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Sylvan Lake

The summit of Inner Outlet offers some of the best views of Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park. Climbing experience and gear will be needed. 

An oval sapphire ringed by emerald flecks, silver spires and opaline sky, Sylvan Lake remains a Black Hills crown jewel 138 years after Theodore Reder dammed Sunday Gulch Creek to create it.

It needs help staying that way.

“The area is kind of being loved to death … in terms of visitor capacity,” Custer State Park visitor services program manager Kobee Stalder said recently.

On a typical summer day, arriving visitors encounter county fair-style parking — cars wedged into weeds and queues. Wedding chairs fill positions on the preferred postcard point. Fast walkers overcome the slow like Harleys around pokey Airstreams on worn and narrow lake pathways.

Officials worry about deteriorating water quality and lake silt. Increasing numbers of rock climbers scamper up and across nearby granite walls. A popular trailhead to Black Elk Peak has grown congested. Drones and helicopters frequently hover over Cathedral Spires. Limber pines have declined.

The state hired Wyss Associates of Rapid City for $78,500 to help compose an area master plan — last addressed 45 years ago.

At the initial meeting for the plan in June, park management set this over-riding goal: Sustain and improve the study area’s natural resources without expanding visitor capacity.

Amen to that.

There’s potential for this to go awry.

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A hedge fund manager would probably create larger concessions and gift shops.

An engineer might note the parking shortages and build bigger lots. It’s happened before.

A miser might raise the entrance price until only the wealthy can enjoy it.

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A booking manager might require reservations.

An architect might design a grand entrance worthy of this natural jewel.

A state bent on enhancing tourism might do all of the above and then wonder why people reminisce about what was lost.

The new study and plan are overdue. The patient needs a checkup and updated recommendations. There’s little knowledge about how visitors view their experience at the lake, whether locals avoid it during summer, whether Needles Highway is becoming gridlocked.

The first question should be: How many people can the area sustain indefinitely? The second: How do we design eventual replacement infrastructure to support this limit while discouraging overuse?

It’s a small area that has reached maturity in terms of visitation. It needs no further development but rather preservation. Let’s not throw away this jewel through misguided efforts to enhance it.

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