Private campground owners in the Black Hills of South Dakota aren’t thrilled with a state proposal to add $10 million in new campsites at Custer State Park.
Opposition isn’t limited to park owners concerned about competition from the state. Former park officials, state lawmakers and outdoor industry groups are also voicing concerns that a 50% increase in the number of campsites at the park will disturb wildlife populations and add to vehicle traffic.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem and the state’s Game, Fish and Parks Department unveiled a plan late last year to develop a 75-acre site along Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop Road known as Barnes Canyon.
The new campsites would have electricity, paved roads and comfort stations with showers and bathrooms. The state said the new sites could generate as much as $500,000 annually.
“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. Noem said the expansion would take advantage of the momentum in state tourism and also make it a bit easier for South Dakota families looking to camp at Custer State Park.
“Betrayed” campground owners
The South Dakota Campground Owners Association has come out against the expansion of campsites, saying it would lead to more unfair state-sponsored competition for private campgrounds.
“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.”
Custer State Park sees about 2.3 million visitors a year, more than double the next most popular state park.
Private park owners would rather see the state invest in housing for seasonal workers that would benefit the private enterprises in the Black Hills. Noem’s spokesperson said the camping industry’s concerns were unfounded, and that there was more than enough tourism business in western South Dakota to sustain all parties. The capacity at Custer State Park hasn’t been expanded in more than 40 years. There are currently a total of 341 campsites and 50 cabins.