Camp in South Dakota Members of the South Dakota Campground Owners Association (SDCOA) met with S.D. Game, Fish and Parks Commission Secretary Kevin Robling and Director of Parks & Recreation Scott Simpson to learn more about the campground expansion plans for Custer State Park.

A funding request made public last week noted that the park could receive $9.8 million is to build a 176-site campground at Custer State Park. You can read more on that story here. 

The association then distributed a letter to Gov. Kristi Noem, the GF&P Commission and the Department of GF&P. The letter confirms the camping market is hot right now but then points out the flaws of this proposed project.

SDCOA’s letter states, “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. She has also repeatedly stated the government needs “to get out of the way” of small businesses (e.g., video from Sept. 30, 2021). 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 letter further reminded the state about a bill during the Mickelson Administration that was passed by both houses in which the state limited GF&P’s ability to expand camping. Gov. Mickelson vetoed the bill, saying that he heard the concerns of the private campgrounds so the bill would not be necessary. GF&P pulled their proposal.

“While there are rational reasons why this expansion would be beneficial to the state, and even to camping guests” the letter states, “it strongly conflicts with an open atmosphere in South Dakota for the growth of private enterprise without the cloud of interference from the state.”

It is a given that campsites in Custer State Park were in place before there were any private campgrounds. Because the state didn’t move to ‘own’ the whole camping market, there was an opening for entrepreneurs to step in. Now there are people whose livelihoods and financial resources depend on the fair competition that comes from private owners competing with each other. This GF&P project would pull the rug from under the private sector parks in the Custer area that are expanding to meet the demand, according to SDCOA officials.

SDCOA’s letter asks, “Does anybody reading this letter believe that the state doesn’t have competitive advantages over private campgrounds?”

There is no argument that in this red-hot camping market, private campgrounds would barely feel the additional sites during the peak season. When this hot market is over, or during the shoulder seasons, these 175 sites would then be occupied at the expense of existing businesses, stated SDCOA officials.

There are many other questions about this project that might be asked:

  • Why is the cost of developing these sites double what it costs the private sector to do the same work?
  • Do the citizens of South Dakota really want more infrastructure in the park that will primarily benefit out-of-state guests?  (More water usage, more roads, more sewage to deal with, more electricity.)
  • How does it make sense to use General Fund dollars (coming from tax collections, such as those collected at private parks) to compete with and possibly undermine those very businesses?
  • Many South Dakotans love our Crown Jewel the way it is. They don’t want more public accommodation intrusion. Is the state ready to answer this concern, especially at the expense of hard-working private operators?

Opposition was expected, according to Mary Arlington, executive director of the SDCOA.

“GF&P met with the SDCOA Board of Directors in October 2021. Both parties shared perspectives and aimed to create open dialog between members and the GF&P,” noted Arlington. “Having had these discussions and expressed our concerns, we hope the state will help us in our mission to accommodate camping guests of South Dakota with a high-quality experience without interference from our own state government.”

You can read SDCOA’s full position statement by clicking here.