Lawmakers oppose easement at Bear Butte

By Chet Brokaw
Pierre, South Dakota (AP) 9-08

Some South Dakota lawmakers made it clear during late September that they oppose any state involvement in a proposed easement that would protect the west side of Bear Butte from development.

Rep. Thomas Brunner, R-Nisland, had suggested a resolution that sought to put a legislative study committee on record as opposing the Game, Fish and Parks Department’s involvement in any easement at Bear Butte, no matter what source of money is used.

After a lengthy discussion, Brunner said there was no need for the legislative panel to vote on the measure because the debate made it clear that some lawmakers oppose such an easement.

The Legislature earlier this year rejected Gov. Mike Rounds’ plan to prevent developers from putting biker bars and other noisy businesses on ranch land near Bear Butte. Supporters said the measure would protect Bear Butte, a mountain on the north side of the Black Hills that is a national historic site and a sacred religious site to many American Indian tribes.

The defeated bill would have provided $250,000 from the state to be combined with money from other sources to buy an easement from a private landowner near Bear Butte.

Opponents said the bill would have harmed private property rights and economic development in the area where the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is held each year.


State Game, Fish and Parks Secretary Jeff Vonk said Sept. 23rd, the department is looking for an alternate source of funds to finance the easement and prevent commercial development on the land near Bear Butte. A foundation would be the likely source of money for such a project, he said.

In such an easement, the ranch family could continue to use the land for agricultural purposes but could not develop it for commercial use or a housing area. They would continue to pay property taxes on the land’s agricultural value.

Rep. Betty Olson, R-Prairie City, said she opposes perpetual easements because perpetuity is a long time. She said she doubts Bear Butte needs to be protected, but the state or Native American tribes should just buy the land if it needs to be protected, she said.

Vonk said tribes would prefer to buy the land rather than use an easement, but the landowner is not willing to sell now.

Brunner said he supports private property rights, which means the landowner has the legal right to sell an easement. But the state should not be involved in such a deal, he said.

“My argument is solely with the state’s involvement,” Brunner said.

Reuben Bezpaletz, a staff lawyer for the Legislature, said easements are not perpetual because the law includes a fundamental rule against tying up land forever. Easements can be changed when the buyer no longer wants to use the land for whatever reason the easement was created, he said.

For example, easements granted to railroads usually end when a railroad ends service on the route, Bezpaletz said. Rail right of way then frequently goes to adjacent landowners or is converted for use as a hiking and biking trial, he said.

“They are certainly not perpetual. They are indefinite,” Bezpaletz told the lawmakers.