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Forest Service opposes swap of Spearfish Canyon and Bismarck Lake land

The U.S. Forest Service stated its opposition Thursday to a bill that would trigger a federal-state land swap and facilitate the creation of a state park in Spearfish Canyon.

The bill was introduced in July by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., at the request of his fellow Republican, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources gave the bill a hearing Thursday along with 20 other bills, but did not take any action.

Leslie Weldon, the Forest Service’s deputy chief of the National Forest System, testified against Thune’s bill and said in a written statement that “the bill is unnecessary and contains provisions that raise concerns.”

The statement additionally said that the Forest Service already has authority to exchange land without legislation, that the recreation goals in the bill are already met through services provided in the Black Hills National Forest, that the bill proposes land-management requirements that would interfere with the federal government’s authority, and that the bill’s proposed agricultural appraisal of land values is inappropriate.

A spokesman for Thune, in response to Journal questions, said that while the Forest Service does have authority to transfer land administratively, it would be subject to the agency’s own terms and process and could take many years with an uncertain outcome. The legislation was introduced to achieve a quicker means to a more certain end, said the spokesman, who added that Thune remains optimistic about the bill moving forward.

Tony Venhuizen, chief of staff to Gov. Daugaard, is also hopeful.

“We’ve discussed this with local Forest Service folks, and Senator Thune remains optimistic about passage,” Venhuizen said.

The bill, known formally as the Spearfish Canyon and Bismarck Lake Land Exchange Act, would transfer two chunks of the federally owned Black Hills National Forest to state ownership: 1,468 acres in the Spearfish Canyon area of the northern Black Hills and 524 acres adjacent to Custer State Park in the central Black Hills, including Bismarck Lake and also Camp Bob Marshall. The camp is currently leased by the Forest Service to the Western Dakota 4-H Camp Association.

The state would use the land to expand and convert its Roughlock Falls Nature Area and other neighboring state-owned land in Spearfish Canyon into a full-fledged state park and to expand Custer State Park’s boundaries around Bismarck Lake.

In return, the state would transfer four parcels totaling 1,954 acres to the federal government. Those parcels are comprised of 640 acres in Lyman County that would become part of the Fort Pierre National Grassland; 1,280 acres north of Badlands National Park in Pennington County that would become part of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland; and 34 acres in the Devils Bathtub area that would become part of the Black Hills National Forest, about five miles up Spearfish Canyon from the site of the proposed state park.

Weldon’s criticism of the bill’s agricultural basis for appraising all of the land echoes a concern of some observers that the Forest Service would not receive a fair deal. Critics of the proposal have said the federal land in Spearfish Canyon is worth more than an agricultural appraisal would indicate.

The bill has additional provisions to ensure an equal exchange of values. It says that if the federal land is appraised higher than the state land, the state would have to convey additional land or pay additional money, or a combination of both. If the state land is appraised higher than the federal land, the bill says, portions of the state land could be excluded from the swap to achieve an equal-value exchange.

In addition to Thune’s Senate bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., a House version of the bill has been introduced by Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D. That bill has been assigned to the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands.

Contact Seth Tupper at

Dennis Daugaard


Proposed map of Spearfish Canyon State Park

  • Courtesy of South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks
  • Jan 15, 2016

This map shows in dark green the property which the state owns or will acquire with the Spearfish Canyon Foundation. The light-green outline s…

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