PIERRE – State Game, Fish and Parks Department officials made their pitch Thursday to the Legislature’s joint committee on appropriations, seeking $4 million to fulfill the governor’s requests for three special outdoors projects.
Gov. Dennis Daugaard wants to designate the Blood Run site south of Sioux Falls as a state park focused on tribal histories, expand the Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills to connect to Mount Rushmore, and construct a new visitor center and auditorium at Custer State Park.
Dusty Johnson, the governor’s chief of staff, also made brief remarks to the committee. He shared an anecdote about a teen-aged boy seeing Mount Rushmore for the first time during a trip Johnson helped host. “Oh wow,” Johnson recalled the teenager declaring.
Johnson said the funding for the three projects will be an investment for creating more “oh-wow intergenerational moments.”
Legislation hasn’t been filed yet for the funding. The appropriations members didn’t take any action. Their questions and comments carried a generally amiable tone.
At Custer State Park, visitation is growing. Game, Fish and Parks Secretary Jeff Vonk said a new center with a modern theater that would be used “much on the lines” of what is found in national parks.
There are two possible locations. One is near the campground on S.D. 36, before motorists traveling from the east reach the Game Lodge. The other is across the road from the existing visitor center.
The governor seeks $1.5 million of general funds. GFP would shift $500,000 from operating funds. The South Dakota Parks and Wildlife Foundation plans to raise $1 million for the project.
The timeline is a two-year period starting in July. Vonk said the current visitor center would continue to work well for outdoor classroom and education purposes.
The Mickelson Trail would get an 18-mile connector across mostly U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service property to Mount Rushmore. The general route would be from near Hill City to near the Rushmore parking lot.
The seventh-fifth anniversary of Mount Rushmore will be celebrated in 2016 and Vonk said the goal is to have the extension in place for that.
He said “people would have a lot of ‘wow’ moments” if they walk, bike or ride horseback on the extension to the national monument.
The feasibility study was completed last fall. Complicating the decisions for the route are crossing wilderness areas, federal property and steep grades. “The concept of the trail is multi-use,” Vonk said.
The governor seeks $500,000 from the general fund. The Mount Rushmore Society hasn’t yet approved a formal resolution but discussions have been held about raising $1 million, according to Vonk.
GFP would use about $400,000 of trails funds and the South Dakota Parks and Wildlife Foundation is willing to raise $100,000, he said.
The first steps will be an environmental impact study. Additional funds are expected from other national-level sources, Vonk said.
“I have no doubt about the private money,” Vonk said. He described the performance of the Parks and Recreation Foundation as “superb” and said the Rushmore society has good connections.
He promised the Legislature wouldn’t receive further requests for funding for the three projects.
Legislators politely peppered Vonk with questions. Vonk said Blood Run and the Custer State Park visitor center will self-fund once they are established. The Mickelson Trail already has user fees.
Doug Hofer, director for the state Division of Parks and Recreation, said the Rushmore segment of the Mickelson Trail will be the most heavily visited and likely will help fund the rest of the trail.
“There certainly are parks in the park system that don’t carry their own way, for many different reasons,” Hofer said. “These three though don’t fit in that category. These are going to be in locations with the amount of use that are going to help us… They’re revenue-positive.”
Vonk said the $2 million for the Rushmore connector will be used mostly as matching money from other sources. Overall he said the private money would “more than match” the general fund monies.
The trail runs from Edgemont to Deadwood, changing along the way from an almost desert-like climate to the heights of the Black Hills, Hofer said.
There are many spots along the trail to buy the $15 annual bike pass, while the day pass is $3. He said the trail opened in 1999, six years after the death of Gov. George S. Mickelson in the state-plane crash.
Hofer said he worked with Mickelson before his death to start designing and assembling the project. “That trail has proven to be what he envisioned it to be, and this extension will make it probably the best trail in the world, as for what you’ll see along the way,” Hofer said.
One of the committee members is Rep. Mark Mickelson, R-Sioux Falls, oldest son of the late governor.
Sen. Stan Adelstein, R-Rapid City, said Mickelson’s interest in developing the trail played an important part in the generation of donations by citizens and businesses to the trail’s construction.
Sen. Bill Van Gerpen, R-Tyndall, said investments in outdoors projects are “an integral part” of dealing with “the whole picture” of South Dakota’s prison-crowding problems.
Blood Run would be South Dakota’s first new state park in approximately 40 years. Daugaard specifically mentioned it Tuesday in his State of the State speech to the Legislature.
The Blood Run request is $2 million of state general funding on a one-time basis. Additional money would come from GFP shifting $1 million within its budget and the South Dakota Parks and Wildlife Foundation raising $2 million.
Vonk said Blood Run, beyond its cultural significance as an early gathering place for many tribal people from the region, is home to an oak savannah eco-system with a lot of native grasses interspersed
“It’s really a unique site and a unique landscape by itself,” Vonk said.
Phase one of the project would be completed on an accelerated schedule and a visitor center would be built and in operation within “essentially two-and-a-half years,” according to Vonk.
The land acquisition is nearly complete, Hofer said.
South Dakota currently owns nearly 600 acres at the location, and another parcel is being sought for a new entrance that would better serve the park, Vonk said.