A proposal has been made to impose a $10 fee for entering Black Elk Wilderness to access Harney Peak. South Dakota and Custer State Park officials are opposed. It was front page news on Sunday, April 2, 2000, in the Souix Falls Argus-Leader:
When I sat down to post this, I left the second page of the story. I will post it later.
By Bob Kyes
CUSTER STATE PARK - James Margadant used to climb Harney Peak for solitudue. Now he hikes to the top of South Dakota's tallest peak to watch people.
"It'sa two-lane highway all the way," says the 55-year-old Rapid City resident. "Everybody and their dog wants to walk up the highest summit in South Dakota
For me anyway, the attraction these days has been to take a lunch and look at all the people who show up."
Lately, people are showing up in record numbers. Last year, 73,000 people hiked Harney, up from from about 38,000 in 1994.
That increase has prompted the U.S. Forest Servuce to consider charging hikers a fee to scramble up one of the state's most popular trails.
At the same time, National Park Service officials are looking into requiring permits for back-country camping in the remote reaches of the Badlands.
These are the first South Dakota signs of what is becoming a national problem -- overcrowding in state and national parks. The U.S. Department of Interior is struggling to accommodate growing crowds of summer visitors in national parks such as Yellowstone and Yosemite while preserving pristine outdoors experiences.
At 7,242 feet above sea-level, Harney is the highest peak between the Rocky Mountains and the French Alps, enchanting visitors with spectacular views of the Black Hills and beyond. Considered one of the most sacred sites in Lakota culture, Harney rises from the heart of the Black Elk Wilderness, a federally protected 10,000 acre natural area that's bounded by Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park -- the state's two most popular tourist attractions. The two draw nearly 4.5 million visitors each year.
Although Harney Peak may conquered by any number of trails, the most popular is the No. 9 trail begins near Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park. It's 3 1/2 miles to the top from the Sulvan trailhead and it's easy going most of the way.
More than a third of all hikers -- 200-plus walkers a day during the summer -- reach Harney via the Sylvan trailhead, and that's the center of the problem. The trail begins in the state park, but quickly crosses into the federal jurisdction of the Black Elk Wilderness.
Here's the second page of the article on Harney:
By law, the U.S. Forest Service is required to maintain the wilderness area as a place where a man's presence and impact are minimal. No motorized vehicles or equipment are allowed, meaning all trail clearing and other maintenance work must be done by hand and without the benefit of power tools.
"Man is a visitor, but cannot stay," said Loren Poppert, a recreation forester for the Custer Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service. "It's an area where you are supposed to get away and experience solitude."
A decision by the U.S. Forest Service on the proposed fee - it could be as much as $10, but specific figures haven't been discussed publicly - will come by Memorial Day. If imposed, the fee would take effect in 2001, Pop. pert said.
"The problem is that we are seeing steadily increasing numbers, and that's what concerns us. What's going to happen in five or 10 years down the road? We're not seeing a lot of impact yet. We're seeing more stuff - an increase in trash and human waste piles. But those problems are manageable and acceptable," Poppert said. "The biggest impact is the loss of solitude. It's supposed to be a place where you can get away from other people, to experience solitude and spiritual renewal."
Rapid City resident and avid hiker Tom Whillock said he would reluctantly accept a user fee to hike Har-ney. He likes to hike with his children early in the morning in the spring or fall before the crowds arrive.
"I would probably pay $10 to hike it, but it would sting me to do it," Whillock said. "Western South Dakota is terrible for having this attitude that, 'I can drive my pickup wherever I want to.' Yeah, it's a free country and all that. But there are just too many of us these days. We're loving the outdoors to death. We're out-doorsing it to death."
Custer officials: No thanks
Officials at Custer State Park hope the U.S. Forest Service opts against a permit system. For one thing, park officials do not want the task of issuing permits- a cumbersome process that would likely fall on their shoulders because the most popular trail-head is within park boundaries. But, more importantly, they don't think peltoits are necessary, said Roilie Noem, Custer State Park director.
"Our position is basically that the majority of our users who come to hike Trail 9 to Harney Peak are not looking for the wilderness experience. Their goal is simply to get to the top of Harney Peak. It's a place everybody should be at some point in time," he said.
Custer already charges $4 per person or $10 per vehicle for a temporary license to enter the park during the summer. Camping and lodging fees vary by site. The Harney Peak access fee would be in addition to those charges.
Noem's advice to hikers who are searching for solitude is to simply take another trail. "There are lots of other wilderness experiences available in the Black Elk Wilderness,' he said. "If you're looking for that, don't take trail No. 9, because you'll see other people, and at certain times you'll see lots of other people."
A summit sans solitude
Poppert is giving the same advice: If you want solitude, don't go to Har-ney.
But that's also where the conflict lies. The Wilderness Act of 1964 requires the Forest Service to maintain the Black Elk Wilderness as a place for solitude and spiritual renewal. Last year, it received Congressional authority to charge the recreational fee if necessary to limit
Another tact for discouraging people from climbing Harney is the Forest Service's new unofficial don't ask-don't tell policy. "What we're trying to do now is actually de-promote the Black Elk and Harney Peak," Poppert said. "We're taking it off a lot of our brochures, and if people don't ask about it, we don't tell them about
Harney bas been a popular hike for hundreds of years. Black Elk, the Oglala medicine man, considered the peak to be the center of the world, a place for vision quests and renewal.
The peak was named for Gen. William S. Harney, who helped map the area in 1857. In 1938, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a stone lookout tower at the top that provides the peak with its distinctive profile, visible for many miles. The lookout tower is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The combination of the tower and a relatively easy hike to the highest point in the eastern half of the United States makes Harney an appealing day trip for hikers of all abilities.
That lure means Harney is a natural component of Custer State Park's promotional plan, which hinges on people's ability to escape the daily rigors and relax for a few days among the wildlife and in the wilderness.
The plan is working. Overall visitation to Custer State Park has increased by 300,000 since 1993. In 1999, 1.8 million people visited Custer State Park, compared to just less than 1.5 million in 1993. More recently, Custer and other Black Hills tourism officials have begun emphasizing so-called "shoulder season" tourism promoting the park and other regional attractions in the spring and fall instead of summer.
Custer State Park's aggressive decade long fix-up effort has had a lot to do with the growth, too. Noem said. In the past 10 years, the park has renovated and improved most of its campgrounds and pirvately managed lodges and rebuilt much of its utility service, making camping easier and more attractive to families.
Park Not Yet Crowded
With the Custer State Park campgrounds and resorts full nearly every day during the summer months, the Sylvan Trail is busiest in June, July and August.
But that doesn't mean the park is getting too crowded, Noem said. "Yes, it's crowded sometimes in the summer. But I'm not concerned that we're getting to the point of overcrowding the park," he said.
When the park rewrote its management plan in 1988, preserving the wilderness experience was a critical, central element. That mission has not been overshadowed by the increase in visitors, he added.
"Are we concerned about being overcrowded? Sure we're concerned. ;m We don't want to create a situation st that becomes detrimental to the visi-ly tor experience. But we're not there id yet. We're not even close. In fact, we still have an opportunity for more growth," he said. "There's ample opportunity for people to have the kind of experience they want at Custer State Park any time of the year.
If that outdoor experience includes solitude, though, climbing Harney wouldn't be the best activity, at least not in the middle of summer.
User Fee Unwanted
And that's what has Poppert most concerned. He readily admits that the majority of the people he's heard from since the U.S. Forest Service floated the Harney fee proposal in January have reacted negatively. That negative reaction may be enough to force the Forest Service to delay a fee system for another year or more. But Poppert believes it will be inevit able if the growth trend continues.
"We probably don't have the public support to do anything now. But my concern is what happens five years down the road. In 2005, are we going to have 100,000 people up there and all of their trash? We' re trying to stay ahead of the curve. If we could freeze the numbers at the current lev-'. el, we'd be OK. But if we reach 100,000 in five years, then I think the public would support the idea."
Margadant understands the Forest Service's movement toward an unpopular forced quota system.' "They're knocking on the door. It's inevitable, and the public needs to get accustomed to it."
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