Elk NetworkGrand Canyon Of The Black Hills onX Public Access Project

Conservation , onX Public Access | July 3, 2020

Protecting the other Grand Canyon

Christine Peterson

Fired up by a Ken Burns documentary, a big-dreaming landowner teamed up with RMEF and others to forever protect one of Wyoming’s richest and most striking canyons and open it to all. 

To describe the Grand Canyon of the Black Hills is to ask someone to come along with you on a journey that feels a little surreal, like entering the fantasy world of Narnia. 

A dusty, brown dirt road drops in from the north, winding through dusty, brown prairie. But each crook in the path, each bend around a hill, offers a taste of what is to come. The sagebrush starts morphing into lusher, greener grass, lanky willows and sap-filled boxelder trees. Boxes of bees rest in a meadow, the contents taking advantage of spring and summer blooms. Sunlight sparkles on a creek. 

Drive one more bend and suddenly all that was brown has turned to dozens of shades of green lining the bottom of a canyon stretching to the sky. A lazy creek meanders through the middle, grass flowing up to its banks. An old, arched sign reads Ranch A, a leftover from when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used the spring creek for salmonid research because its pure water came out of the ground cold on the hottest days, yet warm enough the creek flowed ice-free all winter. 

It’s tempting to stop and fish. Sand Creek has more trout per mile than any other stream in Wyoming—a feat in a state known for its trout fishing. But stay the course; there’s more wonder ahead. 

Keep heading up that long, gravel road as it takes you along the creek and follows the canyon. Mile after jaw-dropping mile unfold with jagged limestone cliffs crowning steep hillsides covered in pines and hardwoods. Struggling species including the northern goshawk, northern pygmy owl, northern long-eared bat and black-backed woodpecker make these cliffs and trees home. Whitetails, mule deer and robust herds of elk follow waves of blooming flowers, green grass and leafy trees. Small spur roads take off to the east and west, reminding you of the area’s timber-cutting past. Then you hit a cattle guard with a newly minted sign: “Wyoming State Trust Land Public Hunting, Fishing and Recreation Use Allowed,” as bland and plain-spoken as any other sign in the forest. But what it means is that this canyon—replete with 30 kinds of mammals, 63 birds, eight reptiles and four amphibians—will now stay like this, well, forever. 

Before you travel farther, turn your engine off and listen. With croaking frogs, turkey gobbles and the rush of raptors flying overhead, it even sounds different than the prairie you just left. 

Then take a minute to consider where you are. A canyon is a natural division, slicing an area in half. But this canyon, this land, these mountains, are the demarcation of the West. They’re where pioneers and Native Americans crossing the great, rolling plains of the Midwest hit their first bump before smashing into the Rocky Mountains. The Black Hills themselves are called the “Islands of the Plains.” Look just a bit south from the canyon and there’s Black Elk Peak—elevation 7,424—the highest peak headed east until the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. 

The area is a collision of ecosystems, a melting pot of vegetation rarely seen alongside one another. Eastern deciduous, western coniferous and boreal forests all intermingle here. Junipers, ponderosas and thorny plums mix with bur oak, quaking aspens and paper birch.  

And at one point, this spot was all going to be houses. 

The former landowner, Mike Frey, intended to create 80 parcels strung out along the canyon floor. The surrounding areas were already being developed, and out-of-state interest in building second homes in the area was high. He could have made a small fortune. 

But then Frey watched The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a documentary by Ken Burns. The six-episode series described national parks from Acadia to Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon.   

It lit a fire within him about the value of protecting land and ensuring what was there now would remain. Sixty-acre parcels that eventually turned into 20-acre ranchettes that likely broke down to five-acre subdivisions couldn’t be the fate of a piece of property he’d owned and admired for almost 20 years. It needed to be something more. Rather, it needed to stay as it was. 

“Hopefully my grandkids and great-grandkids will be able to drive down there and know the history,” Frey said. “We’re only here a short time, and if you can make a difference for a long time, that’s pretty neat.” 

A Gilded Past

To tell the history of this land, of any land, requires a geologic and anthropologic step back in time. The aptly named Black Hills are a lump of a mountain range painted on a map with a quick brush stroke. They’re not capped with glaciers like the Wind River Range and they don’t carry the rugged, western name recognition of the Beartooths or Absarokas. They’re certainly not geologically young and sexy like the Tetons or Cascades. The Black Hills are mature—aged even—like they fell asleep and succumbed to a dark, thick mat of ponderosas, junipers and white spruce that enveloped them from tip to tail. Spurs of granite pop out in spires, towers and lumps, a reminder of what once was there.

They’ve always been a meeting place. They were a hunting ground and sacred area for the Western Sioux tribe. The Cheyenne, Kiowa, Arapaho and Crow also called the region home. 

The federal government granted the Sioux and Arapaho rights to the region through the 1868 Second Treaty of Fort Laramie. But like so many others, this treaty lasted only until gold was discovered. George A. Custer’s military expedition found the precious metal in 1874, and thousands of gold hunters followed. The Black Hills War, along with the Battle of Little Bighorn, left scars. Eventually, the U.S. government forced the Sioux to relinquish their treaty rights. 

Gold and timber would become the economic engine of the region for the next century. 

This piece of land in particular, the one named the Grand Canyon of the Black Hills on a chunk of property called Moskee, conjures images of a tamer, gentler version of that world-famous gash plunging 6,000 feet to the Colorado River in northern Arizona. This parcel was formally purchased by the Homestake Mine in the late 1800s not for its gold, but for its trees. Homestake used the timber to frame up mineshafts for an exploding gold mining industry just across the border in South Dakota. The property itself was never mined.

“The gold seam runs out by Lead, South Dakota,” Frey said. “And the coal runs out by Gillette, Wyoming.”

Then in the early 2000s, Barrick Gold, a Canadian mining company, acquired Homestake and soon after shut down the gold mines. Prices just weren’t economical anymore. And if a gold company wasn’t mining, it didn’t need timber for shafts. So Barrick decided to sell most of its properties, which included the Black Hills land called Moskee. 

The company first tried to sell it to the state of Wyoming. State officials had long coveted the land for its timber and grazing values as well as its pristine landscape and the bridge it could create between other state parcels and federal public land. 

“It has unique features not found anywhere else in the state,” said Jason Crowder, deputy director of the Wyoming Office of State Lands and Development. “From an investment standpoint, which is what our office pays particular attention to, there’s a lot of encroaching subdivisions near there. You have a subdivision in a pristine part of the world, it takes away from the natural beauty. We see that land value increasing over time. Back in the late ‘90s, they recognized that as well.”

The effort was even floated to the Wyoming Legislature, championed by local lawmakers and sportsmen. But it failed.

By 2003, the land seemed destined to be sold and chopped up like so many other parts of the West. 

Wholehearted Conservation

Mike Frey wanted to own a piece of land. 

He was born and raised in Minnesota, making his career in money management before retiring to a small timber mill and family farm. Owning land helped define a person, he believed, and provided a legacy. 

He’d traveled to the Black Hills with his kids in the mid-90s, and was enchanted by the mountains, the diversity and the geologic formations. So when nearly 30,000 acres of rich forest and grassland straddling the Wyoming and South Dakota border came up for sale, he knew he had to look. 

“I decided I was going to buy it about half an hour after being on the property,” he said.  “I’ve spent time in the mountains of Colorado and California and those places are pretty developed. What was remarkable about this was it was such a big piece of property without development. It was like a national park.”

So he said yes, wrote a check and the land was his. He wanted a ranch where he could run cows and bring his family and friends to hunt. The parcels included 25,000 acres of rolling sagebrush hills and pine and aspen stands to the south that fit that bill perfectly. But the 4,342 acres on the northern end of his property left him pondering its best use. 

The canyon was stunning. He admired it and appreciated its natural values, but the monetary value of the land caught his eye, too. That was in 2005, and he began meeting with a developer to figure out what came next.

Electricity had been strung nearby. Cold Springs Creek, the meandering sip of water flowing through his property, offered plenty of pure spring water. Plans were finalized for 80 parcels. It was a developer’s dream.

But along the way, he watched America’s Best Idea. 

“It was inspiring. I thought, ‘You know what? I’m not going to chop this up. I want to see it preserved.’”

That was six years ago. 

He started small, protecting a few hundred acres here and there. But at that rate, he wondered if it would ever be finished. 

Like many land deals, it took time and patience. 

“It was clear to me the people at the state wanted to see it happen, and RMEF wanted to see it happen, and it had a lot of community support,” he said. “I was quite encouraged by the people involved, but the process that’s in place is time consuming.”

So he waited. The land waited. And hunters, anglers and sportsmen and women waited while a village of groups including RMEF, the Nature Conservancy, Wyoming’s state forestry office, the state lands office, National Wild Turkey Federation, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and even Bass Pro Shops & Cabela’s Outdoor Fund tried to figure out a way to achieve Frey’s dream. 

Suite Success

“Our mission is to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage, and this project fits every piece of the mission,” said Leah Burgess, RMEF’s senior lands program manager for Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska. “This property does an outstanding job of fulfilling every one of those.”

For RMEF, securing those 4,350 acres for future generations just made sense. The long, thin series of parcels link together 43 miles of continuously protected landscapes, opening public access to not only the private land but more than 7,300 acres of Black Hills National Forest that had previously been inaccessible. It also enhances access to thousands more acres and dips into two elk units, both of which will benefit from increased public hunting. 

Cold Springs Creek, which feeds the famous Sand Creek, is protected by the state as a coldwater game fishery. It’s one of five springs, two reservoirs, 28 acres of riparian habitat and eight acres of wetland habitat on the property that are particularly unique in the surrounding arid West. 

It’s all of these characteristics—the rare, smooth green snake, the bald eagles that migrate through and the iconic elk herds—that made RMEF want to become involved. 

In 2015, Burgess, Frey and others from Game and Fish, the Nature Conservancy and state forestry stood near a natural stone arch overlooking that long, winding road through the canyon and discussed the future. 

Everyone wanted to see these 4,342 acres protected, but even a heavily discounted price tag of $11.5 million was still too much for any one group, or cadre of groups. That’s where the idea of applying for a federal forestry grant was born. 

State forestry offices administer the federal Forest Legacy Program, a U.S. Forest Service program that uses money specifically earmarked within the Land and Water Conservation Fund to help local agencies protect and manage healthy forests, said John Crisp, Wyoming’s senior resource forester. 

The federal program looks at a suite of land values including accessibility, connectivity to public land, public recreation and potential for timber production. The Grand Canyon had all of those. 

In spring 2018, Burgess, Frey and others working on the project got some great news: After striking out two years in a row, the land purchase would receive nearly $6 million from the Forest Legacy Program. 

Then more tiles fell into place. RMEF contributed over $80,000 in cash and appraisal fees. RMEF also secured $110,000 from Bass Pro Shops & Cabela’s Outdoor Fund, $33,000 from the Wyoming Governor’s Big Game License Coalition and $2,500 from the National Wild Turkey Federation. Then in 2019, Wyoming’s state lands board kicked in more than $4 million.

“Coming together is really how we’re going to move the needle for conservation in the 21st century,” said Bob Ziehmer, senior director of conservation and president of Bass Pro Shops & Cabela’s Outdoor Fund. “Teamwork wins.” 

Peace of Place, Peace of Mind

That is the story of the land you’re about to enter. The newly acquired parcel starts and stops at state trust or Forest Service signs, but the entire canyon, from the verdant green of Ranch A tracing up along Sand Creek and Cold Springs Creek to where the hills and valleys widen, is all part of the fragile and critical ecosystem. 

So climb back in your car from your earlier journey and keep driving. 

You can get out now at any pull-off, any retired logging road or gulch. Maybe you want to hike up the canyon wall in one of the gentler sections and view the expanse below you. Make sure you take note of the natural stone bridge presiding over the miles of winding road. 

Keep an eye out for elk, deer, mountain lions and songbirds. Watch for the dark flash of wild turkeys. If you’re there in the spring, stop to listen for a gobble. 

Then get back in your car as the road meanders farther south. You’ll see a reservoir with mallards and teal paddling around. You’ll almost certainly catch sight of turkey vultures and bald eagles. Head up another county road that takes you back to the prairie. 

But as you go, keep an eye on your rearview mirror as you leave this green oasis, and rest assured that next time you come, you’ll leave more time to hunt and fish and be in no rush. Because that land will always be there.

Christine Peterson has written about elk, wildlife and the outdoors from her home in Wyoming for the past decade. She is a frequent contributor to Bugle.