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An 11-year-old written promise by a former state official to never charge the public for access to certain parts of Spearfish Canyon has been resurrected during ongoing debate of a proposal to turn part of the canyon into a state park.

The promise was made in a 2006 document by John Cooper, who was then secretary of the state Department of Game, Fish & Parks. Former state legislator Jerry Apa, of Lead, referenced the promise in an op-ed piece earlier this month in the Journal.

The Journal has since obtained a copy of the document, which is 48 pages long and titled "Spearfish Canyon Homestake Lands Acquisition."

The document consists of an ultimately successful proposal from Cooper to obtain $3.1 million from a legal fund designated for the restoration of areas damaged by gold mining. The state used the money to help acquire water rights and about 350 acres of land in the canyon from longtime owner Homestake Mining Co. and its corporate parent, Barrick Gold Corp. 

At least three times in the written proposal, Cooper promised never to charge a fee for access to the acquired areas. Those areas included Roughlock Falls and Savoy Pond and some associated stream sections, plus 300 acres at the canyon mouth near Spearfish.

“Fees will never be charged to view or enjoy these lands,” said the most emphatic of the promises in the document.

Another part of the proposal earmarked $600,000 to be placed in an interest-bearing fund for the operation, maintenance and environmental restoration of the acquired land and water. The proposal stated that Homestake required the fund “to guarantee that fees will never be charged to the public to view or enjoy these acquisitions.”

Gov. Dennis Daugaard now wants to obtain nearly 1,500 acres of Black Hills National Forest land in the canyon — including two U.S. Forest Service campgrounds — and pair it with some state-owned land to create a 1,600-acre state park.

Roughlock Falls and Savoy Pond, two of the areas covered by the 2006 no-fee pledge, are included in the proposed park boundaries. Apa, in his Jan. 1 op-ed piece, suggested that the creation of a state park and the imposition of an entrance fee would violate the earlier promises.

“In terms of bureaucratic life, the ink isn’t even dry on this document and GF&P is trying to circumvent the intent of the agreement between Homestake and GF&P,” Apa wrote.

Cooper, who is now retired, said in a phone interview last week that he included the no-fee promise in the 2006 proposal at the request of Apa, who was then the chairman of the Legislature's Joint Appropriations Committee.

But Cooper said he intended to prevent fees only at the three places that were being acquired at the time — the Roughlock Falls area, the Savoy Pond area and the canyon mouth. He does not think the no-fee pledge is applicable to other parts of canyon that the state has acquired since then or might acquire in the future.

Current GF&P Secretary Kelly Hepler took the same position last week during a visit to the Journal while he and other state officials were in the Black Hills to promote the state park plan. He said no fees will be imposed to drive through the canyon on U.S. Highway 14, but said other fees are possible and are under discussion as part of a master-planning initiative that will include public input sessions.

Hepler indicated that some user fees will be necessary to operate the proposed park. He said annual interest from the $600,000 fund established in 2006 amounts to only about $6,000, while the cost to maintain basic visitor infrastructure at Roughlock Falls — which is already designated as a state nature area — along with Spearfish Falls and Savoy Pond is about $34,000 annually.

Other fees besides an entrance fee could be used to maintain the proposed park, Hepler said. He gave examples including camping fees, and fees to hold weddings and other special events.

“There are multiple ways you can do that, and it would be irresponsible for us to say at this point that we know exactly what this is going to look like, because we don’t,” Hepler said.

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Besides fees, the other main concern expressed by critics of the state park plan is the threat of overdevelopment that a state park could pose to relatively pristine sections of the canyon. State officials have said the buildup of a park could include improved roads, expanded campgrounds and more visitor amenities. But they insist they will be good stewards of the land and resources, just as the state has been at existing state parks.

In 2006, Cooper expressed his own concerns about overdevelopment in his land-acquisition proposal. Quoting a statement by the Black Hills National Forest and a task force of canyon stakeholders, Cooper wrote, “The carrying capacity of the area is currently maximized … biodiversity and scenic values are at risk as the demand for public use continues to expand … Further development will encroach on the unique qualities of the Canyon's natural landscape ….”

Last week, Cooper said the environmental concerns he expressed 11 years ago do not apply to the creation of a state park in the canyon.

“From what I understand about the state park development process, it’s going to be developed with that kind of situation in mind,” Cooper said.

Cooper also said, as did Hepler, that Spearfish Canyon is bound to remain popular with visitors, and a smartly designed park could be the best way to accommodate visitors while still protecting environmentally sensitive areas.

Meanwhile, the fate of the proposed park rests mostly with Congress and the president.

The state’s congressional delegation, at Gov. Daugaard’s request, is trying to pass legislation that would transfer the federal canyon land needed for the park to the state, in exchange for some state land east of the Black Hills that would be transferred into two national grasslands. Bismarck Lake, which is adjacent to Custer State Park, would also be transferred to state ownership as part of the swap.

State officials said during their visit to Rapid City last week that they also foresee Bismarck Lake becoming a natural addition to Custer State Park, and that amenities there would likely be improved under state ownership.

Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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