Hermosa ranchers Scott Edoff and Dan O'Brien live just 3 miles apart, but the men have vastly differing opinions on a proposed wilderness designation for 48,000 acres of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands.

The neighbors testified Wednesday before the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee considering the Tony Dean Cheyenne River Valley Conservation Act of 2010.

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., introduced the bill in May that would designate more than 48,000 acres of the grasslands as wilderness.

The U.S. Forest Service recommendation designating land in the Indian Creek, Red Shirt and Chalk Hills areas as wilderness would create the nation's first grasslands wilderness, according to Johnson.

"The Cheyenne River Valley in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland includes some of the finest prairie wilderness in the U.S. Located among isolated buttes and the wide Cheyenne River Valley, these lands remain undisturbed in the form the native people who first inhabited these lands long ago would recognize," Johnson said Wednesday.

Johnson said the effort to designate a portion of the grasslands as wilderness has the support of more than 100,000 South Dakotans.

Fourth-generation rancher Scott Edoff agreed that the land is special. His family has held a livestock grazing permit the proposed Indian Creek Wilderness since 1994.

"Indian Creek is a special place of wonder and beauty," Edoff said.

But, the wilderness legislation is not necessary to protect the area, he said.

The proposed wilderness designation has divided his community, he said.

All but two permit holders in the affected area share his views, Edoff said. Permit holders are concerned about how the wilderness designation could change the management practices in the area. They have seen the damage done by prairie dogs, Canadian thistle, leafy spurge and mountain pine beetles in other federally designated wilderness areas, he said.

Discussions with supporters of the wilderness designation have not always been pleasant, he said.

Although they differ on how the land should be cared for, the opponents share a common bond.

"The one thing we all agree on is that we like the National Grasslands just the way they are," Edoff said.

Designating the area as a wilderness will not necessarily preserve the areas as they are now, Edoff told the committee.

The historic multiple-use management plan now used in these areas has allowed a variety of uses, including motorized access, rock hounding and grazing, Edoff said. A permanent wilderness designation would be detrimental to the land, his ranch and to the public interest.

"There are currently ample land-use applications in place," Edoff said.

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O'Brien, a rancher, biologist, teacher and writer, has owned cattle since 1974. He claimed to offer a unique perspective as an "in-the-trenches rancher" and biologist. He owns the largest grazing permit in the Indian Creek area.

No American grassland better fits the spirit of a wilderness grassland than the Indian Creek area, O'Brien said.

O'Brien said he approves of the safeguards Johnson has placed in the bill to address management.

Elevating the visibility of Indian Creek is the best bet for improving its management, O'Brien said.

Grazing will continue under the act.

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"Without this additional layer of protection, the Indian Creek area will eventually fall prey to the abuse and destruction of ever expanding off-road traffic," O'Brien said.

A prairie wilderness experience is a rare privilege that all citizens should be able to access, he said.

As a rancher and businessman, O'Brien said he believes that wilderness adds value to South Dakota's economy by providing opportunities for tourism, unique hunting experiences and new forms of income generation for a way of life that has always needed to adapt to prosper.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., also testified Wednesday that he has met with several permit holders and organizations who are concerned about the potential long-term impact of permanent wilderness designation in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. Gov. Mike Rounds has also opposed the wilderness designation, Thune said.

Along with Rounds, Thune said he is concerned about how the wilderness designation would impact low-altitude training for the South Dakota National Guard, not withstanding the assurances Johnson has placed in the act.

Thune said 30 South Dakota government, trade, recreation, tourism and agricultural associations have weighed in against the proposed wilderness designation in South Dakota.

"While I appreciate Sen. Johnson's intention with this legislation, I share their concerns of how such a designation would ultimately impact pest management, natural disaster mitigation, grazing permits and recreational activities within the proposed area," Thune said.

Contact Andrea Cook at 394-8423 or andrea.cook@rapidcityjournal.com.





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