Senate Bill 3310, the Tony Dean Cheyenne River Valley Conservation Act of 2010, gets coverage from Kevin Woster in today's Rapid City Journal. Woster tells us that 13 of the 15 grazing permit holders oppose the bill, which would create America's first national grassland wilderness right here in South Dakota.
"It's kind of like a land grab," says opposing rancher Travis Bies. Actually, it's not a land grab at all. Not one acre of the 48,000 to be designated wilderness belongs to private landholders. It all belongs to us, the public. Neighboring ranchers have the privilege of buying leases from us and running their cattle on public land.
Perhaps these ranchers have the federal government confused with an entity that really does want to grab their land, the DM&E railroad. Now part of Canadian Pacific, the DM&E has long wanted to build a rail extension from the coal fields in the Wyoming Powder River Basin, around the south edge of the Black Hills, and up through that ranchland and grassland up to Wall. DM&E has threatened landowners with eminent domain to get what they want. DM&E has long tried to get special federal loans and other gimmes to make the PRB extension fly. These efforts have thus far failed, despite the dogged assistance of their former (?) chief lobbyist, Senator John Thune.
Hey, wait a minute: isn't Senator Thune also leading the charge against this wilderness designation? I've heard he extended a special invitation to Hermosa rancher Scott Edoff to come to Washington, be wined and dined, and testify against S. 3310. Fascinating: The Edoff family is among the ranchers who have staunchly opposed Thune-backed DM&E's land grab and rail extension. Thune singled Edoff out as representing South Dakota's ranch community, ignoring Edoff's neighbor and fellow Hermosa rancher Dan O'Brien, who came to speak in favor of the wilderness bill. (If I, a fellow South Dakotan, go to Washington to testify before the Senate, and Senator Thune declines to acknowledge me like that, I'll be torqued.)
It sounds to me like Senator Thune is rousing some ranchers to act against their own interests. S. 3310 explicitly addresses every concern voiced by the ranchers, thanks, according to Woster's report, to significant input already received from area ranchers. The legislation clearly protects existing grazing activities. It guarantees continued authority to address problems with epidemics, disease, insects, and prairie dogs. It even allows one road down the center of the Indian Creek area to remain, allowing continued public access for the old folks and people with disabilities Edoff tells Woster he's worried about. Supporters of the law tell Woster federal wilderness designation could actually improve ranch operations by providing better protection against destructive off-road vehicle activity than shifting Forest Service rules can.
Wilderness designation may also provide better protection against development like the DM&E Powder River Basin rail extension. Look at the maps of the proposed PRB route, the existing Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and the proposed grassland wilderness. DM&E appears to want to run its rail extension through the current grassland. I can't tell if the route would intersect the proposed wilderness, but if it crosses Edoff land, it must come close. There's no way DM&E would get to run rail across wilderness. Even if the route doesn't intersect the wilderness, one would think that raising the profile of the Cheyenne River Valley as home of the nation's first and only grassland wilderness would help the ranchers enlist more allies in keeping DM&E from resurrecting its Powder River Basin rail plans in the area. Might DM&E recognize this prospect as well and be asking their man in Washington to prevent it?
Ranchers, when Senator Thune comes knocking, pay close attention to what he's after. He's willing to make noise about protecting your right to lease federal land for your business efforts... even though the bill he's fighting includes clear language protecting exactly that right. But when DM&E offers you lowball prices and then tries using the courts to take away your land for their private business interests, does he take your side, or the side of his former employer?
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