January 12, 2017

Why a Spearfish Canyon State Park?

by Larry Miller

We've seen lots of state-generated information about how great it will be to have a new South Dakota state park in Spearfish Canyon – but we're still unconvinced.

As an "immigrant" to the Black Hills some 12 years ago, we chose the area largely because of the beauty of the region -- especially Spearfish Canyon.  We've biked it, hiked it, and have grown to love it.

Back in 2015, we heard from a reasonably reliable source that the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department had acquired – or planned to acquire – the old Homestake Hydroelectric Plant #2 just a few miles up the canyon from Spearfish.  Hmmmmm.  Curious that.

So early last year, when Governor Daugaard announced state plans for a new Spearfish Canyon State Park, it all began to crystalize, despite the fact that the specific real estate involved was not clearly identified.  Spearfish Canyon covers a lot of geography.

Then we heard that the U.S. Forest Service wasn't excited about the Governor's plans, at least the part that seemingly leaves the feds with the short end of the real estate stick.  Now, perhaps that was simply a financial qualm, but it did demonstrate that not everyone was excited about aspects of the envisioned park.

For the average northern hills citizen, the proposed park conjures up visions of Custer State Park.  So some folks have worried about an "entrance fee" being charged.   For months, there was no indication of such a fee, but in recent weeks, GFP has clarified that they weren't talking about "Spearfish Canyon" but "Little Spearfish Canyon."  And that there would be no fees charged for traversing Highway 14A, a "National Scenic Byway."  T'would have been good if that had been explained up front.

A point of disclosure here.  Shortly after moving to Spearfish in 2005, we heard about GFP plans for upgrading access and facilities at Roughlock Falls.  When public discussions were conducted at  Hudson Hall, we attended and were pleased with the openness and healthy exchanges between GFP representatives and members of the public.  When the project was finally completed, we had been won over by GFP.  They did a very good job of shepherding the project through the shoal waters of public opinion – and an even better job of expanding and updating the facilities at Roughlock Falls.

Alas, circumstances surrounding a Spearfish Canyon State Park are different.  Different in scale.  Different in scope.  Different in potential public impact.  And much different in the way it was rolled out.

Perhaps we missed it, but we never saw a specific website for the Roughlock Falls project, as has been done belatedly for a Spearfish Canyon State Park.  And in recent weeks, likely in response to public opposition and confusion, there've been increased numbers of GFP-sponsored public forums on the issue. 

It's been unclear to us exactly HOW MUCH the Game, Fish & Parks folks plan to spend on this project.  Significant resources already have been expended in just launching it, so how much -- in the end – will taxpayers and users of the facilities have to come up with?

What's the prospect that if GFP takes over custodianship of the Little Spearfish Canyon real estate,  followed by user fees and an increase in state taxes to pay for it, that we'll see a reduction in federal taxes commensurate with the maintenance/service fees incurred by the U.S. Forest Service?  None, I would proffer.

And what about Hydro Plant #2?  Is it at the other end of the patchwork quilt of a larger "Spearfish Canyon State Park," originally envisioned – and perhaps still envisioned – by the folks in Pierre?

An update (1/26/17):  In an e-mail to us, GF&P representative Nancy Surprenant has underscored that "there are no plans to expand the proposed Spearfish Canyon State Park boundaries beyond what is currently being proposed."  That provides a bit of consolation – but of course plans change over time, and a comment attributed to an architect hired by GF&P causes us to wonder.

Jolene Rieck with Peaks to Plains Design – who helped facilitate a public meeting (1/26/17) on the GF&P proposal – commented, "This is not something that gets finalized on by the end of March.  This could take years." This could be a signal that some in the Daugaard administration are prepared to do battle over a proposal that has had a less than lukewarm reception in the legislature – and considerable opposition from the general public.

Stay tuned.

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