Custer State Park Tourists flocking to the Black Hills of South Dakota at record levels since the start of the pandemic have Gov. Kristi Noem pushing to add nearly $10 million worth of campsites at Custer State Park, according to Yahoo News.

But potential disturbances to wildlife populations, vehicle traffic and the private sector that could come with a 50% increase in the 71,000-acre park’s camping inventory have former park officials, lawmakers and industry groups questioning the project.

The governor’s office and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks late last year unveiled plans to develop a 75-acre site along Wildlife Loop Road known as Barnes Canyon in the west-central portion of Custer State Park for camping.

The 175 proposed campsites would have electricity and be accompanied by newly constructed paved roads and four shower and bathroom facilities referred to as comfort stations. The entire project is anticipated to cost $9.9 million and would generate as much as a half-million annually once operational.

“The best part about this investment is that the estimated economic impact of this expansion is so great that the project will pay for itself in a little more than a decade,” Noem told lawmakers during her budget address in December.

Campground owners ‘betrayed’

Private campground owners are rallying against the project, and former GFP and park officials are preaching caution.

Earlier this month, the South Dakota Campground Owners Association (SDCOA) issued a scathing statement in opposition to the expansion of public-owned camping in the Black Hills. And several individual campground owners told the Argus Leader last week they feel betrayed by Noem’s proposal.

Many accused the governor of hypocrisy for regularly championing free-market virtues while pushing to increase the state government’s share of the Black Hills campground market.

“We just feel we can’t compete against the financial might of state government,’ said Bill Paterson, owner of the Big Pine Campground about a mile southwest of the city of Custer. “We always thought she was a governor who would be on the side of small business, but frankly, it’s standing on the throats of small business.” Camp in South Dakota

Paterson said he’d prefer those dollars be invested in standing up season workforce housing that would aid the private campgrounds in the Black Hills.

Ian Fury, a spokesman for the governor, played down the campground industry’s concerns, saying the recent explosion in visitation to the Black Hills and Custer State Park specifically has created an unprecedented level of demand that’s more than enough to sustain the entire camping industry in western South Dakota.

He noted that campground capacity hasn’t been expanded beyond the 341 sites and 50 cabins that are there now in 41 years, while annual visitations have grown to more than 2 million. In 2021 alone, 2.3 million people visited Custer State Park.

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To read more on SDCOA’s opposition to the plans, click here.