$10 Million Proposal to Build New Campsites Within Custer State Park
South Dakota is known for its wide-open spaces, independent citizens, and a hands-off approach to government involvement in typically private-sector lines of business. That's why it was quite a surprise to many South Dakotans to hear of a new $10-million, 176 campsite proposal for Custer State Park. Governor Noem rolled out the proposal to increase campsites in the park by 50%, stating that there had not been any expansion in 41 years.
Government involvement in traditionally private business has long been remembered in South Dakota, going back 100 years to the Republican Progressive Peter Norbeck, South Dakota's 9th Governor. Norbeck is admired by many, and rightly so. He changed the face of the landscape and had numerous accomplishments under his belt that would be the envy of any politician today. A few of his accomplishments, however, are etched into the minds of South Dakotans as much as Mount Rushmore, Needles Highway, or Badlands National Park.
Those are the South Dakota cement plant, the formation of a state-owned hail insurance program, stockyards, grain elevators, and even a coal mine. Only the first is generally accepted as a financial success. The detractors would say that the cement plant stymied private businesses from entering the field. They'd be right, and as with most state enterprises, it provides an unfair advantage in an otherwise balanced ecosystem.
Custer State Park is the second-largest in the country. It's comprised of 71,000 acres thriving with herds of Bison, Elk, Pronghorn (Antelope), Bighorn Sheep, and deer. It was an accomplishment to create, restore and preserve. Peter Norbeck had quite a hand in the creation of the park, and hats off to him for it. Since its creation in 1906, Custer State Park has acted as a sanctuary for many animals and can be credited as a major player in bringing back the bison from extinction. Countless visitors have come from all over the nation to visit the area, creating long-lasting memories for families that include the park in their vacation planning.
Custer State Park is extraordinarily special. So special is the park that it hasn't added campsites in 41 years! There's no doubt the demand exists, but at what cost? Projections show revenue generated from the proposed campsite would reach $500,000 a year, paying the State of South Dakota back in only 10 years. While this might be true, there comes a ripple effect that goes beyond dollars.
A 50% increase in campsites opening in year one would have an impact on privately-owned campgrounds, which is a serious concern to those involved. Beyond that, the two-lane Wildlife Loop Road would become increasingly congested. At the peak of the season, Wildlife Loop Road is already overburdened. Standstills occur at the sight of an antelope, or when the Bison freely cross the road. Rangers do their best to untangle these "Buffalo Jams." More people means more traffic, more accidents, more trash, more noise, more pollution, and less nature.
Migration patterns within the park would change along with the look and feel. While creating more tax dollars widens the eyes of politicians, it isn't a plus in the minds of many locals. South Dakota is a state whose residents want to protect, and for good reason. Governor Noem has done her part to bolster the friendly business environment and appears headed for reelection on November 8, 2022. This doesn't mean that a popular politician is immune to putting forth ideas with good intentions but bad outcomes. Noem, like Norbeck, is faced with a decision that could drastically alter the future of Custer State Park. Its trajectory could end up looking a lot like a Busch Gardens Safari experience if care isn't taken. If you think that's far-fetched take a look at just about every National Park in the country.
At a time when the National Park Service struggles with solutions to the overcrowding, proposals for Custer State Park seem to want to run headlong into the problem. Many parks are already implementing programs to improve overcrowding by limiting the number of visitors on a given day. Many working in the park will tell you, we're approaching those limits right now. Little has been said at the impending "event horizon" that no doubt South Dakotans will be facing in the not-so-near future.
If 10 million dollars can be made available to Custer State Park, the government may want to consider getting ahead of the issue and using the money to improve the existing experience. Perhaps low-interest loans could be made to the current campsite owners to improve their facilities. More funds are needed for conservation. Currently, 50% of the radio-collared bighorn sheep are dead due to mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, a pneumonia-causing bacteria that nearly wiped out the herd in years past.
Park Rangers are stretched thin trying to reign in the number of UTV's deviating from established trails. One doesn't have to look far to find the scars across beautiful meadows and fields. Forestry management braces each year for the fire season as well as a lookout for the infamous pine beetle, which devastates swaths of trees due to a more compact canopy and an increase in heatwaves. The streams and creeks of the Black Hills have been reduced to a trickle, resulting in a huge impact on the ecosystem. The riparian habitats are shrinking, a bellwether of what may come.
There are many reasons to spend money in Custer State Park, but expanded access and government interference in private business are not at the top of the list. Norbeck was a visionary, a conservationist, and a republican. His vision has been realized, now is the time to manage it properly.
Owner of My XO Adventures, Tour Guide, Traveler and Occasional Writer.
"Travel is Fatal to Prejudice, Bigotry, and Narrow Mindedness, and many of our people need It sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." ~ Mark Twain
Founded In 1515, Havana boasts some of the best architecture in the world. It's known as the Paris of the Caribbean, with more color. Walking through old Havana we learned of its history, significant structures, beautiful squares, battles, the aristocracy, and even got to see some of the original infrastructure that made it such a desirable place to live.
The Old Town Center has been almost fully restored. Even during the pandemic, the restoration continued with an eye on the return of visitors and tourists from around the world. Each day that went by, we could see more visitors coming from all over Europe, Asia, and Russia.
Cuba can be visited by U.S. Citizens legally under a number of different General Licenses. Ours was "Support of the Cuban People". This means a full Itinerary learning about the history, arts, culture, and more. It also means spending money only in privately owned businesses. My XO Adventures supports and encourages U.S. Citizens to visit Cuba. Unfortunately, political reasons can get in the way of better understanding the people that call this island home. Once the television sets and news outlets are left behind, a whole new world opens up.
While Old Town has been restored for visitors and to protect the cultural heritage of Cuba, many surrounding areas are quite stunning. Vedado and Miramar are two of my favorites. Centro is an interesting place to visit, but an area that lacks restoration. Here you'll see everyday Cubans going about their business. While walking through Centro you'll witness equally amazing architecture but in a state of disrepair.
With the right perspective, you'll find beauty in the crumbling and worn buildings. The happiness of children playing marbles brings a smile to your face and a nostalgic feeling to your heart. It reminds us of what is important in life. This reminder can be humbling. It also has the ability to help us realize how fortunate we are, and if you're lucky to reevaluate what it is you think makes you happy.
The act of traveling carries with it life-changing moments and endless possibilities for your future. Friends are made In faraway places. Hearts are opened, and a greater understanding for the adventurer can occur. The simple reality is that we are not alone. By forming our own thoughts and opinions through real interactions we toss away the political agendas, governmental interference and wake to the understanding that we are all one human race.
We not only deserve the gift of travel but we are also obligated to it. Visit our Frequently Asked Questions page on travel to Cuba.
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International Travel during the Pandemic can prove a little tricky, but not impossible. A recent visit to Cuba under the OFAC license of "Support of the Cuban People" proved to be quite extraordinary given the circumstances of the Omicron spread. Cuba stands out as one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, due to being the only Latin American country to develop its own home-grown vaccines. Many Americans are unaware that Cuba shines in the worldwide community, coming in at 86.4% of its population vaccinated. That’s 2nd only to the UAE, which stands at 93.3%.
That’s pretty impressive and raising eyebrows with travelers as one of the safest destinations in the world. My XO Adventures owner, Daniel Milks recently traveled to Cuba from January 2-18, 2022 to prepare for a group arriving and get the lay of the land. It wasn’t going to be easy, but was it worth the trouble?
“Cuba Travel has always been a little tricky to navigate, but travelers to the country are almost always seasoned.” Entry into the country begins with securing accommodations, followed by an airline ticket into Havana. Tampa and Miami are popular points of origin, but surprisingly Iceland Air has been approved to enter the market and expand options for those who are interested.
“Travel to anywhere in the world takes a risk acceptance, and we were approaching the higher end of that limit.” Omicron was beginning to rage across Florida, with its 7-day average peak on January 10th, 2022 just before the group arrived. Already in Cuba on January 2, 2022, Daniel had a little time to prepare, reconnect with people, businesses and witness the current state of the country.
“After landing in Havana and taking a moment to look around, it didn’t appear that much had changed”, reported Daniel on January 3rd. Quite a few of the more well-known shopping districts were dotted with closed signs, but the economy officially opened in November, and this was only a month later in a country that suffers from the U.S. imposed embargo. Reportedly, Cubans were going about their business, spending time in markets, using public transportation, and enjoying outdoor games.
“Being able to see Cuba after two years of the Pandemic was pretty incredible. I’m always amazed at the resiliency of the people, and the magic of this gem in the Caribbean.” After meeting up with friends, a deeper look began. The restaurants that were open had limited selections each day, requiring the traveler to exercise patience and understanding. Certain places had long lines, but to the Cubans, this is something that’s become a part of life.
Walking through the streets Daniel reports major renovations and new construction. Hotels are being built all over Havana as if they have their eye on the future, and tourism is the way out of the economic challenges Cuba faces. Most notably, the former Convertible Peso (CUC) has been eliminated and replaced with the local peso (CUP). Inflation isn’t something that just exists in the U.S., it's being felt in Cuba by all the people.
During this visit, the official government exchange was $1 USD for 26 Pesos. The street rate was around $1 USD for 55-68 CUP depending on what day and person tried to hit you up. The monetary changes can be very confusing and should be left for another article. To say the least, wrapping your head around it, along with the fluctuations keeps you on your feet.
“As U.S. Citizen, and under the OFAC license Support of the Cuban People the only lodging available is from privately owned homes. To tell you the truth, this is the only way I’d visit Cuba, even if the restrictions were eliminated.” Private homes are called Casa Particulars, which are privately owned, and the family or managers live on site. Miramar, a high-end neighborhood dotted with Embassies, beautiful trees, and flowering bougainvillea makes it a great place to stay.
Before even making it to the accommodations, a meeting with some local Cuban’s at Grandma's house was the beginning of the experience. Here, we had three locals, Grandma, her grandson, and a friend. They were able to explain to the group about everyday life in the country. All this while enjoying some Cuban Rum, plantains, croquettes, and other tasty treats from Grandma's kitchen. Participants were drawn into the discussion and ready to ask questions. The most interesting was when it was Grandma’s turn. She is a Cuban that lived through the Triumph of the Revolution and had quite a few words to say about her experience. This is a behind the curtain look that any traveler to Cuba needs to experience and makes a great start to the beginning of the journey.
All the protocols are in place, wet mats with bleach, hand sanitizer, masks, and even grandma had her plastic face shield. Cuba took it seriously at the beginning of the pandemic. Lockdowns were in place, and COVID raged just like anywhere else until the vaccines began to roll out. Here you can see a drastic reduction in cases, deaths, and hospitalizations on charts found all over google. For Cubans, it wasn’t a matter of choice to get the vaccine. It was an obligation each person had to meet.
“I felt safer here than in the U.S.”, says Daniel Milks. Omicron cases in Cuba are low by comparison. The World Health Organization has Soberana, Cuba’s most effective vaccine in stage three trials. It’s already being used in Vietnam, Mexico, Iran, Venezuela, and more. Cuba boasts a 91.2% efficacy rate with three jabs being a full set.
Guests reflect back on the “Forbidden Fruit” that Cuba is for Americans. The complexities of operating a nation under an embargo. The desire of both governments to mend fences and establish relationships. Minds wander with memories as the airport nears. Soon, family and friends will be shown pictures and hear experiences. Maybe those stories are powerful enough to lead to change, one person at a time.Daniel Milks
Owner of My XO Adventures, Traveler and ocasional writer.