Bill would designate wildernessA proposal to designate a portion of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland as protected wilderness land, authored by Sen. Tim Johnson, moved ahead Wednesday. A bill to designate the land, which is already owned by the federal government, was discussed in a Senate subcommittee. It continues to draw fire from the state’s top Republican officials, West River county officials and agricultural groups in the state.
By: By Tom Lawrence , Forum Communications Co. , The Jamestown Sun
A proposal to designate a portion of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland as protected wilderness land, authored by Sen. Tim Johnson, moved ahead Wednesday.
A bill to designate the land, which is already owned by the federal government, was discussed in a Senate subcommittee. It continues to draw fire from the state’s top Republican officials, West River county officials and agricultural groups in the state.
Johnson’s bill, the Tony Dean Cheyenne River Valley Conservation Act of 2010, was discussed in a Senate Public Lands and Forest Subcommittee hearing Wednesday. The subcommittee heard from several witnesses, including three South Dakota ranchers. The Obama administration supports the legislation, which would need the president’s signature to become law.
Johnson, who introduced the bill May 5, said this would be the first wilderness designation in the National Grassland System in the United States. He said it would “leave a lasting legacy that South Dakotans will be proud of” once the designation is made.
Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, a wilderness designation can only be made by an act of Congress on existing federal lands. The goal is to preserve lands in their natural condition.
Sen. John Thune, Gov. Mike Rounds and Lt. Gov. and Republican gubernatorial candidate Dennis Daugaard oppose the designation, as do several other political bodies and private entities.
Thune said opponents of the bill have used a multiple-use approach on the land that “has been very effective and very successful.” He said he has listened to both sides and is struck by the number of opponents to the designation.
“You need to have support of the stakeholders,” he said on a Wednesday conference call with reporters, noting that 80 percent of the permit holders and both houses of the state Legislature are opposed.
“Frankly, a lot of the support comes from groups outside of South Dakota,” Thune said.
Johnson said the bill’s critics don’t have correct information.
“I think maybe the opponents are misinformed about the nature of the wilderness designation,” he said during a teleconference with reporters Wednesday. “The bottom line is that grazing will continue on these lands and the land will be managed the same as always.”
Joel Holtrop, deputy chief of the National Forest System, testified on behalf of the Forest Service in support of Johnson’s legislation. The committee will also hear about the effects of the bill from two South Dakotans, Scott Edoff and Dan O’Brien, both ranchers from the Hermosa area.
“Today’s hearing brings us another step closer to ensuring that current and future generations will be able to enjoy this beautiful landscape in South Dakota,” Johnson stated in a press release. “Throughout this process, I have worked with numerous stakeholders and am proud to have the support of organizations representing over 100,000 South Dakotans.”
He pointed out that the effort began under a Republican presidential administration.
The U.S. Forest Service recommended places in the Indian Creek and Red Shirt areas for wilderness protection in 2002. Johnson’s bill is based on that recommendation, and includes approximately 48,000 acres within the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, covering land in the Indian Creek, Red Shirt and Chalk Hills areas.
Thune introduced Hermosa rancher Scott Edoff, who testified against the designation Wednesday. Edoff said it is “hard to believe anyone cares more” about the Buffalo Gap National Grassland than the Edoff family, which has had a livestock grazing permit there since 1944.
“Indian Creek is a special place of wonder and beauty,” Edoff said in prepared remarks to the committee. “Nobody has been able to explain to me exactly what wilderness legislation would ‘protect’ the proposed wilderness areas from.”
He said such a designation would be “detrimental to the land, to our ranch and to the public interest.”
Bryan Nagel, president of the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association; Scott VanderWal, president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau; and Mark Tubbs, of the South Dakota Public Lands Council, jointly sent a letter to Johnson earlier this year opposing the wilderness designation.
The letter states “our organizations also question if your proposal to craft legislation that addresses concerns regarding impacts of a wilderness designation on adjacent lands can, in fact, meet the definition of a wilderness as outlined in the Wilderness Act. According to the Act, ‘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.’
“In order to address our over — arching concerns regarding the impact of a wilderness designation on adjacent private lands, man must have unfettered access to ensure appropriate management of invasive species, wildlife, fire, etc. This will certainly include continued use of roads within the proposed wilderness area in addition to man’s intervention to control the potential threat to private lands.”
The letter asks that if the designation is put into place, language will be included that ensures the continuation of cattle grazing and motorized access for grazing permitees at current levels.
It also calls for reducing “additional layers of bureaucracy and restrictions typically associated with wilderness areas” to protect grazing access as well as protect the area from invasive species, wildfire and other plant or animal concerns that may potentially harm adjacent public and private lands.
The agencies also oppose the re - introduction of any endangered or threatened species in the wilderness area while asking for language that emphasizes economic sustainability for the region as a key factor in directing the Forest Service’s management decisions.
Johnson argues that the act is “a balanced approach” and keeps the six-mile long Indian Creek Road open by excluding it from the wilderness boundaries. Hunting would continue, as would recreational rock collecting.
The state’s senior senator said he has worked with ranchers holding grazing permits on these lands and other affected stakeholders throughout the process. The bill gives the Forest Service the tools to manage the lands by addressing fire, invasive species and prairie dogs, he said.
Johnson’s efforts have the support of political entities and groups across the state including the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Black Hills Sportsmen’s Club, South Dakota Wildlife Federation and the Izaak Walton League.
There are a large number of critics and opponents, including top Republicans in the state.
“South Dakota does not need more federal control over more land in our state,” Daugaard said. “The pine beetle infestation in the Black Elk Wilderness area shows that the federal government has failed to manage the land already under its control.”
During the 2010 legislative session, the Legislature passed HCR 1002, which called upon the federal government to seek approval from the state Legislature before designating new wilderness areas. “I was pleased that HCR 1002 passed with strong bipartisan support,” Daugaard said.
Johnson titled the legislation in honor of the late Tony Dean, a longtime South Dakotan and advocate for hunting and protecting South Dakota’s open spaces who was known for his TV and radio shows, as well as his newspaper column. Dean died Oct. 27, 2008, at the age of 67.
According to Daugaard and Thune, opponents to the wilderness designation include the Pennington County Commission, Custer County Commission, Fall River County Commission, Meade County Commission, Black Hills Badlands and Lakes Association of South Dakota, Western Dakota Gem and Mineral Society, Blue Ribbon Coalition, Black Hills Regional Multiple Use Coalition, Association of National Grasslands, Black Hills ATV/UTV Riders Club, Black Hills Forest Resource Association, Black Hills 4 Wheelers Rapid City chapter, Black Hills Snowmobile Club, Black Hills Women In Timber, Cottonwood Grazing Association, Dakota Territory Cruisers, Hill City Chamber of Commerce, Off-Road Riders Association, Pioneer Co-op Grazing District, South Dakota Farm Bureau, South Dakota Grasslands Coalition, South Dakota Off Highway Vehicle Coalition, South Dakota Public Lands Council, South Dakota Snowmobile Association, South Dakota Stockgrowers, South Dakota Family Farms Association, South Dakota Trail Riders, Spearfish Livestock Association and the Western South Dakota Fur Harvesters.
Tom Lawrence is
a reporter at The Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D., which is owned by
Forum Communications Co.