March 30, 2011

Geography, politics and an adventure

By Lorraine Collins

As I observed the recent events in Wisconsin when lawmakers fled the state capitol and headed out of state to prevent a quorum and thus prevent a vote on a bill they opposed, I realized that this tactic would be more difficult to achieve in South Dakota. Our capitol, Pierre, is right in the middle of the state, unlike Wisconsin's capitol, Madison. Any fleeing Legislators would have to drive quite a long way to get to Minnesota or Nebraska or Wyoming or North Dakota, avoiding the Highway Patrol all the way.  

I don't suppose our founding fathers were thinking of this when they located the capitol in Pierre. They were probably just trying to find a central location, not realizing that many years later the Interstate Highway system would choose to go somewhat south of Pierre so the state capitol is not as conveniently located as one would like, and that the bigger population centers would be toward the edge of the state. The state capitol really isn't convenient for most of the people in the state to get to.

Back in the early 1970s I used to arise at dawn to drive to Pierre on Highway 34 so I could testify on behalf of legislation, or against legislation, that affected organizations I was involved with, such as school boards. So far as I know, we didn't have a lot of lobbyists in those days, so citizens themselves had to go to Pierre to talk to Legislators. One time a school board member and administrator from Newell joined a couple of us from the Belle Fourche school board to hire a small aircraft to fly us to Pierre. That turned out to be a real adventure.

When we got as far as Hayes, the pilot started to turn around to go home because there was a fog bank he couldn't fly through. We protested. We insisted. We said we absolutely had to get there. So this fellow, whose name I luckily can't remember, decided to set the aircraft down on Highway 34 which at that hour had no traffic whatsoever. We got out of the plane, pushed it off of the highway onto a road leading to a field, and the Newell guys hiked to a nearby ranch for help. The rancher took us into Hayes.

Soon, a pickup truck pulling a trailer with a piece of farm machinery of some sort came along, and we were able to convince the driver to take us into Pierre. The two men got in first and the other woman and I got in and sat on their laps. The accommodating good Samaritan drove us right to the capitol and we made it in time to testify before a committee. I believe that was the time we wanted to change the law requiring a 60% majority to pass a bond issue.

When I got up to testify, a Legislator said that usually nobody ever bothers to come to talk to their committee. So I told the story of what we'd gone through to get there, to illustrate how important this was to us.  Eventually, the pilot was able to get the plane to the Pierre airport so we flew home safely. But by then, our story had been picked up by the Associated Press who called me to ask about this adventure.

The problem was, it's generally illegal for a small plane to land on a highway unless it's an emergency, and a school board emergency probably wouldn't qualify.  I said I really didn't want the pilot to get into trouble. So the reporter said he would say that our pilot, "an experienced crop duster, looked around for a place to land." So the story went out: School Board Members Fly and Hitchhike to get to Pierre!

All that effort went for nothing. Our bill was killed in committee. Yet, I'm glad we tried. And I'm glad to know that many others go to Pierre these days to support causes they believe in, no matter how hard it is to get there and no matter how futile it seems.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be reached at

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