SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Custer resident Paul Horsted and Scott Simpson, an official with the state’s Game Fish and Parks Department, can both talk about the wildlife and the experience of visiting Custer State Park.
Horstad’s said his perspective makes him question why the state would want to add a proposed 176-site campground near the wildlife loop road in the park.
Simpson, the director of the GFP’s parks and recreation division, said his passion is applied in a desire to create more opportunities for people to visit and enjoy the outdoors, including camping in Custer State Park.
Custer State Park has had a 25% increase in camping units from 2012 through 2021 without any increase in the number of campsites at the park, Simpson said.
The traditional camping season is May through Labor Day but more campers are arriving earlier in May and camping after Labor Day, he said.
“We also seeing an increase in mid-week camping units. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays we traditionally didn’t see as many campers, we’ve seen additional use on those days,” Simpson said.
Increased use and desire to originally help state residents gain better access to the park’s campground prompted the GFP to seek about $10 million in general fund money for the campground project, Simpson said.
The location of a proposed new campground at Custer State Park. The campground would be in Barnes Canyon. The map is from the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks Department.
The proposal and funding request are in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. Committee consideration is one of several steps required before a final approval. The proposal now is for 176 camping sites for campers/RVs with electricity but no water or sewer. The proposal could change during the legislative process.
“This is definitely a department driven idea. I want to make sure everyone understands that,” Simpson said.
A 2021 attempt to provide a time period to allow residents to first make camping reservations over non-residents failed when it was determined the state would lose federal money that it applied to state parks and local outdoor projects if it passed a reservation time priority period for residents, Simpson said.
GFP said then “We’ve got an issue that is not going away,” Simpson said. That’s when the GPF decided to pursue state general fund money for a campground expansion at Custer State Park.
Horsted understands more people may want to camp at Custer State Park but creating another campground may comprise the very things people like about the park.
A park visitor driving on the wildlife loop wants a chance to see bison or elk. Instead within that first mile, “They come to a campground….,” Horsted said.
Horsted said the proposed campground is part of “incremental creeping development” at the park and other state parks in the area.
The state has will add a visitor’s center at Custer State Park. It’s added more parking at Sylvan Lake to help with crowding, he said.
But the answer to increased visitors is not just adding more parking or more facilities, Horsted said.
“You could build five more parking areas and they would fill up,” Horsted said.
Choosing the proposed campground site
The site is along the wildlife loop, near the park’s airport in Barnes Canyon.
Horsted visited the area on the morning of Jan. 20 and thought “Boy that’s an area that has not previously seen this level of development.”
“They are opening an area for development to a level it hasn’t seen before,” Horsted said.
The area is also a gathering spot for wildlife. He saw two bison bulls that morning.
“There were hundreds of elk droppings and not all were recent, some were from last year,” H0rsted said.
Simpson said the GFP did not want to choose a pristine area and considered “what areas that were available that were reasonable and responsible.”
The selected area “rose to the top,” Simpson said. “We wanted to keep development close to where development exists now.”
The proposed campground is near the airport and about a half mile from the park’s wastewater lagoons, he said.
The site is near a park access at South Dakota Highway 16A and along an existing road, Simpson said.
“It’s not heavily wooded so it’s not like we are (cutting down) a lot of trees,” Simpson said.
Although Simpson said the proximity to existing water and sewer lines is an advantage, Horsted said extending utilities still requires digging up the land.
Wildlife and the campground
The proposed campground will not reduce the park’s capacity for bison, Simpson said.
“This is a 75-acre campground out of 71,000 acres in the park,” he said.
GFP biologists and wildlife management staff have and are reviewing the proposal, Simpson said.
“We are confident the development will not have a significant impact on wildlife,” Simpson said.
The campground will infringe on an area used by wildlife, Horsted said. The traffic, even the smoke created by campfires, can negatively effect wildlife and the area, he said.
Campers mean more traffic, including the additional vehicles they may bring with them including ATVs, Horsted said.
Between the additional people and vehicles the GFP would be creating a small town in the park, Horsted said.
The GFP estimates that the park has 4,905 vehicles on average per day, Simpson said. The average is impacted by fewer cars on some weekdays and more cars on a Saturday.
GFP staff estimates that there are 1.2 vehicles per campsite at the park. “Every 5th site has an additional vehicle,” Simpson said.
The proposed 175 campsites will bring 210 vehicles to the park on average each day, Simpson said.
That is not a significant impact, he said.
Also park staff has said that most ATVs used in the park are not brought in by campers but are rented at local businesses, Simpson said.
Official says GFP will share campground info
Gov. Kristi Noem announced the proposed new campground at Custer State Park in her Jan. 11 State of the State speech.
“We plan to add more campsites at Custer State Park to expand our ability to host people from in and out of state,” Noem said in her speech.
Horsted said the campground has been like Gov. Dennis Daugaard announced several years ago the creation of a campground in Spearfish Canyon.
“Announcing as if it’s a done deal,” Horsted said.
The Spearfish Canyon campground did not happen because the public overwhelmingly rejected it, Horsted said.
Horsted said the Custer State Park proposed campground process so far has not been very transparent “Iike the state can be (not so transparent).”
As of Jan. 21, the GFP did not have visible map of the proposed campground or any information related to it.
“We are just now starting to get information out there,” Simpson said.
The GFP will be sharing information about the proposed campground, he said. Simpson stressed that the committee will be considering the requested funding next week or the following week, so it’s very early in the process.