By David Melmer -- Today staff
PIERRE, S.D. - Another attempt to prohibit the sale of liquor near Bear Butte, a sacred prayer site, has met the same fate in the state Legislature as in past years - it died in committee.
On Feb. 13, the Local Government Committee in the South Dakota House of Representatives killed House Bill 1227, presented by Jim Bradford, D-Pine Ridge, which would have stopped the issuance of liquor licenses within a four-mile buffer zone around the mountain.
The Legislature had to wrestle with two liquor license issues: one creating special districts that would allow cities to issue more liquor licenses than they are normally allotted, and another that would protect Bear Butte from liquor sales within the buffer zone.
The new district issue would bring in more chain restaurants, which supporters say is needed for economic expansion.
Opponents of the Bear Butte liquor moratorium argued that business expansion should be stopped and, if a cessation on liquor sales around Bear Butte was implemented, land values would plummet and many investors would lose considerable amounts of money.
Some chain restaurant owners claim the value of their liquor licenses would be reduced should the new districts allow more licenses. Owners of campgrounds and entertainment businesses around Bear Butte express the same fear should liquor be prohibited.
Those who support the curtailment of business development around Bear Butte pose another argument - Bear Butte is sacred to many Plains tribes and has been for thousands of years, affirmed by many tribes' oral history.
The exception is for establishments located within the boundaries of a city, which would include Sturgis.
Sturgis, the county seat of Meade County, is the home of the Sturgis Rally, the largest motorcycle rally in the country. Held every year in early August, the rally attracts some 500,000 bikers, many of whom party near Bear Butte. Bear Butte is northeast of Sturgis.
Bear Butte supporters want an end to the noise and partying at the area's large, 30,000-occupancy entertainment complexes. Many American Indians from a variety of tribes pray at Bear Butte year-round and particularly during the summer.
Bradford has, in the past, attempted to turn over operation of Bear Butte to the tribes, but in the past few years he has worked to persuade the Legislature to prevent liquor sales and business expansion around Bear Butte.
''The Butte means so much to the people. We are now bringing our children back into our culture and our religion, and we are finally reaching a time when we are very proud of our culture and proud of our religious ceremonies,'' Bradford told the committee.
''When you kneel and pray, you feel there is a bigger answer when you are inside a church. When our people pray and have a ceremony when on Bear Butte, it is so strong ... the powerful things that come to them.
''To have it commercialized is kind of disturbing to us.''
Bear Butte has attracted the attention of people across the country, and many of those people have indicated support for the American Indian viewpoint.
The mountain is on the National Register of Historic Places, and supporters of the moratorium claim it is a national and state issue since Bear Butte is a state park.
Local policy-makers see things a little differently. Dean Wink, chair of the Meade County Board of Commissioners, told the State Affairs Committee that, in his opinion, the new bill was an attempt to ''circumvent our elected officials.''
''We have a better feel for the pulse of Meade County residents and, up to this point, have not expressed any opposition to anything that represents this bill at all,'' Wink said.
Ann White Hat, Sicangu Lakota Oyate, lives at the base of Bear Butte on land owned by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. White Hat ran for Meade County commissioner in the 2006 election.
''What I've heard on the campaign trail is that many residents don't want more encroachment any further east of Sturgis,'' she said.
''There is no zoning, no planning for the future of this huge event and no land use decisions made in that area,'' she said.
White Hat said the commissioners ignored a petition request to put to a vote the people's opposition to the expansion of businesses near the mountain, or east of Sturgis.
Wink said the commissioners put a great amount of weight on the opinions of people who live in the area, but White Hat said she was never contacted.
Tribes were not contacted either, she said; and various tribes from South Dakota and Wyoming own some 2,000 acres of land at the base of Bear Butte.
''This bill goes against what we feel are basic tenets and principles - local control, private property rights and free enterprise,'' Wink said.
He suggested that if liquor licenses were not allowed, property values would plummet by 90 percent. He argued that many ranchers waited for years to sell land at high value in order to retire and this measure would prevent higher property values.
The state Legislature allowed the county to create district zones; and planning for the zones is in progress in Meade County. The parties that stand on both sides of the issue are looking for common ground.
The rally's financial impact on the region is estimated at $65 million a year, and that helps businesses across the state, supporters of the rally expansion claim.
Past value of the land used for ranching was $385 per acre. Today, land near Sturgis and around Bear Butte may sell for $18,000 per acre and, in some cases, more.