Looking back, Gov. Dennis Daugaard now acknowledges he may have misplayed his hand when announcing a multi-step plan that could ultimately lead to a new state park in Spearfish Canyon.
As the state park proposal remains mired in near-constant controversy, Daugaard now recognizes that rather than directly tie a state-federal land swap plan to the creation of the new park, he could have done a better job of explaining that in fact the two projects are separate from each other.
The state-federal land swap in the Black Hills and accompanying $2.5 million expenditure now being considered by the state Legislature is completely separate from the creation of a new state park in Spearfish Canyon, Daugaard clarified Friday.
Lawmakers will not even consider this year whether to create the state's 14th state park — a conversation that has led to strong reaction on both sides. Daugaard said a bill to designate a state park, which is necessary to make the park a reality, has not been filed this session.
"People think it's all one decision, and it's not," said Daugaard, who was in Rapid City on Friday to address the Chamber of Commerce and to meet with the Rapid City Journal editorial board. "They're all separate decisions. Do you want a land swap to create a larger block of state-controlled land? Secondly, do you want to name this block or any part of it a state park? And thirdly, do you want to charge any kind of fees?"
In a conversation with the Journal, Daugaard acknowledged that he was not precise on those points in his initial presentation of the proposal, and that he and backers of the plan had a "messaging problem" that made it seem as though the $2.5 million expenditure and the land swap with the federal government were naturally tied to creating a new park.
Daugaard wants to obtain nearly 1,500 acres of Black Hills National Forest land in the canyon and pair it with some state-owned land there. In return, the U.S. Forest Service would get state School and Public Land parcels east of the Black Hills that would be transferred into two national grasslands.
The proposed land swap would also include the federally managed Bismarck Lake in Custer County, which would then become part of the adjacent Custer State Park. The $2.5 million expenditure would be needed so that the state can essentially pay itself by reimbursing the School and Public Lands Trust Fund for the value of the land given to the federal government.
All those actions can take place without a new state park designation, Daugaard said, and he urged lawmakers to support the land swap even if they are cool to the idea of a new state park.
Since he first floated the concept of the land deal and new park a year ago, the idea has been much discussed. Backers say creating a new state park would add cohesiveness to the many natural wonders in and around Spearfish Canyon, attract more people to the area, boost the economy, and protect the natural resources while upgrading access and facilities.
Opponents, including some West River lawmakers, say the plan would mean just adding a fee to something that is now free to access, and could promote the area in such a way that would bring too much traffic and overcrowding.
However, the governor said the land swap should be considered on its own merits.
"I think there's really no argument against that (the land swap)," he said, arguing that owning more land in the canyon would enable the state to make improvements faster and provide better protection of the natural resources that would then be under its ownership.
"The state is more nimble, easier to adapt to changing needs and wishes," he said. "The federal government is by nature a little more slow in their movements."
As an example, Daugaard pointed to the proposal to create a bike trail linking the federal Mount Rushmore National Memorial to the state-run Mickelson Trail. Though a fairly simple idea first offered in 2012, Daugaard said no action has been taken in almost five years because a federal environmental impact statement on the project is still ongoing.
Daugaard also said he isn't sure how reasonable it will be to charge fees at a state park in the canyon as proposed because it would essentially be a long Y-shaped strip of land with offshoots into trails, natural sites and campgrounds, and not a single site or chunk of land. He said camping fees would seem reasonable, but a main entrance fee might be a tough sell.
"Where are you going to charge that fee, and what will it limit people to?" he asked. "Are people going to pay a fee just to walk and go look at a falls? I just think that's unlikely."
Furthermore, he said, whether to charge fees and how they would be collected and used would likely be acts of a future state legislature and governor, since this is Daugaard's final term in office by law.
"If the public wants a lot of improvements, that money has to come from somewhere, and the maintenance of those things has to come from somewhere," he said. "If they don't want to pay fees, then we can still have a recreation area, and we could even have a state park, but we probably couldn't afford to create and maintain as many things as we could otherwise."
State Game, Fish & Parks officials have said that it would not be legal to charge a fee for people to drive on U.S. Highway 14A, which is the main road through Spearfish Canyon and the only main road through the boundaries of the proposed state park.