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IMLAY | Big chunks of scenic badlands and grasslands would change ownership under a swap that seems headed toward approval over the objections of some ranchers in southwest South Dakota.

The deal, known as the Cain Creek Land Exchange, is described by the parties doing the swapping as an attempt to straighten out some of the checkerboard pattern of public-private land ownership in the area.

Some ranchers don't see the swap as so benign. Rather, they worry that the deal will put them closer to pesky prairie dogs and will subtract property-tax revenues from local governments.

Under the proposal, the federal government would rid itself of 26 parcels totaling about 3,400 acres that are scattered and isolated among private land between Wall and Hot Springs. In exchange, the government would receive six parcels totaling about 2,500 acres in the Conata Basin area, alongside the boundaries of Buffalo Gap National Grassland and Badlands National Park.

Imlay, about 50 miles southeast of Rapid City, is in the midst of the land that would go to the government. 

Officials from the government and the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, which is the other main party in the swap, say the deal will reduce the number of public-private boundaries where the government and ranchers clash over prairie-dog management, while also providing more contiguous habitat for wildlife such as the endangered black-footed ferret.

“Where we can consolidate land ownership and have less interface with private landowners and less issues with boundaries and prairie dogs, we’re hopeful that will help alleviate problems,” said Cindy Hockelberg, the U.S. Forest Service project manager for the swap.

She said much of the land came into federal ownership after it was abandoned by private owners during and after the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Corissa Krueger, manager of The Nature Conservancy’s Western Dakotas Program, said the proposed swap is a fulfillment of her organization’s goal to “look at opportunities for pragmatic solutions that benefit ranchers and benefit wildlife.”

But some ranchers in the area, like Monte and Martha Whitcher, reject such reasoning and oppose the swap. They live near some land that will change to government ownership, which they said will make their own land more vulnerable to damage from burrowing prairie dogs. Although the government helps remove prairie dogs near public-private boundaries, it also sustains them on public land as prey for the endangered black-footed ferret.

“We don’t need any more federal ground,” Martha Whitcher said. “We need to manage what we have now.”

The Whitchers are also concerned about property-tax revenue.

The Forest Service conducted and published a complex analysis of the proposed swap’s tax impact. Because The Nature Conservancy pays property taxes but the government does not, the swap means some local taxing entities would gain property-tax revenue while others would lose it. Some taxing entities in Jackson, Fall River and Pennington counties would have land added to their tax rolls, while the land that would come off the tax rolls is only within Pennington County, specifically in Imlay and Scenic townships and the Wall School District.

Taxing entities such as townships and school districts that lose property-tax revenue because of federal land ownership are eligible for programs including Payments in Lieu of Taxes and Impact Aid, which use federal money to offset tax losses.

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“In the long run, it seems to work out fairly evenly,” said Hockelberg, of the Forest Service.

Martha Whitcher disagrees. She is the clerk of Imlay Township and said the township board has passed resolutions each year since 2008 opposing any deals that would take land off the tax rolls. She said funding from the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program is dependent on Congress and thus is unreliable.

The Whitchers’ neighbor, Sonnie Kudrna, sold some land to the Conata Ranch that The Nature Conservancy ended up buying and including in the land exchange. The other land from the Nature Conservancy in the swap is from its White Ranch purchase in 2007 and several other smaller purchases.

Kudrna also has worked part time for The Nature Conservancy and said it has done some good work in the area. Still, he’s against the swap, partly because he fears hurting local taxing entities. He also depends on a water pipeline that crosses land involved in the swap and is uncertain how the pipeline might be affected.

During the project's scoping period, about a dozen comments were submitted either in opposition to the swap or expressing concerns about it. Some were by people, others by government entities, including Imlay Township and the Pennington County Commission.

The proposed swap is a continuation of conservation-themed work in the Conata Basin by The Nature Conservancy, a global nonprofit that began buying land there in 2007 and sold some land in 2012 to Badlands National Park.

The Nature Conservancy would transfer ownership of 2,493 acres to the Forest Service. Those parcels are all adjacent to the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and one is also adjacent to Badlands National Park. The Forest Service plans to make the land available for grazing.

In exchange, the Forest Service would transfer ownership of 3,387 acres to The Nature Conservancy. Those parcels are mostly scattered among privately owned land and are leased for grazing to 15 neighboring landowners. The Nature Conservancy already has agreements to sell the parcels to those neighboring landowners, but declined to disclose to the Journal the sale prices.

If the swap and the sales go through, The Nature Conservancy’s land holdings in the Conata Basin area would be reduced to about 2,000 acres.

The land in the proposed swap that now is owned by the government has a total appraised value of $1.501 million, while the land owned by The Nature Conservancy (plus one parcel that it plans to acquire from a private landowner and include in the swap) has a total appraised value of $1.453 million. The Nature Conservancy would be required to pay the government a “cash equalization payment” of $48,000 if the swap is approved.

The deal has been grinding through the machinery of the federal government for several years. The Forest Service this month published a completed environmental assessment and draft decision that would allow the swap to move forward.

The Forest Service’s publication of a legal notice April 3 kicked off a 45-day period during which anyone who previously submitted written comments on the proposal can file an objection to the swap.

If any objections are received, they will be reviewed and addressed before a final decision is issued.

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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