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For more than 50 years, the pine-studded grounds of Camp Bob Marshall have served as a summertime destination for thousands of South Dakota children.

Canoes, campfires and crafts have filled the days for two generations at the 4-H summer camp located near Custer.

But, despite assurances the camp is safe, recently proposed federal legislation has brought the camp's future into question. 

In July, a bill was introduced in Congress asking for a federal and state land swap to potentially create a new state park in Spearfish Canyon.

A piece of that legislation also calls for a federal and state land swap to take place at Bismarck Lake, which is home to Camp Bob Marshall.

The swap would take the lake out of the control of the U.S. Forest Service and put it inside Custer State Park boundaries and under management of the state. The 524-acre piece of land at Bismarck Lake is adjacent to Custer State Park's current boundaries, and roads leading to the lake pass through Custer State Park's land, forcing visitors to pay an entrance fee to use the lake. 

So far, the message from Al Nedved, South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks assistant parks director, has been clear: That as of now, there are no plans to change anything about Camp Bob Marshall if the land swap passes.

"It's our intent to work with that camp and honor any contracts and anything with the Forest Service," he said. "Right now, there's no proposal to alter or change anything."

The camp was issued a special use permit by the National Forest Service to allow it to serve as a 4-H camp until Dec. 31, 2028. Even with that long of a time frame, Nedved said he doesn't see GF&P moving on proposing a new function for the camp.

"We would take a look at that and be willing to honor that," he said. "If we can renegotiate we might, but we haven't had any discussions."

Camp manager Gary Holst walked the grounds in August, pointing out cabins and recreation buildings that were built by Civilian Conservation Corps crews in the late 1930s. Holst has been working at the camp for 23 years and his love for the site and its history is evident. He says he does the work, "because it is worth doing."

Holst said the same families and groups and have been coming to the camp for generations. One group, the South Dakota Wildlife Federation Youth Conservation Camp, has been holding camp there every summer for 53 straight years. The fear that the camp could be changed after the state takes control weighs heavily on members of the ogranization.

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One group at the camp told Holst in August that if the bulldozers ever came, to let them know because they plan on laying down in front of them. Holst then added, "I think I will probably join them."

U.S. Sen. John Thune introduced the land swap bill in the Senate with co-sponsorship by U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds. U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem introduced a companion bill in the House.

But it was Gov. Dennis Daugaard who actually presented the land package to the delegation to be introduced. The governor was unable to speak about the issue, but the Journal spoke to a member of his staff. 

"Our plans for Camp Bob Marshall is to run it exactly the same way it is run now," Hunter Roberts, the policy adviser for Daugaard said in a phone interview.  

Roberts said the main reason Bismark Lake and Camp Bob Marshall were included in the land package sent to Congress is because visitors to the lake have to enter through Custer State Park. He says that has created confusion among campers as to which land they are really on, and caused some Forest Service campers to use facilities on state land. 

Roberts reiterated that the state will honor contracts that are already in place with the camp.

"It's not like we are going to change things overnight," Roberts said. "We don't want to pull the rug out from anyone, but we do think we can come in, make some improvements and make it a seamless part of Custer State Park."

One improvement Roberts pointed to was upgrading the sewer system at Camp Bob Marshall and the facilities at the Bismarck Lake Campground. 

Nedved said the next step is for the state to hire a consultant who will develop a master plan for Bismarck Lake, including Camp Bob Marshall, next month.

"We have not had any direct discussions or proposals that would do anything different," Nedved said. "We want to do some master planning and give people a chance for public comment."

Western Dakota 4-H Camp Association Board Member Brad Kiezer said he trusts the state will stand by its word and honor any deals currently in place with the Forest Service and the camp.

"I have absolutely no reason to not believe in them," he said. "They've always been good to work with."

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