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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Johnson Good on Grassland Wilderness; What's Thune's Problem?

map of proposed national grassland in western South DakotaLocation of first national grassland wilderness (blue zones), proposed in Tony Dean Cheyenne River Valley Conservation Act of 2010. Click image to enlarge. [Image courtesy of South Dakota Wild Grassland Coalition]
Senator Tim Johnson has a good idea. In May, he introduced S. 3310 the Tony Dean Cheyenne River Valley Conservation Act of 2010. The bill, which got its first Senate committee hearing last week, would designate about 48,000 acres of West River grassland as national wilderness. That's about 75 square miles, a total area a little larger than Sioux Falls, declared off limits to development and mechanical travel (including my mountain bike) and kept about as natural as it can be.

The South Dakota Wild Grasslands Coalition released a survey last March finding about 60% support for this specific wilderness proposal among voters in the neighborhood of the affected lands. The survey even found majority support among snowmobilers and off-roaders.

Ranchers won't lose any grazing land if the wilderness designation passes. S. 3310 specifically excepts established grazing from the bill. In other words, if your cows eat grass near Red Shirt now, they'll be able to eat grass there after the bill becomes law.

Hunters and fishers would still get to enjoy the area right alongside backpackers, birdwatchers, and rock collectors. S. 3310 specifies that the state retains jurisdiction over fish and wildlife management, including hunting, fishing, and trapping.

Even Ellsworth Air Force Base gets to carve a niche in this bill. S. 3310 specifies that the military gets to keep its current flight training routes and can even declare new flight paths over the wilderness. (And you know, even when I'm backpacking, I think getting a good look at big jet planes is kind of cool... as long as that ordnance stays bolted on tight!)

Now Senator John Thune ought to be backing Senator Johnson on this proposal. Thune appreciates the value of protecting habitat and game populations for hunting and tourism.

But Thune is opposing S. 3310. He cites opposition from Governor Rounds, the Legislature, county commissioners, and area ranchers like Ken Knuppe and Scott Edoff, who worry their grazing permits will change.

The list of ranchers opposing the wilderness designation does not include Dan O'Brien, who holds the largest grazing permit in the northern portion of the targeted territory. He raises buffalo and is looking into eco-/agritourism. In his Senate testimony last week, he invoked the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt to declare the silence and solitude of the Indian Creek area a vital national resource deserving "maximum federal protection." He says wilderness designation would protect his own ranching and business interests as well as the rights of all Americans to enjoy the grasslands, which he says are "the least protected landscape in the world."

Senator Thune appears to be reaching for arguments, resorting to saying that the language in the bill doesn't say exactly what it says. He's rounded up the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association to echo his alarmism. The SD Wild Grassland Organization pretty effectively disposes with every one of Senator Thune's and the SDCA's stated concerns here.

The Tony Dean Cheyenne River Valley Conservation Act would create a unique national wilderness, protecting a fragile prairie ecosystem that enjoys this sort of protection nowhere else. Right between South Dakota's two existing wilderness areas, the Black Elk Wilderness in the Hills and the Badlands Wilderness, the Indian Creek, Red Shirt, and Chalk Hills wildernesses would boost South Dakota's profile, tourism, and hunting without taking away from ranching. Passing this bill would honor the memory and wisdom of famed South Dakota outdoorsman Tony Dean, who appreciated the value of wilderness.

Senator Johnson recognizes the clear and immediate good S. 3310 would do. Senator Thune is grasping for hypothetical "potential" harms refuted by the spirit and the letter of this legislation, not to mention plain facts.

Come on, John: you can work with Tim on Ellsworth; you can work with Tim on wilderness. Drop the obstructionism, and support this good bill.

Update 19:37 CDT: I learn via Sibby that President Bush proposed creating a 71,381-acre Cheyenne River Valley Grassland. Sibby also leaves me to puzzle over how protecting wilderness ecosystems on federal land is part of the "socialist anti-property-rights agenda in South Dakota." Hmmm....


  1. Why is it that John Thune finds that it is more important to protect the privileged few who make money off the grasslands, rather than protect what precious little wilderness is left for posterity? Oh yea I forgot , he is a Republican!

  2. Indeed, Thune's position does seem to pit a handful with special economic exploitation privilegesghts against the general public who just want to enjoy nature without making money off of it. If Thune would recognize that the proposed law is a win-win for both groups (grazers keep permits, outdoorsmen get better nature experience), he'd change his mind and vote Yes!

  3. Is the Dan O'Brien you mention the author of Buffalo for the Broken Heart ? If so, it's a great read for those who don't know much about flyover country and it opens up his eco-restoration and tourism vision just a bit.

    If not, forgive the off topic plug!

  4. Not off-topic at all, Tim—same O'Brien!

  5. Doesn't the proposed DM&E coal train project run through there somewhere? Could that have anything to do with JT's position on this? I'm assuming most SD ranchers are against the coal train project, but not sure.

  6. Cory,

    I have walked (yes walked) more ground in this area than 99% of the people who live within 10 miles of this place. Of the ten people who have taken the same position as you, not a single one has ever even been there. It is overwhelmingly opposed by people in the area and anyone who has been there as a person who enjoys public access open range.

    This is nothing but Tim Johnson using taxpayer resources to dedicate a memorial to his friend, Tony Dean (who I consider a friend too as I grew up in Pierre).

    All of John's negatives aren't hypothetical but real. Equally important, it serves no real purpose and will actually diminish the average person's enjoyment of the area. To appreciate the area, one needs to drive through it as we currently can. To have it restricted will only make it less accessible, less able to be enjoyed.

    Bill, I doubt most ranchers have a position. However, the DM&E project is overwhelmingly supported by farmers who want it as an efficient means to transport their product to market.

  7. Bill, get me a map!

    Troy, how does the presence of motorized vehicles improve my outdoor experience or the ecosystem?

  8. Troy, I don't think the Black Elk Wilderness has diminished anyone's enjoyment of the Harney Peak, Needles/ Lost Cabin area, do you? (Now THERE's a place I've walked most of. And before it was designated wilderness, rode dirt bikes in. I'm glad people can't do that anymore.)

    I think it's good to have Wilderness areas, don't you? Really?

  9. I myself have walked the area. I did it when I was 19. I can absolutely assure you that for me and anyone else not very young, the vehicle prohibition will make this wilderness area enjoyable only to the very young and very fit.

    Go there. Johnson could accomplish the same thing by designating 600 acres as wilderness.

    Since you have never been there, this is typical knee-jerk hyper-environmentalism. Walk the area and come back and give me your views. Johnson's effort will reduce the profile and quantity of people that will ever enjoy this area. Typical liberal elitism.

    The few vehicles do virtually no damage now.

  10. Troy, the same is true of any wilderness area. Are you saying there shouldn't be any? Come on, man.

  11. I like the idea of Wilderness areas and love to enjoy them. To imply I am anti-environment or wilderness is absurd.

    But not all areas are good to be "wilderness areas." A walk in the woods and a walk across 48,000 acres isn't the same thing.

    About 15 years ago, I drove down somewhere near this area and drove through the grasslands. It was spectacular. I can assure you with my wife and daughters if I had said we had to walk, the trip never would have happened. We never would have seen the beauty nor the wildlife we did.

    I challenge anyone to go out into either the Buffalo Gap or even Ft. Pierre National grasslands, map out a 8.66 mile by 8.66 mile area and walk it. The same enjoyment could be accomplished by a square mile. Then ask yourself how many people will really do this? Until you have done this as I have (I probably walked an area twice this size while working for the USDA in college), frankly, your opinion is just idealistic unpracticality.

    Vehicles aren't impacting the environment even minimally. Nature is to be enjoyed by more than just a few (young and fit).

  12. I'm not trying to imply anything, Troy. Just going off of your own comments here. I think it's fair to say that any designated wilderness area requires extra effort and a certain level of fitness to access.

    The point is, once you're there, you can experience nature with a minimum of human impact (no pickups, ATV's or snowmobiles coming by, etc.) That's the whole point of it. Kind of a Walden Pond deal.

    To say that it's just there for human enjoyment is to miss half the point.

    It's there to preserve nature in as close to a pristine state as possible.

    Besides, there are plenty of grassland areas you can drive around in now. Wind Cave and parts of Custer State Park for example.

  13. Corey;
    I'm afraid I'm going to get just a touch rabid-
    We don't need anymore Federal anything, ever, period. The Federal Government has gobbled up enough of the West already (and read the Rolling Stone article about the MMS to see what they do with it.)
    This isn't about greedy ranchers hording profits, its about a greedy government hording resources. I don't agree with John Thune much at all, but I'm on the side of anyone opposing this thing.
    And anyone invoking the name of the imperialist Teddy Roosevelt is proving me right.
    And don't even get me started on Tony Dean...

  14. Bill,

    Wind Cave and Custer are nothing like this area. Go down there and walk it Bill. All of it. And then get back to me.

    This is not a liberal/conservative or environmental issue. Let's be honest. It is an honorarium for Tony Dean. How about we change the Peoria Flats Refuge north of Pierre to the TD refuge. Tony spent more time there anyway.

  15. Hubba, it's already Government land isn't it? I don't think that's the point, my friend, unless of course you're suggesting we should sell off all public lands.

    Probably could balance the budget if we did that, I suppose. Maybe just by selling Yosemite to some Asian developers. Maybe do an Old West nature theme park or somethin' huh? Couple of newer, cooler waterfalls with rides down 'em.

    Or hey, how about we sell off Devil's Tower and do a UFO thingy? Play that Close Encounters song off the top with great big loudspeakers. (Just kidding, of course. ;^)

  16. I will go there, Troy. But I probably won't walk all of it. Maybe ride a horse. Again, my being able to walk all of it isn't the point. I can't walk the whole Black Elk Wilderness anymore either. But that doesn't mean I want pickups and ATVs and snowmobiles in there.

  17. Wilderness is respite from people...a place where species other than Homo Stupido can not get shot at, poisoned, strangled by baling twine, or splattered by RVs.

    That permits will be issued for invasive species to graze frankly pisses me off.

    But if We the People don't own it, "wilderness" will never be wild again.

  18. Troy-

    Is there a middle ground that you could find between a designated wilderness area and as it stands now that would be acceptable?

    My only concern with the area is the use of motorized vehicles and horses on it. They have devastated too many areas in the hills. Remove these two and the area will sustain itself indefinitely.

    The forest service has had to reroute parts of the centennial trail due to motorized vehicle and horse use.


    Yeah! And for that matter, let's privatize the highway system! And the airports! Heck, let's also let the airlines fly planes wherever they want! It's not like anyone owns the skies!

    If we're inventive, maybe we could even privatize rivers!

  19. Here is a link to a copy of the Wilderness act . Wilderness designation is not about human enjoyment, it is about preservation. Troy: is it really a bad thing to put a small portion of Buffalo gap into wilderness to preserve for later generations? It is also not uncommon to name wilderness areas after notable conservationists.

    Hubba , The only group that the Federal government has gobbled up land from , in any significant part, is the Native American, If you live anywhere in South Dakota the land you live on once belonged to the Federal Government. The grasslands are already Fed owned and they have nothing to do with Teddy Roosevelt, Back to history class for you.

  20. Tony,

    There are three areas to be designated. Maybe one would have been sufficient, ala Chalk Hills. I like this area because of its shape and its proximity to a road that runs along the entire north boundary. Walking in would be relatively easy from the north. Its dimensions are good too as it is six miles long and one mile wide.

    However, compromise was thrown out the table when Johnson went off half-cocked without building local support outside the most extreme environmental groups who have little regard to any local stakeholder. Thune, Rounds, all county commissions in the area, local land owners, local tourism groups, and even Herseth have come out in opposition.

    Then you have Johnson unilaterally deciding to name it after Tony Dean. I like Tony but Tony's approach to west river issues was not exactly diplomatic. To name something after him in that area is like poking a stick in the local population's eye. If they are to name something after Tony it should be by a private group (DU, etc.) whereby they buy land and set it aside like they did for the Mickelson preserve near Brookings or East River where the locals would consider it an honor.

    Sidenote: Horses are allowed in Wilderness areas.


    I find your statement "Wilderness designation is not about human enjoyment, it is about preservation." really interesting.

    Senator Johnson said that it would be good for our enjoyment to do this.

    Are you representing the real agenda (eliminate human enjoyment) or is Senator Johnson's convoluted statement (less accessibility is more enjoyment)?

  21. Troy You are correct in questioning me here. I need to clarify my statement. What I should have written and what I believe is that , wilderness designation is not about human enjoyment in the sense that the grassland designation already serves that purpose. The difference between the two designations is the stronger principle of conservation in the wilderness designation, thus making wilderness about preservation. Of course it is about human enjoyment, after all we are conserving it for future humans to enjoy as well.
    Also I believe that in order to receive wilderness designation an area has to have a set minimum of acres
    Really though is it a bad thing to but a small amount of buffalo gap into wilderness?

  22. I think having a debate with Troy about this is pretty dang chock full of human enjoyment even right here on Cory's little blog. I can only imagine how much more fun it would be if we were all sitting on the east bank of the Cheyenne River chewing on some roast wild duck, or a wild pig or something (do they have any wild pigs out there, boys? Can we carry one in?) I wonder if the buffalo peas are ripe and if there are any morels out there after all this rain.

  23. p.s. Dan O'Brien is going to be here in my office in about 5 minutes. I think I'll show this thread to him.
    He's an old pal. Troy, he and Schoenbeck met at Nemec's farm on the first annual Blogmore pheasant hunt.

    That's when I first met Lee too. What do you think he thinks about this deal? Oh, yeah and Tony Dean was there that day, too. Where were you, buddy? We could have worked all this out then.

    Hey, Sibby was even there, Pat Powers too. We could have come to an... um... understanding. (Of course, I wasn't carrying a weapon that day.)

  24. Gotta leave the morels, Bill; besides they're aphrodisiacs for the ungulates.

    Look for panaeolus subaltreatus instead. Give some to Troy.

  25. Bill,

    I wasn't invited. Never have been. Kevin doesn't like to admit he knows me.

    Coming to your office? Name dropper. :)

  26. Troy: What?! Herseth opposes this, too? Dang it, and I was ready to let her off easy at the convention this weekend. Now I gotta go ape again... ;-)

    Troy makes a significant point of the fact that people won't be able to easily access most of that 8-mile-wide portion of the wilderness without motorize vehicles. I wonder: does every corner of nature need to be easily accessible? (The Appalachian Trail is 2000+ miles long.) Is it acceptable for us to create a wilderness large enough that there are some secluded areas that are the reward only for the hardiest hikers? Consider Harney Peak, outside the Black Elk Wilderness. Some people (like my four year old) just can't make that 3-mile climb and then the return trip. But I don't want to pave a road from Sylvan Lake to the fire tower. Can't we just say about some places that if you want to get there, you've got to earn it, on foot?

  27. I was just in Buffalo gap grasslands last week, scouting for an antelope hunt that I may apply for.I have never seen it so green out there, you guys must really be getting the rain this year. It rained 5 of the 10 days I was out there.

  28. Easy guys, I'm not Glenn Beck!
    At the ripe old age of 31, I had nothing to do with the highway system or the airline system. From what I've heard they were both government subsidies which propped up the automobile and airline industry respectively, solidifying our dependance on foreign oil.
    If they want to privatize those I'm all for it, but that wasn't what I was talking about, and I wouldn't call someone a "baby killer" for suggesting that we have universal health care so let's stick to the point.
    And the point is that no matter how well intentioned this is, even if it restores habitat for the rainbow colored unicorn, I am opposed to it. We don't need anymore Federal intervention, designation, reservations, anything.
    I'm sure all of you gentlemen have the best of intentions (I consider Corey a good friend) and it would be wonderful for you all to have pristine wilderness, but I don't want the Federal Government to have anything to do with it.
    As for the politicians, both of them are pandering to their electorate, Mr. Johnson by supporting it and Mr. Thune by opposing it. I have no way of knowing where either of them stand on the issue.
    And yes Mr. Fleming, I am all for selling off the Federal ground, that is the remainder after we give the Indians back theres.
    The idea that the Federal ground is "public" is laughable. Trying picking up a rock on it to take home. Try getting in for free. All while the Federal Government can't maintain "our" Visitor Information Centers and trails because they gave the money to Big Oil in the form of subsidies.
    So there, chew on that gentlemen.

  29. Cory,

    I agree. Not everything should be easily accessible. But the question is also "should everything be hard to enjoy?"

    Prairie is not the same thing as mountains where a dirt road can have different impact (practical and aesthetic). A dirt road from vehicle travel will barely look any different than a cow trail to water and only seen from a few feet away.

    Like I said earlier, if Johnson had tried to build consensus and work with locals and other stakeholders as well allow local input on the name, I strongly suspect something might have been accomplished w/o controversy.

    Sidenote: Although I would support something being named to honor Tony Dean, in this case, his legacy would be better served with something more directly tied to him as well as not so heavy-handed to the locals.

    I ask one question: How many listening meetings did Senator Johnson have in the area inviting input?

  30. Troy , On the other hand, many wilderness designation bills put forward are done so by out of state officials, with zero input from anyone local or even in the same state.This is after all Federal land and anyone in congress can put forward bills that affect it. There was a poll taken here and of course like all polls you can dispute the results.There is always opposition to wilderness, listening meetings would have been a good idea , but I doubt they would have changed anything really.
    This is a very small chunk of wilderness, It will not put anyone out of business and many concessions have been made ,even one road will stay open. Is it not a better option for South Dakota that we have a SD Senator putting this forward and that it is being named after a SD conservationist? Have a look around the west at some of the other pending wilderness,and some of the recently passed legislation, the alternatives could be much worse.

  31. Barry,

    I hear what you are saying in the big picture but think also what you are saying.

    "many wilderness designation bills put forward are done so by out of state officials, with zero input from anyone local or even in the same state. This is after all Federal land and anyone in congress can put forward bills that affect it."

    Maybe but how do you think people in Texas would feel if a bunch of South Dakotans started telling them what to do with land in their neighborhood? Historically, these designations at least give locals a chance to influence the decision or give imput.

    "There is always opposition to wilderness,"

    And, such opposition should be able to be expressed as it might have merit or lead to better solutions.

    "listening meetings would have been a good idea , but I doubt they would have changed anything really."

    So much for input from the governed. Why don't we just forego elections as well and install a benevolent dictator?

    This is a very small chunk of wilderness"

    But, it is still legitimate to ask if it is too much, what are the benefits and negatives. It can not be ignored that virtually everyone elected (except Johnson) have concerns.

    "many concessions have been made ,even one road will stay open."

    Concessions to who? Oh yeah, out of staters who don't live in the neighborhood.

    "Is it not a better option for South Dakota that we have a SD Senator putting this forward"

    Doing it in opposition to the rest of the delegation, the Governor, and all affected county commissioners.

    "and that it is being named after a SD conservationist?"

    Maybe the locals might rather have it named after a local great rancher or Indian leader, etc. I like Tony Dean but I still wonder if this is related to his greatest legacy and accomplishments.

    "Have a look around the west at some of the other pending wilderness,and some of the recently passed legislation, the alternatives could be much worse."

    So, we should accept less than the best solution? Being marginally better than poor alternatives isn't good enough for me.

  32. Troy I wont pick your response apart, because I really do understand your point of view. I guess my last word will be that . I would hope that Sen Thune and Rep Herseth would work with Sen. Johnson to iron out the concerns and make this happen in a way that is good for all South Dakotans. My fear is if we cant, it will end up on some future omnibus lands bill , lost in the shuffle of more powerful states with little chance of influence.

  33. Barry,

    I agree. Too bad Johnson hadn't chosen to go off half-cocked and had done this prior to introducing his legislation. Whether in politics, business or just personal relationships, it is better to involve stakeholders in the formation of a solution/proposal vs. what has been done.

  34. Troy, I'll agree with that. I hope you know I'm all about getting input and involving stakeholders. I guess I was of the impression that Senator Johnson was operating from the basis of input from lots of stakeholders; after all, he refers to getting input from "ranchers, hunters, conservationists, off-road vehicle groups, and other interested South Dakotans" (I know, but there I go trusting a politician, right?). I would like to know how many, if any, listening sessions the Senator and staff held out in the neighborhood.

    But there's also that poll (PDF) cited by SD Wild Grassland Coalition that found significant majority support from numerous groups out west. Are the opponents a vocal minority?

    Troy's earlier question: "easily accessible" vs. "hard to enjoy" -- interesting way to put it. I certainly don't have an easy (or ideological) answer. We have to find the balance between allowing the general public to enjoy it and protecting the ecosystem lest our enjoyment wreck it (again, I think of my beloved Harney Peak). It might be easier for me to enjoy the grassland if I could tear across it and back in an hour or so on my mountain bike, then toss my wheels back in the Jeep and drive on to Bill's house for root beer. Instead, S. 3310 would require me to hoof it, thus quadrupling my crossing time. I might only get to see the boundary lands.

    But I'll know that that untouched, untracked, lightly traveled center is there for me to see if I do make the time to tread long and tread lightly. I can derive more enjoyment from that possibility than from knowing that the dirt road and ATV tracks that would make it easier to get there have taken away a place/ecosystem that we can't bring back.


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