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Jim Holland, Journal staff 

A firefighter uses a drip torch during a back-burning operation on the Legion Lake Fire near Badger Clark Road in Custer State Park in December.

Crews race to stop spread of Custer State Park wildfire

While the cause of the Legion Lake Fire officially remains under investigation, a downed power line is suspected of sparking a wildfire which shut down Custer State Park Monday.

The blaze burned an estimated 2,500 acres of timber and dry grassland south and east of the intersection of U.S. Highway 16A and S.D. 87 North, where the fire is believed to have ignited about 7:30 a.m. Monday.

Pushed by swirling winds gusting up to 50 mph, the fire moved along Centennial Trail toward the Star Academy East Campus and Badger Hole. By Monday afternoon the head of the fire had crossed Heddy Draw and spread to both sides of Barnes Canyon Road.

Firefighters from state and federal sources were joined by local volunteer departments in scrambling to protect the nearby Legion Lake Lodge and Badger Hole historic site. Blue Bell Lodge to the south and the State Game Lodge to the east are also threatened.

As of late Monday the only structure lost was a small wooden pump house near where the fire started. 

“Most of the effort now has been put toward stopping the forward progress of the fire," said Jay Wickham, South Dakota Wildland Fire management officer in Custer State Park.

Wickham said a Rocky Mountain Type II team will take over management of firefighting efforts Tuesday morning. Two heavy air tankers and a helicopter have been ordered as well.

Park Superintendent Matt Snyder said Monday morning the fire appeared to have been ignited by a power line that was downed by a falling tree. “From there, with the high winds, it proceeded to move,” he said.

The winds and rugged terrain have made conditions difficult for an estimated 200 firefighters battling the blaze. Wickham said the Legion Lake fire is in territory consumed by the epic Galena Fire, which scorched nearly 18,000 acres in 1988.

Stands of short Ponderosa Pines bunched close together are feeding the flames, Wickham said. “That makes it difficult to fight because it’s not safe to get into fuels like that."

Seasonal park staff at Legion Lake Lodge Blue Bell Lodge and the former Star Academy East Campus were evacuated, Snyder said.

With most lodgings closed for the winter, only a few visitors were in the park Monday, said park visitor services representative Kobee Stalder.

The fire spread rapidly through dry grasses and fallen timber with some indications of torching, Snyder said. There is little snow cover in the park in the area of the fire. 

Several roads have been closed, including portions of U.S. Highway 16A and S.D. Highway 87 in the area of Legion Lake. 

The park will remain closed to visitors through at least today. “We don’t need people getting out there thinking they can hike in a part of the park, not knowing where the wind is going to take this fire,” Snyder said.

U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds said in a tweet Monday that his office is closely monitoring the wildfires in the park. "Endless thanks to the emergency crews and firefighters from across the Black Hills, who are working in difficult weather conditions to contain the fire," he wrote. 

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Board revisits ban of livestock video sales in South Dakota

PIERRE | The 1997 state law generally banning video auctions of livestock in South Dakota also means livestock producers are on their own if they participate in video sales elsewhere, members of the state Animal Industry Board said Monday.

That cattle sellers taking part in video auctions aren’t protected by state rules emerged from a 90-minute discussion about whether state Rep. Tom Brunner, R-Nisland, should try again at lifting the ban.

The legislator told the board he had asked that a 2016 version of his bill be killed. Members of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee obliged. He didn’t bring another bill in the 2017 session.

The consensus Monday around the board’s table was too many questions remain before the 2018 session opens Jan. 9.

Silvia Christen, executive director for the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, suggested from the audience that a group could start meeting next spring. The issue perhaps didn’t rise to the level of an interim study by the Legislature, she said.

Christen said her organization doesn’t have a standing policy on the issue of video auctions but the topic probably would be discussed later this week. She said many producers likely don’t know they lack protection in South Dakota when a video auction goes off-track, such as a buyer failing to pay.

That point — the failure of the board to protect producers — seemed to catch the attention of a variety of its members, whether they represented pigs, sheep, cattle or dairy.

The board charges a health inspection fee for livestock sold through brick-and-mortar auction markets in South Dakota, but doesn’t charge the fee on animals sold through video auctions.

Brunner, a past dairyman who now runs a cattle feedlot, said his primary interest is economic development for South Dakota communities where video auctions would occur. He said several times that 100 motel rooms could be booked.

“We’re missing the opportunity to have those buyers come to South Dakota,” Brunner said. “There’s still groups of people who want (video) sales in South Dakota.”

The South Dakota Livestock Auction Markets Association opposed Brunner’s bill in 2016. Thor Roseth, owner of Philip Livestock Auction, told the state board Monday that a large video-auction company he represents charges a 2 percent commission. 

“I don’t see it expanding our buyer base in any way,” Roseth said.

Steve Rommereim of Alcester represents pork producers on the board. “We need to look into this,” he said. “We’ll be able to order cattle from Amazon pretty soon, and they’ll deliver with drones.”

Board member Cobbie Magness said auction markets shouldn’t be responsible for telling South Dakota livestock producers they’re not protected if they participate in video auctions outside the state border. He owns Magness Livestock Market at Huron.

North Dakota and Montana have laws allowing video auctions but with different levels of regulation.

South Dakota state veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven said he favored the work group that Christen mentioned.  Oedekoven, who oversees the state animal health office and is the board’s executive secretary, called the panel idea “a life-raft approach.”

“I like the idea of working on it. Rep. Brunner, can you live with that?” he asked.

Brunner replied that he had been working on it for two years. 

Oedekoven said he wants to hear from cattle producers. “We need to bring that group together,” he said.

Jim Holland, Journal staff 

Two firefighters watch as the Legion Lake Fire burns on a steep slope in Custer State Park Monday afternoon. 

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RCAS accused of discriminating against students with disabilities

The Rapid City Area Schools district said it has submitted the documents requested by a federal agency that is investigating a discrimination complaint against the school district.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating allegations that the school district discriminated against students with disabilities and retaliated against the complainant because of her advocacy on the issue, according to an Oct. 16 letter the Office sent District Superintendent Lori Simon.

It said the agency will investigate three issues based on an August 2016 complaint against the district, which receives funding from the federal education department.

First is whether the district discriminates against students with disabilities by “systematically denying them a free appropriate public education” in two ways: failing to identify and conduct timely evaluations of students suspected of having dyslexia and other disabilities, as well as imposing a cap on the number of students who can be evaluated for dyslexia and other disabilities and receive the appropriate help.

Dyslexia is a learning disability that involves difficulty with reading and writing letters or numbers. In October 2015, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance to assist states and local school districts in recognizing the unique needs of students with learning disabilities, including dyslexia.

Another issue is whether the Rapid City Area Schools retaliated against the complainant because of her advocacy efforts for South Dakota House Bill 1198, a proposed law last year that would recognize dyslexia as a learning disability. The retaliatory actions against the complainant — representing two women who worked for the school district — allegedly included increasing the monitoring of her performance and “harassment in the workplace.”

Third, whether the district retaliated against the complainant by not renewing her contract as an "instructional support teacher" because of her legislative advocacy and because she filed in May 2016 an internal discrimination and harassment complaint with the district.

Responsibility to investigate

The Office for Civil Rights said federal-funding recipients are prohibited from intimidating, threatening, coercing or discriminating against anyone to interfere with a right or privilege secured by federal civil rights law.

This school year, the Rapid City Area Schools is receiving $3.4 million for special education from the U.S. Department of Education, according to data from the school district. Some $22.4 million, or 12 percent of its annual budget, is spent on special education. The rest of the funding comes from the county and state.

The Office for Civil Rights' four-page letter to Superintendent Simon was sent to the Journal by Stephanie Trask, a lawyer for the complainants, who obtained the document through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The complainants, however, were not provided a list of the data the Rapid City Area Schools was asked to send to the civil rights office. “Production of such records could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings,” the agency said in a Nov. 2 letter.

The Office had also told the school district it may interview district personnel or any person who may know about the issue.

Simon’s office submitted the requested documents before the end of October, said Katy Urban, spokeswoman for the school district.

“Prior to receiving the complaint in October of this year, we had no knowledge of it,” Urban said in an email. The allegations, she said, stemmed from May 2016, before Simon became head of the school district in July 2016.

Goal of reading proficiency

The school district can’t comment on the allegations since it involves a staff issue, Urban said, but added that one of the district's strategic goals is to ensure students can read proficiently by third grade. She said that over the summer, before the district learned about the discrimination complaint, it already created a “dyslexia workgroup,” tasked with developing a plan to support students who struggle with reading.

“The bottom line is we are working to address the needs of all our students in the area of reading — and that includes our students with dyslexia,” Urban said. “RCAS takes this work extremely seriously.” The workgroup has since met on Oct. 28 and Nov. 18. 

Trask said the school district has known about the complaint issues since May 2016, when one of her clients filed an “aggrievance” with the district and met with its representatives, including the lawyer who continues to represent the district.

There were originally two discrimination complaints filed against the district, Trask said, explaining that the Office for Civil Rights consolidated them because they brought up the same issues. She declined to reveal the identity of her clients, fearing further retaliation and harassment against them.

Trask declined also to elaborate on the workplace harassment her clients allegedly suffered, saying she didn’t want to prejudice their case in the event the women decide to sue the school district.