South Dakota politicians covet Forest Service land in Black Hills

(UPDATED at 2 p.m. MDT October 7, 2016)

After one of our readers told us about the video above about the U.S. Forest Service trading away land, we added it.


(Originally published at 1:54 p.m. MDT September 27, 2016)

The four highest ranking politicians in South Dakota are backing legislation that would require the U.S. Forest Service to turn over two of the most beautiful areas of the Black Hills National Forest to the state. In exchange for approximately 2,000 acres, the USFS would receive an equal number of acres from four parcels in three counties scattered around the state. The size of the parcels could be adjusted based on an appraised value.

Pushing the land grab are Governor Dennis Daugaard, Senator John Thune, Senator Mike Rounds, and Representative Kristi Noem. The Senators have co-sponsored a bill in the Senate and Representative Noem has introduced similar legislation in the House.

The South Dakota politicians are trying to take from the federal government two of the crown jewels of the Black Hills National Forest — Spearfish Canyon and Bismarck Lake.

Spearfish Canyon
Spearfish Canyon, Google Street View

The state wants 1,468 acres in Spearfish Canyon. The road through the canyon, framed by towering 1,000-foot limestone canyon walls, is officially designated as a Scenic Byway. South of the city of Spearfish, it attracts large numbers of visitors to see the fall colors when the aspen turn brilliant yellow in September. One of the best known features is Bridal Veil Falls that cascades down a sheer 60-foot cliff alongside the road as it feeds the creeks that run through the canyon. Hikers enjoy the many trails that meander through the area. Fly fishermen take advantage of the incredibly scenic pools and rapids along the creek.

Bridal Veil Falls Spearfish Canyon
Bridal Veil Falls. Google Street View.

The second crown jewel the state wants to take from the federal government is 524 acres east of Custer, including Bismarck Lake. With the nearby campground, it is set amidst a scattering of aspen groves and Ponderosa pine at 5,000 feet. The lake supports populations of rainbow and brown trout, a variety of sunfish, smallmouth bass, northern pike, and catfish. At the campground, a short foot trail traverses the forested shoreline, offering opportunities for birding in early morning or picnicking in the afternoon.

Bismark Lake
Bismarck Lake, east of Custer, SD. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Bismark Lake
Bismarck Lake. Photo by Peg Sperlich.

The parcels of land the four politicians want to trade for these crown jewels are in the counties of Lyman, Pennington, and Lawrence.

Lyman County
Central Lyman County. Google Street View.

We don’t know exactly where in those counties the land is that the politicians want to trade for the USFS land, but the photo above is a typical scene in central Lyman County in the middle of the state, more than 150 miles east of the Black Hills National Forest.

If the land grab occurs, the state would use Spearfish Canyon to expand its Roughlock Falls Nature Area and designate it as a state park. The 640 acres around Bismarck Lake would be added to Custer State Park.

In written testimony during a Senate hearing last week about the bill, the USFS opposed the transfer of land. Leslie Weldon, the Forest Service’s deputy chief of the National Forest System, wrote, “the bill is unnecessary and contains provisions that raise concerns.”

Below is an excerpt from an article at NewsCenter1:

“Normally in a land exchange process, just like in a real estate transaction, you have a willing buyer, a willing seller, or at least two willing parties, and you have a mutually beneficial agreement,” said Mark Van Every, forest supervisor for the Black Hills National Forest. “And in this particular case, we don’t believe that this land exchange is mutually beneficial.”

Van Every said the Forest Service has invested heavily in both the Spearfish Canyon and Bismarck Lake areas, from campgrounds to trails and more. In addition to that predicted revenue loss, he said the Forest Service was not consulted on the bill.

Geese at Bismarck Lake
Geese on Bismarck Lake. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

“The state of South Dakota has proven time and again that it can preserve and protect South Dakota’s natural resources while providing unparalleled outdoor experiences that attract people from across the state and nation,” said Senator Thune. “I’m confident this track record will lend itself to creating similar opportunities in the Spearfish Canyon and Bismarck Lake areas once this land exchange is completed.”

Senator John Thune and Representative Kristi Noem are up for reelection in November.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

10 thoughts on “South Dakota politicians covet Forest Service land in Black Hills”

  1. Seems there are many western States wanting federal land to be turned over to the States. What many elected officials seem to forget that Federal lands belong to all the citizens, not just those in that State. imo, this would be a bad move for the USFS to accept the land exchange.

    The State would have to show it would increase the budget, hiring, etc to manage and protect those lands.

  2. It’s not likely that the state would have to budget anything. There is neither mandate nor motivation to manage or protect any of the lands they seek to acquire. The goal would be to sell off the land and put monies from sales into the state coffers. Buyers of the land would probably be close allies of the officials who are pushing to remove Federal stewardship and move the control of the land into state hands. The National Forests and other federally managed lands don’t belong to the government. Those lands belong to all of us who are citizens and residents of this Nation. The Federal government is just our caretaker of the National Forests, Monuments, Parks and other preserved lands. Statutory laws and regulations guide the protection and management activities of the agencies of the Federal Government that are charged with care of our lands.

  3. Bill, thanks so much for posting this. This is very real and happening all over the west. Take a look at what Randy Newberg, Hunter has been saying or a recent video by Trout Unlimited. Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is sounding the alarm as well.

  4. The leader of the pack of greedy politicians who want ownership of OUR Federal Lands is Utah Republican Congressman Rob Bishop. He’s trying every underhanded trick possible, but is running up against dedicated hunting/fishing/conservation/environmental groups nation-wide who oppose him and are shining the naked light of truth on his proposals. Remain vigilant, friends: these buggers are always on the prowl to steal OUR Federal Lands.

  5. The President, under authority of the the Antiquities act of 1906 could effectively take this out of play by his ability to unilaterally create a National monument out of this parcel. (Could any reader, here, promote this idea to the White House?) He has already protected more sites than any other president.

    1. These two areas are already part of a National Forest. Would it being a National Monument change anything? And if it does, this could turn into Whack-A-Mole. States want to grab federal land to turn it over to private industry or something else, and it is declared a Monument by the President.

  6. As it is, the USFS can do anything with its land: Allow commercialization, mining, logging, or trading it off with states or other federal agencies for otherwise useless land. Giving it National Monument designation makes it a protected status land and would be given to a different federal agency such as NPS for its management.

    1. Not necessarily. The USFS manages many areas that have National Monument status. For example the recent designation of the San Gabriel National Monument on the Angeles N.F., Giant Sequoia National Monument on the Sequoia N.F., Snow Mtn./Berryessa on the Mendocino N.F. and several others. The BLM also administers several national monuments.

  7. USFS is certainly right on this in my opinion. I am not at all impressed with the SD politicians on this issue (and the prescribed burn proposal by Thune) in this election year. One does have to ask what the goal is behind the land swap proposal. I see nothing wrong with how it is currently being managed. The Black Hills NF does a good job and it is available for all of us to enjoy.

  8. South Dakota is one of the more corrupt states in our country. Deadwood, South Dakota has been put on watch for losing it’s National Historic Status. That is how the inept and corrupt politicians in this state take care of their national land marks!

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