Positions diametrically opposed over wilderness preservation

RAPID CITY, S.D. - A public comments meeting to determine the fate of less than 1 percent of wilderness in the Black Hills brought out the best, and worst, in local residents.

The U.S. Forest Service began taking comments at 10 a.m. June 27 at the Ramkota Inn and the session didn't conclude until 8 p.m. Public input centered on the proposed rule to protect more than 54 million acres of roadless Forest Service lands nationally. Locally 16,454 acres in three separate tracts are being considered. At present 1.3 percent of the Black Hills is considered roadless.

Charmaine White Face, a Lakota, and one of the leaders of the wilderness protection movement, said, "Even what they are fighting for is the least good of possible Forest Service proposals." While the proposed rule would protect inventoried roadless areas from new road construction, White Face said it would not protect these areas from mining, logging, and oil and gas drilling. Off-road vehicle use would be permitted as well, she said.

Three roadless areas in the Black Hills would fall under the protection of the Forest Service plan: the Sand Creek area, which is 9,948 acres, Inyan Kara, 1,397 acres, and Beaver Park, 5,109 acres. And these roadless areas would be subject to exceptions - existing mining claims and fire roads to combat increased threats from fires.

Despite exceptions, local opposition to any protective status was strongly voiced. So-called multiple-use groups insisted no limits be placed on their activities.

In the morning, more than 20 American Indians presented often-passionate, individual testimony on the need to maintain some roadless areas in land they consider sacred.

Among those testifying for preservation were well-known Lakota environmental preservationist Joanne Tall and Lakota traditionalist and medicine man Rick Two Dogs.

Paul Robertson, chairman of the South Dakota Peace and Justice group, reminded the Forest Service of a 1995 executive order by President Clinton. "It requires that the Forest Service consult with the tribes whenever there is anything significant involving a treaty area. That's the mandate, it is very clear that they have to do that."

Robertson noted that no tribal government officials were there and asked if it meant that, contrary to the executive order, they had not been notified. White Face also was concerned at the lack of tribal government participation.

Still, Robertson pointed out that those who did testify presented an eloquent case. "Native testimony focused on the need to strengthen the rule, add more roadless areas to the inventory and protect sacred areas. Treaty rights, also, were high on the list."

In addition, the pro-wilderness groups want the Forest Service to add up to 5 percent of the Black Hills to the inventory of roadless and protected areas. White Face said that the exceptions for mining, drilling and logging need to be removed. During testimony, tribal members from throughout the region met with and formed an alliance with members of the Sierra Club in an adjoining room to plan and unify opposition.

In the afternoon, opponents of preservation presented their views. Around 4 p.m., a trashcan was placed in the middle of the hearing room. One by one, as their cohorts cheered them on, members of various groups of loggers, snowmobilers and other off-road enthusiasts took a copy of a Forest Service Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and theatrically stuffed it into the trash can. They argue that any limits to their activities would be a limit on their freedoms.