Custer State Park to give preference to visitors

Jason Ferguson
Residents of the Black Hills who want to fish Stockade Lake, hike Lover’s Leap or pet the famous Wildlife Loop Road burros while it’s warm out better get to Custer State Park (CSP) soon — because your chances to do so this summer will be slim to none.
The S.D. Department of Game, Fish and Parks (GFP) has announced that after the annual state park open house weekend scheduled for May 15-17, Black Hills residents will be limited in the days and hours they can visit and spend in CSP in an effort to keep the lakes, trails, campgrounds, etc., open to out-of-area and out-of-state visitors during the summer months. 
The change was already being considered by state officials before being fasttracked to accommodate visitors — particulary those from urban areas — who are being forced to “shelter at home” or otherwise stay indoors during the coronavirus pandemic.
As CSP grows in popularity, it becomes increasingly congested, say state officials who, during a  normal summer, field “thousands of calls” from out-of- state guests irate with what they say are “too many vehicles with South Dakota license plates” parked at lake parking lots, trailhead parking lots and other locations throughout the park.
“It’s become an issue,” said GFP administrator of guest comfort documentation controller Tug Lofer. “If someone drives 1,500 miles to visit Sylvan Lake, they should have a place to park. Someone from Pringle can just as easily swim in a stock pond in the area.”
Sylvan Lake is the top reason for the changes, Lofer said, as continued frustration with a lack of parking at the lake has led many visitors to lodge complaints with park staff and GFP. 
Lofer said Black Hills residents’ constant use of the park is counter to the state’s stated goal of welcoming out-of-area guests who are more likely to spend money in the park, and by extension, provide more tax dollars to county and state coffers.
“A family from Minnesota is going to buy sweatshirts and snacks from the Coolidge store and eat two to three meals a day at a park lodge or resort,” Lofer said. “A Custer couple is going to pack a lunch and waste a picnic spot without spending so much as a dime on Toblerone. We have to prioritize.”
To that end, the park will institute what the state is calling “local hours” for CSP, at which time residents from the Black Hills area — defined as Custer, Meade, Lawrence, Fall River and Pennington counties — are allowed to be in the park. From May 18 through Oct. 31, those hours are Tuesdays from 3-4:30 a.m. and 8-9 p.m., and Thursdays from 4-6 a.m. and 10-11 p.m.
“This will still allow our local guests to get into the park, gaze at the stars, flash headlights at some wildlife  that may still be awake and enjoy nature during those nighttime hours,” Lofer said. “Remember, this is your park too — to an extent.”
Lofer cautioned that fishing, swimming, hiking and rock-climbing are prohibited during those hours, however. The visitor center, lodges and stores will also be closed during these hours.
Lofer hopes the new rules will be enforced simply by the honor system, but noted park rangers will be on the lookout for any vehicles parked within the confines of CSP that have license plates of the aforementioned counties. Any Black Hills resident caught violating the local hours rules are subject to fines that start at $500.
Local vehicles will still be able to travel through CSP from May 18 to Oct. 31, but may not stop anywhere while driving Hwy. 16 or Hwy. 87 to their destination. To ensure this, locals will be required to stop at the entrance of the park and have a card punched that will indicate when they started their drive through the park. At the opposite entrance they will be required to have the time stamped again. 
The amount of time a local vehicle is allocated to be in the park will depend on the vehicle occupants’ stated destination when they receive their first time stamp. For instance, those traveling from Custer to Hermosa or vice versa will have 40 minutes to be in the park. Any time over that allocated amount will be considered “dawdling” and will be fined at $10 per minute.
“Locals have seen all of the lakes, they’ve seen all the rocks, they’ve seen the trees,” Lofer said. “We need them to just look at the road and get through the park so as not to interrupt the out-of-area guests.”
Locals are reminded they should not tailgate or drive too slowly in front of out-of-state vehicles, either, Lofer said. Following an out-of-state car too closely is also a fineable offense, as is not allowing an out-of- state car around you when they get behind you.
State officials also hope to host a “We’re glad you’re here” parade on Wildlife Loop Road Independence Day, during which Black Hills residents are encouraged to line the road and clap, cheer, throw money (no coins) and wave at out- of-state cars as they come by. Signs are also encouraged, with such suggested messages as:
• You’re better than us
• Honk if you want to run over my foot
• You pay my bills
• What can I do for you, your highness?
Volunteers are also sought to clean up any buffalo/burro scat along the road prior to the event, so out-of-state visitors do not have to see it. It can be shoveled into the beds of volunteers’ trucks, back seats or trunks of their cars, etc. Shovels will be provided.
“These people have been cooped up in their homes. Let’s show them some Black Hills hospitality when they arrive,” said CSP prairie dog colony organizer Toby Balder. “We need all the tourism dollars we can get in light of the recent pandemic.”
Lofer said, if the catering to out-of-state visitors goes well enough in CSP, the program may be expanded to all parks statewide and made year-round. Locals would be encouraged to view the parks through photos, YouTube videos or coin-operated viewing machines that would be placed on the borders of parks. However, those would also be prioritized for out-of-state visitors.
“We have some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, but how many times do local people need to see it, really?” Lofer asked. “Let’s share it with our neighbors. It’s the right thing to do.”
Perhaps most importantly, though, is we hope this gave you a laugh in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. This story isn’t real. Don’t call the state. They have enough to deal with. Happy April Fools’ Day!

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