service.

January 24, 2017

Governor Daugaard introduces Senate Bill 114 that would give $2.5 million to Game, Fish and Parks to buy school and public land they can trade with the federal government if Senators John Thune and Mike Rounds can get their end of the deal passed.

Daugaard's bill states: "Whereas, this Act is necessary for the support of the state government and its existing public institutions, an emergency is hereby declared to exist, and this Act shall be in full force and effect from and after its passage and approval."

Of course there is no emergency here, and the public institution doesn't exist.

At face value it seems like a good idea. Our state parks are great. I have no negative opinion of any of them and like the ones I have been to very much.

When it comes to Spearfish Canyon many locals and former locals have the same opinion: leave it alone.

Unlike the Roughlock Falls area, there is no problem in need of a solution in the upper Spearfish Canyon. It is being managed by the Forest Service and is already open and accessible to the public.

David Miller, a former resident of Spearfish and retired teacher living in Rapid City, opposes the project.

"There is no sound reason for them to need upper level Spearfish [Canyon], which is the National Forest portion of this plan, for a park," he said. "The canyon floor is in excellent shape. There's nothing wrong in there. It's well cared for by the Forest Service."

When I asked about why the governor and the GFP want this so bad, Miller would not speculate without fact. But he did tell me that the reason seems to lie within the language used by the GFP.

"I have heard them say that the people who use the parks are their customers. I heard them make reference also to the Bismarck Lake area as a trade area. That language pervades the department," he said.

Without a shred of contrary evidence I will speculate that the governor is primarily concerned with generating revenue from Spearfish Canyon. He and the GFP may in their minds think that their brand of preservation and management, which includes the installation of modern campgrounds, shower houses and running toilets, is the right way to do it. There are many of us who disagree with that style of preservation when it comes to its application to Spearfish Canyon.

"Visitors passing through Spearfish Canyon on US Highway 14 will continue to do so at no cost," Daugaard said in October. "South Dakotans can expect to see improved camping, hiking, fishing and sightseeing opportunities there, as well as upgraded restrooms, shower facilities and roads. Improved access would also be attentive to protecting the ecology and plants in these areas."

This area of the canyon already has camping, hiking, fishing and sightseeing. In fact in much of the Black Hills National Forest you can pitch a tent anywhere you want free of charge.

Dispersed camping is something GFP can't make a buck on. If they are able to acquire that land and justify that fee they will likely pave walking paths, install picnic tables on concrete slabs, and build gaudy shower houses and destroy the natural landscape.

"They say 'we want to preserve that country up there, that is going to get hit so hard if we don't preserve it we're going to lose it,'" Miller said. "I say 'show us one bit of damage in upper Little Spearfish that should concern us. Show us that there is some way you can compare that unusual formation at Roughlock with the relatively level floor upstream.'"

Miller also said he has recently walked the canyon from rim to rim and all up and down and can't find a problem.

As for protecting the ecology and plants in that area, the Forest Service is already doing that, and managing to two rustic fee campgrounds.

My kids take a break on a bench mounted to a large concrete pad at Roughlock Falls. (Photo by Andy Erickson)
Andy Erickson/Results Radio

Al Nedved, who for the parks division of the GFP based in Pierre, says they want to be the caretakers of this land.

"It's obviously a special place," he said. "It has the potential to be one of the most utilized and visited parts of the canyon and we want to make sure people have access to that area and we are able to preserve it and provide a meaningful experience."

I asked Nedved what was wrong with the Forest Service's management of the area. He wouldn't comment on that, but he did say how the GFP would run it.

"With the Game, Fish and Parks Department we take a very hands on and inclusive approach to managing our facilities," he said. "We try to have staff. It starts with a presence there, to be responsive and reactive and manage the area actively."

Nedved denied that this deal is being done to generate revenue for GFP and then said it won't necessarily be a state park, that those decisions will be made through input of the public and based on recommendations from a consultant.

Local control is not always better.

In the year and a half since this has been the governor's idea, tonight (January 26) will be the first time the public will be given the opportunity to speak directly with those pushing for this project when a public meeting will be held at the Spearfish Park Pavilion.

I have no idea what the end game of this land swap is. Could it be about money? Of course it could be and probably is. Most things in politics involve money in some way.

I do know that there are a lot of people who are opposed to this entire thing. The governor can say "most people think this is a good idea" all he wants, that doesn't make it so, and many of those who oppose it will be at that meeting.

Today (January 26) Governor Daugaard announced that entrance fees for whatever the area becomes will not be charged if the state is able to take over the land.

That's sounds great, but once the state owns the property and it is under GFP control they can do whatever they want. It's a spoken promise not subject to the law, as of now. To me what they do to the land is more of a concern than what they charge to get in.

Active management by the GFP, in the style that Nedved described when I spoke to him this week, could ruin upper Spearfish Canyon. It will become just another "attraction" in the Black Hills. People would visit it I'm sure. But they would never know what a gem it had been in its former existence.

If you are an East River person and have really only ever gone camping at a GFP campground that has shower houses and hookups for campers then you may not appreciate the upper canyon for what it is.

It does not need bike and walking paths made of concrete. It does not require a septic tank or outhouse to be built, nor does it need shower facilities. If you require that much modern convenience there are numerous hotels and cabins in or near Spearfish, Deadwood or Lead for you to stay in, all of which pay taxes to the state.

The value of the canyon lies in it's lack of development.

Living in Spearfish for four years was really a treat for me. It is the single most beautiful area in South Dakota, in my opinion. I love it and it feels like my other hometown that I seldom get the chance to visit.

The governor can talk about how much time he and his family have spent vacations there and that's a cute story. But he cannot fathom what it means to those who have had the Canyon as a tangible, enduring part of their lives.

Please, leave Spearfish Canyon alone.

Proposed Spearfish Canyon Park (Photo Courtesy SDGFP)
Proposed Spearfish Canyon Park (Photo Courtesy SDGFP)

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