Sen. Tim Johnson introduced legislation Wednesday to designate 48,000 acres of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in western South Dakota as federal wilderness.
Johnson titled the legislation the Tony Dean Cheyenne River Valley Conservation Act of 2010, in honor of well-known outdoors broadcaster and conservation advocate Tony Dean of Pierre, who died in October of 2008.
"This title is a fitting legacy for a man who understood the value of South Dakota's great open spaces," Johnson, D-S.D., said during a conference call with reporters. "If enacted, this bill will establish the first wilderness area in the national grasslands system in the United States."
Johnson said he based his legislation largely on U.S. Forest Service recommendations developed during the administration of former President George W. Bush. The new wilderness would be mostly in the Indian Creek and Red Shirt areas southeast of Rapid City in the Badlands. The wilderness designation would provide long-term protection for a key ecosystem, while allowing hunting, camping, hiking, horseback riding, recreational rock collecting and livestock grazing to continue on the areas designated as grassland wilderness, Johnson said. It would limit all off-road vehicles in the designated wilderness to a single 6-mile road in the Indian Creek while preventing additional roads or development, Johnson said.
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"I took a balanced approach to public access, in ensuring that those who make their livings off our national grasslands can still prosper," he said.
The legislation also provides authorization to control fires and invasive species and prairie dogs, Johnson said.
"Although I know this plan will not please everyone, I was heartened by expression of support from sportsmen, businesses and Indian tribes," Johnson said.
Terry Mayes of Rapid City, a director for the South Dakota Wildlife Federation and volunteer for the South Dakota Wild Grasslands Coalition, said the wilderness designation will assure the preservation of a unique piece of South Dakota, while preserving grazing for livestock producers.
"It protects 48,000 acres of South Dakota heritage; a beautiful, pristine grassland, surrounded by some of the most dynamic landscape features available in all of South Dakota," Mayes said. "And everything that outdoorsmen can do is still available under this designation, with the exception of using mechanized equipment."
Mayes said that Johnson worked hard to assure that grazing opportunities would be protected under the wilderness designation.
"That's an important feature of this entire designation," Mayes said. "The people who understand the wilderness law and the congressional grazing guidelines see how this wilderness designation will protect grazing as it exists today."
That's true, as far as it goes, said Margaret Nachtigall, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association.
"As far as grazing, yes, grazing is written into it," Nachtigall said. "But if it's invaded by a prairie dog town that takes off all the forage, grazing is going to be reduced."
Nachtigall said wilderness designation is likely to make it more difficult to deal with prairie dog problems, despite assurances from Johnson and supporters of the legislation.
"The federal government doesn't have a real good track record for taking care of invasive species or prairie dogs, which I consider an invasive species," she said. "We're disappointed. We were hoping it wouldn't take place this way."
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