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Land Conservancy

Spearfish Canyon Land Trust

The Spearfish Canyon Foundation established the Spearfish Canyon Land Trust to protect and  preserve a unique landscape and create a legacy of enjoyment for future generations. 

The Land Trust includes a $1.8-million capital campaign through charitable gifts, donations, and grants to acquire private undeveloped lands from 'willing sellers' in Spearfish Canyon. The lands will become public lands owned by The People of the United States of America through the USDA Forest Service. The Forest Service was selected as the public depository of the Trust's land gifts since it owns the majority of land in the canyon which, therefore, provides efficiencies of management, budget, and opportunities for many partnership projects including wildlife and habitat.

Successful progress has been achieved with $1.65-million raised of the $1.8-million goal. Of the nearly 1,100-acre acquisition goal, 60% or 647 acres have been acquired, and other lands are in various stages of closing. The fundraising campaign continues with a remaining goal of $135,000.

Spearfish Canyon bestows a unique "spirituality of belonging"

photoSpearfish Canyon bestows a unique "spirituality of belonging" to all you are lured to its grand view. This compelling sense of public ownership of the canyon provides endearing memories which span time and cultures. Annually, nearly one million people travel Spearfish Canyon's National Scenic Byway. The Land Trust was inspired by the many visitors to the canyon, and is reflective of their interest and values. Spearfish Canyon, twelve times older than the Grand Canyon, contains an abundance of wildlife, botanically enriched and diverse forests, superior scenic vista, inspiring waterfalls, freshwater trout fisheries, and hosts numerous recreational and sporting activities.  The twenty-mile canyon extends from the entrance at the National Forest near Spearfish to Cheyenne Crossing.

Project Feasibility


Through two land trades representing nearly 1,800 acres between Homestake Mining Company and the Forest Service, public ownership of the 11,576-acre canyon contour rose from 70% to 82%. The first land trade of 1,200 acres required congressional authority, and was approved in October 1990. Speaking on behalf of the land exchange bill (H.R. 4567, Senate bill S. 2474), co-sponsor, U.S. Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota said:


“The purpose of the bill before us is simple – it is to increase the protection afforded to Spearfish Canyon and Spearfish Creek. To paraphrase the bill, the goals of the legislation are to protect and improve public access and recreational opportunities: fish and wildlife habitat; the serenity, environmental integrity, and scenic beauty of the area; and the Forest Service’s ability to manage the area for these purposes.”


The second land trade of nearly 600 acres involved a Homestake sale to the Dunbar Resort, owned by Kevin Costner, followed by a land trade between the Dunbar and the Forest Service in exchange of lands near the gaming-community of Deadwood.


These substantial land trades made it feasible for the Foundation to consider establishing the land conservancy project. Development has occurred on 219 acres within the canyon that include 150 mountain homes, 50 platted undeveloped residential lots, and 3 commercial lodging facilities. Completion of the Land Trust project will increase public ownership of the canyon to 97%, and prevent a “tripling” of current residential density that the Foundation viewed as a threat to the canyon’s scenic, wildlife, and environmental values.


The strategic plan of the Land Trust does not include acquisition of three small lodging photoproperties. Most national parks, including nearby Yellowstone National Park, provide public eating, lodging and gift shop facilities. The Spearfish Canyon facilities are of historic and traditional value. Latchstring Village began as Glendoris in 1909, Cheyenne Crossing/Wickiup and RimRock Lodge had their beginning in the mid-30's. All three properties provide a dimension of public access and multiple use of the canyon ... a value to the Foundation which is also incorporated as a covenant in all land gifts to the public. A third covenant associated with Land Trust gifts to the Forest Service includes the prohibition of surface mining. These land gift covenants are superior in law to other laws of the land including the 1872 Mining Act.

The Foundation considered many means by which to protect and preserve Spearfish Canyon including the option of a state or national park. Many substantive reasons defeated this scenario. First, Congress with its deficit spending dilemma, is most likely not in the frame of mind to add an additional park to the national parks system. In fact, they are choosing the opposite course and are attempting to eliminate military bases and parks from its awesome fiscal burden as it seeks to balance the national budget and reduce the national debt. Second, if in the unlikely event they were to approve a national park status for Spearfish Canyon, the Department of the Interior could proceed to invoke their 'eminent domain' powers and force removal of all private development in the canyon. This would be done, of course, with the legal constitutional guarantees of 'due process' and 'just' compensations. Third, it was the Foundation's conclusion that the first two reasons would create an atmosphere of public animosity, especially with the land owners, and conflict with the 'goodwill' associated with the creditable cause of canyon preservation.

The Land Trust is steeped in the tradition and laws of property rights

The philosophical values of the Land Trust are steeped in the tradition and laws of property rights. The Land Trust incorporates the value of property among the "inalienable rights" of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Through much of the recorded history of civilization, most people could only dream of property ownership.

In the late 1600's, a bold concept introduced by the Stoics in ancient Greece, and later in the New Testament, was introduced into political thought by philosopher John Locke who had the audacity to suggest to the monarchy that property ownership was a Divine Right given by God, "by his labor, a man acquires as his property the products of his labor." Locke in many ways influenced the Philadelphia convention where during discussion by the Colonies of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, "All men are created equal with certain inalienable rights; among these, life, liberty, and property."

The word property was later expanded to include pursuit of happiness. Man's relationship to property and many other values of freedom including religion and speech were incorporated into the Bill of Rights and the United States Constitution as "inalienable rights" which are not subject to popular opinion or majority rule. The rights of property are not to be abridged, but on occasion by the state, and only for public use after thoughtful consideration, called 'due process,' and then, by just compensation. This, then, is the genesis of the Spearfish Canyon Land Trust.

The strategic plan of the Land Trust first seeks as many land options with willing sellers of undeveloped private property as possible. As a member of the national Land Trust Alliance organization, the Foundation has adopted its Standards & Practices policy - click here.  The type of option sought includes a 5-year term, right of first refusal, and a negotiated fair market value of the property. The land options provide a quasi-certainty of land availability which is meaningful to many potential gift and grantmaking entities before considering charitable gifts. Many of the lands sought are currently on the market for sale and development.

A willing seller ... purchase at fair market value ... from charitable gifts & grants

rainbow photoCharitable giving is a primary value at the heart of the Land Trust. The Land Trust makes its appeal to people "from the heart" who share similar values of Spearfish Canyon preservation. The Land Trust is not seeking funds from the public treasury, nor from tax revenues, and certainly not from public condemnation.

It does, however, require public support in acceptance of a gradual decline of about $11-million in assessed valuation for property taxes. Some of the tax loss will be offset by PILT (Payment In Lieu of Taxes) payments from the Forest Service based on 25% of total Black Hills National Forest annual receipts. With the significant increase in development being experienced in Lawrence County, especially with the advent of gaming in Deadwood, it is a small price to pay for preserving Spearfish Canyon, a remaining jewel of the Black Hills, and one of the finest natural features in America for public benefit.

America is the most generous nation in the world. Many people are fortunate to have acquired wealth beyond their consumptive and life needs; others allow a certain portion of their annual income for charitable gifts; while still others incorporate charitable gifts in their estate planning. Gifts come in many forms through many legal vehicles including cash, stock, real estate, valued artifacts, bequests, gift annuities, charitable remainders, foundation grants, and corporate sponsorships. Frequently, charitable gifts qualify for beneficial income tax deductions, but a tax advisor is recommended. Whether major gifts or small donations, public charity will determine the success of the preservation of Spearfish Canyon.