Preservation, control at heart of South Dakota wilderness issue

Sep 17, 2010

South Dakotans are learning that having the same goal doesn’t automatically put everyone on the same side. The goal at issue is to protect a unique area of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-SD, has proposed designating about 48,000 acres of the area as wilderness. The bill under consideration in the U.S. Senate is called Tony Dean Cheyenne River Valley Conservation Act of 2010, in honor of South Dakota conservationist Tony Dean.

The legislation providing for designated wilderness areas was passed in 1964 with the definition, "A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." About 107 million acres of federally-owned property fall under the wilderness heading.

The area proposed for wilderness designation under Johnson’s bill is already owned by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the ownership would not change under the proposed legislation. It is located in western South Dakota, southeast of Rapid City. The area is already managed to preserve its wilderness properties, according to Johnson’s website, and the proposed designation would result in few changes in management.

Most of the area was recommended for wilderness designation by USFS in 2002. Johnson added some other exceptional lands and proposed it for wilderness designation to Congress on May 5, 2010. Wilderness designations can be made only by a congressional act.

The area is made up of creeks, canyons, rolling hills, prairie and treed riparian areas. Buffalo Gap National Grassland is home to more than 100 animal species, more than 250 bird species, 47 grass species and 100 species of wildflower—a diversity that many claim can be attributed to the management by those who have grazed it for generations. It would be the first parcel in the National Grassland System to receive the wilderness designation.

A wilderness designation is tailored for each piece of property proposed for it. Some have more rigid governing protocols than others. This proposal curtails the use of motorized and mechanized vehicles—including bicycles—on the property. Motorized vehicles have already been prohibited from the area under consideration for several years, but this designation would make that prohibition permanent. It allows motorized vehicles only to meet the requirements for the administration of the area, emergency situations, and occasional use by grazing permitees. It also prohibits commercial enterprise, man-made structures, and temporary and permanent roads.

Right now, the property is divided into parcels that are privately leased for grazing. The area is popular with rock hounds and others who enjoy the open spaces of the prairie. Johnson assures users and neighbors that the function and management of the area will not change with the new designation. "My legislation will provide lasting protection and recognition of the most exceptional parts of the grassland, while preserving long-standing grazing rights and sound management of the area," Johnson says.

Many of those who hold grazing leases on the property, or who own neighboring lands, remain unconvinced. Scott Edoff, one of the leaseholders and neighboring ranchers, points to infestations of leafy spurge, mountain pine beetles, Canada thistle and prairie dogs on other wilderness areas as problems resulting from insufficient management provisions for wilderness areas.

Dan O’Brien, another rancher and leaseholder in the area, supports the designation, saying it’s a unique piece of property that needs to be protected. While his neighbors don’t disagree with that concept, they disagree on the best method to accomplish that goal. Most say the current management practices under USFS’ National Grasslands program are sufficient to protect the property.

Thirteen other cattle producers lease grazing rights in the area proposed for wilderness designation. Twelve of them oppose it and one is remaining neutral.

One major concern is that leased grazing will be gradually phased out. The Wilderness Act and Congressional Grazing Guidelines state that established grazing shall continue, with the reasonably necessary use of motorized vehicles to maintain it. Johnson emphasizes his legislation stipulates that existing grazing on these parcels will continue.

In a year when South Dakota’s lone House of Representatives seat is up for election, the issue has generated debate among South Dakota’s political delegation as well as concerned citizens. For Republican House candidate Kristi Noem, it is an issue of limiting the expansion of government in addition to one of environmental preservation. "We talk about that land and how it’s in pristine conditions," she said. "And how do you think it got that way? It’s because of the operators out there."

Her opponent this fall, incumbent Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, has not yet taken a stance on the issue. She agrees with Johnson’s goals, but is still weighing the impact this proposal will have on agriculture, recreation, hunting, fishing and all other affected industries in the state.

Republican Gov. Mike Rounds and Sen. John Thune (R) also agree that the lands are special and need to be protected, but agree with many neighboring landowners that wilderness designation is not the way to accomplish it.

"While I appreciate Sen. Johnson’s intention with this legislation, I share the concerns of how such a designation would ultimately impact pest management, natural disaster mitigation, grazing permits and recreational activities within the proposed area," Thune said.

Johnson claims the support of organizations representing more than 100,000 South Dakotans. Most of these organizations are focused on hunting, fishing and conservation. The two major groups representing cattle producers in the state—the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association (SDCA) and the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association—oppose the designation.

"We’re concerned about how the wilderness designation will impact all grasslands users, especially grazing permitees, as well as adjacent private landowners," said Jeff Smeenk, SDCA second vice president and cattle producer from Newell, SD. "Management history of nearby wilderness areas legitimizes our concerns regarding the continuation of sound land management practices as the pine beetle infestation has decimated the forest of the Black Elk Wilderness area."

The legislation has had a hearing at the subcommittee level. A member of Johnson’s staff said he doesn’t know when action will be taken on it. — Maria E. Tussing, WLJ Correspondent