South Dakota touts itself as a business-friendly state. That enticed Steve Saint to relocate from Colorado to buy Fort WeLikIt Family Campground in Custer.
Now, however, he is frustrated with Gov. Kristi Noem’s proposed campsite in Custer State Park that would compete with him and other private campground owners in the Black Hills.
“South Dakota said, ‘Come on in. We love small business. South Dakota really convinced me to come here to buy a business and buy into South Dakota,” Saint said. “Now we’re getting the proverbial middle finger — that’s how I feel. Campground owners feel lied to. They’re really taking it personal.”
The $9.9 million plan for a 75-acre site along Wildlife Loop Road in the west-central area of Custer State Park was released late in 2020 by the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department and the governor’s office.
The proposed development includes 175 gravel campsites with electricity — a 50% increase in the park’s total number of sites — plus new paved roads, and four comfort stations with shower and bathroom facilities.
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A formal public comment period for the project has not been opened, but the Legislature and the GF&P Commission are accepting feedback. If approved, construction could begin as early as 2023 with the campground opening in 2024. When completed and fully operational, the campground could generate $500,000 annually, according to the state.
“South Dakota’s campground industry has been booming thanks to Governor Noem keeping South Dakota open for business, and promoting our state’s natural resources and beautiful landscapes. Custer State Park is our state’s most visited park and broke records for visitation in both 2020 and 2021, but it has not seen a campground expansion project in over 41 years. The Department of Game, Fish & Parks will continue to connect people and families to the outdoors and showcase the natural beauty that we all love,” Ian Fury, communication director for Gov. Kristi Noem, said in an email to the Journal.
The proposal has sparked an outcry from groups and local lawmakers who say this project will damage Custer State Park and is using taxpayer dollars to compete with private businesses. Saint said the proposed 175 campsites roughly equal two private campgrounds, and the number of sites is 100 more than FortWeLikIt has.
“I don’t think it’s fair … for the state to build that campground,” said Saint, the president of the South Dakota Campground Owners Association (SDCOA). “There’s a lot of concerns floating around about the unfair competition when you’re dealing with state government. It appears they have unlimited dollars to do what they want.
“I love Gov. Noem but this part concerns me where she preached ‘I love small business,’ but now she’s going to hurt small business,” he said.
The SDCOA outlined its objections to the campground in a Jan. 7 letter to Gov. Noem, the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Commission, and the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks department.
“It seems ironic, however, that the biggest intrusion of state enterprise into competition with the private sector would come during the term of a Governor who is famous for drawing a hard line between free enterprise and socialism. … Make no mistake, the guests to be accommodated in these new sites would otherwise stay in a private park, paying sales taxes and supporting the real estate tax of the entrepreneur,” the SDCOA letter said.
“They’re turning around (our) tax money and using it to compete against us. We’re paying them to compete against us, and that’s really (SDCOA members’) biggest thing,” said Saint, adding that his property taxes have tripled in the decade he’s owned Fort WeLikIt.
COVID-19 has been a boon for tourism, particularly for the camping industry, because it allowed people to safely explore and travel. Interest in RVs and the RV lifestyle is at an all-time high, according to koa.com. KOA data shows interests in the outdoors and new experiences, along with the pandemic, were driving factors that have sparked people’s desire to go camping. Custer State Park set a record in 2021 with 2.3 million visitors.
Saint said privately owned campgrounds are meeting the demand for campsites amid the spike in tourism. Just in and around Custer, he said, there are between 25 and 30 campgrounds. Saint said Fort WeLikIt is one of the larger campgrounds in Custer, and he’s putting in seven new RV sites, which is as much as he can afford now. Saint and his wife run FortWeLikIt and have three children.
“There have been no studies or evidence that private campgrounds in the area are failing to meet demand. This overreach by GF&P would take private taxpayer property tax and sales tax revenue from private campgrounds and use it to unfairly compete with those very businesses. This makes little sense coming from a Governor who has professed that the best thing government can do is stay out of the way of private businesses,” SDCOA member Edward C. Miller said in an email to the Rapid City Journal.
Miller owns Rush No More RV Resort in Sturgis. In his email, he said several area campgrounds are currently expanding their facilities to meet the increased demand during record-breaking tourist seasons.
“Some campgrounds are putting 20 or 30 new sites in,” Saint said. “There’s enough private sector campgrounds to take care of this. The government doesn’t need to step in.”
Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller agrees, saying she is totally opposed to the proposed campsite development in Custer State Park.
“The state should not be in competition with the private sector, period,” she said.
Frye-Mueller said the governor specifically mentioned supporting small businesses in her state of the state address on Jan. 11.
“No matter how these businesses got here or got started, they are thriving because here in South Dakota, the government gets out of the way, allows them to grow and innovate, and helps out where we can,” Noem said in her speech to the state Legislature.
“The state continues to compete (against private businesses) in so many different ways, and it’s the private campground owners’ tax dollars that will be funding the competition,” Frye-Mueller said. “How is this supporting or helping local business? This is direct competition.”
“There’s been a lot of RV and campsites built (in 2021),” state Rep. Trish Ladner said. “I know in Hot Springs there’s two or three brand-new campgrounds that would (be impacted).”
Frye-Mueller, Ladner and Saint also question the proposed cost of the project and long-term expenses of maintaining the campsites and bathroom facilities. Saint, Frye-Mueller and Ladner said they’ve heard cost estimates averaging $56,000 and $57,000 per campsite.
“It’s another extreme waste of taxpayer money,” Frye-Mueller said.
In the private sector, Saint said the cost per site is between $15,000 and $20,000. He said SDCOA members who’ve heard the estimate for the Custer State Park development say it’s “an ungodly amount of money” for campsites.
Frye-Mueller sent a letter to Noem on Jan. 9, voicing her concerns about competing with private businesses, disruption to the park’s wildlife and elk migration, and the public’s safety if they encounter buffalo and other animals. Frye-Mueller also asked whether studies had been done about the financial impact to private campground owners and the environmental changes that could affect wildlife habitat. She said the governor has not responded.
Rep. Tim Goodwin believes the private sector will benefit from Custer State Park development.
“Custer State Park hasn’t had camping improvements in 40 years and the park’s busting at the seams. It doesn’t look to me like the private sector would be hurt tremendously,” Goodwin said. “The benefit to the private sector would be the park has got a huge increase in visitors and that spills over (to businesses) outside the park. It’s the whole trickle down through all the tourists being here.”
Lawmakers representing District 30 (Custer, Fall River and Pennington counties) and the park’s former director worry that Custer State Park’s natural beauty and wildlife – the attractions that bring in visitors from South Dakota and the world – could be irreparably altered by the proposed development.
“That is a state wildlife park. It’s tranquil. People come from all over the country, and they come to see the wildlife park. It’s something different we offer in our state,” Frye-Mueller said. “When they’re commercializing it so much with 175 campsites … you’re going to ruin the tranquility and peacefulness of the park.
“We have something here – it’s like a jewel. People don’t come for a bunch of congestion. They’re coming out here and driving through the park for the peacefulness, the atmosphere,” she said.
Ladner said she’s heard from many residents who aren’t in favor of the Custer State Park campground project.
“They want us to protect it, and I do too. … I think we need to be cautious. I think there’s a fine line between striving to attract more visitors and doing what’s right to protect resources,” she said. “We need to be careful not to cross that, especially in the Black Hills.”
Ladner said she appreciates that Custer State Park set a new record for visitor numbers in 2021.
“But I don’t know that we need to increase it,” she said. “I love driving the Wildlife Loop. It’s one of the things people from cities come to see, so do we really need to make it more crowded?”
The location of the project near Wildlife Loop Road is one of many aspects that concerns Rolland Noem, who was Custer State Park’s director from 1985 through 2004 and is an in-law to the governor.
“I think commercial development like this along those scenic drives compromises the integrity of those drives and is compromising the value of open space. Open space is so precious. Those are some of the most beautiful byways in the state and so we start to develop those and it’s … going to bring a lot of added traffic on the Loop road,” Rolland Noem said. “A lot of it will be large motorhomes (and large vehicles). I would hope that wouldn’t lead them to have to widen and straighten the road. That sort of thing concerns me.”
The scenic drives are not intended for heavy traffic or traffic moving faster than 20 miles per hour, he said.
The lack of outreach to encourage public input about the proposed development concerns Rolland Noem, as does the lack of an environmental impact study.
The proposed campground would be near Barnes Canyon, which is prime elk habitat. According to the GF&P’s elk management plan released in September, Custer State Park is home to 450 elk, and the agency hopes to grow the population to between 500 and 600.
“If you bring this human activity in there, it’s going to disturb their migration patterns. The elk move in and out of the park. If this kind of activity could lead to … pushing elk out of the park onto neighboring private land … that could create some real issues for those land owners,” Rolland Noem said. “It’s a whole combination of issues and concerns. It just doesn’t seem like a well-thought-out proposal, and I think it’s rushing into it without due process.”
The Black Hills Sportsmen Club issued a statement opposing the campground in Custer State Park, particularly in the proposed location, and they also urged that an impact study be completed.
“Research and past employee experience has demonstrated the negative impact on park elk by disturbance (as cited in numerous scientific studies, many in the park). Negative impacts include declining animal health, increased stress levels, lowered reproduction, and suboptimal habitat utilization. Disturbance has, and will, cause animals to abandon their ranges and move elsewhere. Custer State Park has records of human activities causing elk herds to move east onto private property to escape human disturbance,” the BHSC’s statement said.
Nick Harrington, communications manager for GF&P, said an environmental impact statement is a federal process and is not a requirement for a project such as the proposed campground development.
“The state is required to meet all of the state laws, rules and standards for construction, including any required permitting and appropriate clearances. The site was proposed based upon previous improvement, past disturbance to soil and vegetation on the 75-acre site, as well as the proximity to other existing development. These factors helped to identify this location as the most suitable site for additional camping opportunity in Custer State Park,” Harrington wrote in an email to the Journal.
Goodwin said he hopes a compromise can be reached, such as closing the park during winter months to protect the migrating elk and other wildlife, while still moving ahead with the development.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Goodwin said. “We’re trying to get it where both sides can be happy.”
He said there are safety issues to consider with buffalo and the public interacting, but he said if issues arise, park rangers can mitigate the concerns by moving the herds.
As Saint prepares for his 10th season running Fort WeLikIt, he’s already taking reservations but he doesn’t believe South Dakota’s tourism and “COVID campers” surge will be a long-term trend.
“This year looks to be good so far, but next year we could decline instantly, especially if COVID-19 starts going away and more people start getting back to whatever normal is now and going back to hotels and resorts,” Saint said. “We’re probably going to start slowing down in the next couple of years. I’ve had campers say, ‘We’re going to do this for two or three years and sell the RV.’ (Campground owners) know how this works. We know this is going to end.”
“Although the last two years have proven to be record-breaking tourist seasons, here is no guarantee that this isn’t a temporary blip in business,” Miller agreed.
“We’re not going to have this hot streak forever. I think in about five years it’s going to start dropping, and then what happens to the private sector?” Saint said. “You’re going to have a certain percent of population go (to Custer State Park) just because it’s cheaper. … I don’t want to have to sell (my campground) because the state park is taking all the business.”
The state, however, sees the tourism boom continuing.
“The entire state park system saw 400,000 user nights in 2021 alone, and we expect these numbers to increase over the next several years,” Noem spokesman Fury said in the email to the Journal.
Rolland Noem said one impetus behind the proposed campground was to give South Dakotans more opportunities to camp in Custer State Park. That could be achieved, he said, by developing a reservation system that sets aside a certain number of campsites exclusively for South Dakota residents, even if tourist numbers remain strong this year and beyond.
Saint and Ladner both believe allowing this campground development could be a stepping stone to more. Saint worries the park could later decide to add other amenities, such as a restaurant or gift shop, that would further compete with private business. Ladner fears development could permanently destroy or diminish the park.
“My heart is to represent my people in my district and to preserve the way of life in the Black Hills,” Ladner said. “We need to be careful and safeguard ourselves (to be sure) this change is a positive change for the future. Is this going to be here for future generations? Are we preserving that? … When everything is changed, you can’t go back. I don’t want that to happen to South Dakota.”
Reporter Tanya Manus can be reached at [email protected].
Freelance photographer Paul Horsted can be reached at PaulHorsted.com.