The new supervisor of the Black Hills National Forest is apologizing and admitting he erred when he said top South Dakota officials failed to communicate with his office about a controversial land-exchange proposal.
Mark Van Every, who became the supervisor of the forest in August following the retirement of his predecessor, Craig Bobzien, said in a Sept. 23 interview with the Journal that neither he nor any of his top staff was consulted about the proposal.
The plan, which originated from state government and has been introduced as federal legislation, calls for parcels of state land east of the Black Hills to become part of two national grasslands while some federal land in Spearfish Canyon would become part of a proposed state park, and the federally owned Bismarck Lake would be added to Custer State Park.
The Journal paraphrased Van Every’s comments in a Sept. 28 news story that conflicted with comments from Tony Venhuizen, chief of staff to Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard, who had referenced ongoing discussions with local Forest Service officials.
After the publication of the story, staffers from the offices of Daugaard and U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told the Journal there had been communication among all involved parties and offered evidence, including a timeline and copies of letters.
The Journal forwarded the evidence to Van Every, who issued a written statement Wednesday through a spokesperson.
“When I said that the Forest Service was not consulted on the bill, I was unaware that several conversations about possible legislation had happened during the past two years,” said Van Every’s statement. “I apologize. Last week, I met with staff from Senator Thune's, Senator Rounds' and Congresswoman Noem's office to identify ways we can work together to develop shared solutions that maximize mutual interests in providing quality experiences for recreation users in South Dakota. I am also working to set up a meeting soon with the Governor's office to have similar discussions."
Thune’s office said in response that it would allow Van Every’s comments to speak for themselves. Venhuizen, of the governor’s office, said in an email to the Journal: “The Governor certainly appreciates the Forest Service's change of tone and looks forward to continuing this discussion.”
Van Every's new comments do indeed reflect a change in tone. Besides having said in his Sept. 23 interview with the Journal that there had been no communication with his office about the proposed land exchange, Van Every had also outlined numerous reasons for his opposition to the exchange. Among them: a belief that the recreational opportunities sought by the state already exist; a concern that the state’s development plans might diminish the natural character of the federal land; and a fear that the federal government and American people would be victimized by an unfair deal if highly valuable Black Hills land got traded for less valuable grassland.
Van Every’s criticisms of the proposal came on the heels of similar comments from one of his superiors, Leslie Weldon, the deputy chief of the National Forest System. She testified Sept. 22 against Thune’s land-exchange bill in a Senate committee, saying in part that “the bill is unnecessary and contains provisions that raise concerns.”
Thune and Daugaard are nonetheless pressing forward, not only with the land-exchange legislation but also with a campaign to win over South Dakotans, some of whom share the concerns of the Forest Service officials. Daugaard’s office last week issued an invitation to the media for a 4.5-hour Thursday tour of both the Bismarck Lake area and the proposed Spearfish Canyon state park area, to be led by the governor himself.
Meanwhile, Thune’s bill, which is co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., awaits further congressional action, as does a companion House bill introduced by U.S. Kristi Noem, R-S.D.