As Gov. Dennis Daugaard hiked the steep switchbacks on the trail to Spearfish Falls on Thursday afternoon, he recalled a previous visit in 2003, when he was only lieutenant governor.
At that time, a 1917 valve on Spearfish Creek had choked the falls into non-existence.
“There was no Spearfish Falls,” Daugaard said. “I was privileged to be present about a week after the valve was shut and the waterfall flowed again. We hiked to the bottom, slipped and slid our way down an icy trail in November and saw what a beautiful thing the falls were.”
Now, Daugaard wants to see the area around Spearfish Falls transformed into a state park in hope of preserving its natural beauty for generations to come.
“It’s that access to beauty that we want to provide to all our citizens, so they don’t have to slip and slide down an icy slope like I did,” Daugaard said.
Daugaard’s plan calls for a land exchange with the Black Hills National Forest to set the stage for the creation of a 1,600-acre park in the Little Spearfish Canyon area, efforts that have since been bolstered by U.S. Sen. John Thune’s introduction of a bill to facilitate the land transfer.
Daugaard’s vision has its critics, some of whom have wondered why the transformation of the natural area into a state park likely with entrance fees attached is necessary. The governor hoped to address some of those concerns with the help of Matt Snyder, Superintendent of Custer State Park, and other members of South Dakota Game Fish & Parks during their tour of Spearfish Canyon on Thursday.
The once treacherous slope that Daugaard hiked in 2003 to reach the newborn Spearfish Falls has since been made more navigable by a crushed rock trail and wooden footbridge. Those are the kind of improvements that Daugaard would like to see spread out in more areas of the park.
Putting the area under the state’s management, he said, would ensure that those improvements get made, along with the creation of a more interconnected trail system and additional camping amenities.
“We’ll also ensure that the investments that have already been made can be maintained,” Daugaard said. “Once you create a landing like this, or a bridge or a trail, you’ve got to maintain them. And that will ensure that there’s that revenue stream; that, into the future, when we’re all gone and our children are here or our grandchildren, it will still exist for them, still be protected for them, and they’ll still have access to it.”
Bob Burns is the President of the Norbeck Society, a group focused on outdoor projects and issues in the Black Hills Region. Though Burns said his organization has not taken a stance on the governor’s plan, he has questions nonetheless.
“If this becomes part of a state park, you’ll have to buy an entry ticket,” he noted. “That doesn’t seem fair to me.”
Under the Forest Service’s stewardship, the area around Spearfish Falls and Roughlock Falls can be accessed free of charge. In South Dakota, state parks require payment upon entry.
Whether or not an entrance fee would be required has not yet been decided, Snyder said, and would likely be discussed during the master planning phase of the project, when members of the public will be allowed to provide input on what kinds of improvements and added amenities they would like to see in the area.
Daugaard appeared unconcerned about an entrance fee, noting that a year-long pass for entrance into all of South Dakota’s state parks is $30.
"That’s a pretty good and cheap deal,” he said, adding that travelers on Highway 14 would still be able to go through Spearfish Canyon without any cost.
The Forest Service has also voiced concerns about the land swap, saying it has made investments into the Bismarck Lake area that may be diminished, and camping revenues that may be lost if the deal goes through.
According to Game Fish & Parks officials, Roughlock Falls sees about 9,000 visitors a month.
The state park would include Roughlock Falls, Spearfish Falls, and land upstream of Little Spearfish Creek and slightly downstream of the Latchstring Inn and the Spearfish Canyon Lodge. Those two privately owned properties would not necessarily need to be purchased by the state in order for the park to be formed, Daugaard said, adding that the plan nonetheless calls for expansion of parking in front of both.
Daugaard said one of the owners of the Latchstring Inn and Spearfish Canyon Lodge is Rapid City businessman and former state lawmaker Stan Adelstein.