Spearfish is renewing its push to annex the Upper and Lower Valley, the populous yet tranquil and quasi-agricultural neighborhood on the north side of town between Black Hills State University and Exits 8 and 10 of Interstate 29 (see map here). Valley residents signaled their widespread opposition to annexation last fall with a petition drive. They also delayed annexation by catching the city in a legal error (the city did not include all of the land it sought to annex in its annexation study).

Valley residents have various reasons for opposing annexation: the threat to vital agricultural land serving Spearfish's thriving local foods market, increased traffic as the city would turn some cul-de-sacs into through streets, political grudges over past power grabs, and (likely the primary reason for most folks) increased taxes.

Lawrence County documents estimate the assessed value of Upper and Lower Valley to be more than $76 million, generating nearly $232,500 in property taxes. An average home in the study area is valued at $160,000. Taking into account the current mill levy of 3.019 per $1,000, property owners pay just under $770 in taxes each year. If annexed, Upper and Lower Valley residents would pay $475 in [city] taxes each year [Heather Murschel, "Annexation Solution to Steady Growth," Black Hills Pioneer, 2013.06.20].

A 61% jump in one's property tax bill is nothing to sneeze at. But let's put the levy in perspective by comparing Lawrence County taxes with Lake County taxes. My Lake Herman property is valued at under $140K, below the Spearfish Valley average value. I pay $1,780 in property taxes to the sheriff, the county plow, and the school district to maintain civilization.

My brother lives within Madison city limits. He owns a house valued I think around $90K. (You can't get a house for that price in Spearfish.) With Madison city taxes on top of the county and school district levy, he pays $1,770 in property taxes.

Monkey with the proportions there, and I figure that if Madison annexed Lake Herman, my property tax bill would increase to about $2,750. That's only a 55% increase... but if my figures are right, the city of Madison would charge me about $970 for the privilege of voting in their elections and pooping in their pot, more than double the city tax that Spearfish Valley residents with more expensive houses will pay to Spearfish if annexed.

I'm not saying Valley residents should roll over and accept annexation and higher taxes. I'm just noting that things could be worse: Lawrence County and Spearfish could start taxing residents at Lake County and Madison rates.

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Let's compare the price of engaging in certain activities across South Dakota.

The Madison City Commission last night approved a quintupling of licensing fees. Plumbers, sidewalk builders, and electricians must now pay the City of Madison $100 to engage in their vital and noble professions. Reporter Sue Bergheim says those license fees had been $20 since the 1960s.

The Lawrence County Commission is considering employing a building inspector. Apparently there has been a rash of people's decks falling off. The county will pay for the new position by charging contractors a $75 licensing fee.

Plumbers, sidewalk builders, electricians, and homebuilders do a lot of important work. We justify erecting this fiscal barrier to their doing this work with concerns that they might do that work incorrectly.

Persons carrying concealed weapons contend they promote social welfare. Persons with guns in the britches can also make serious mischief. We charge those folks $10 every four years for the privilege of sneaking a gun around. Wear that gun on your hip, and the state won't charge you a thing or require a license.

Priorities, anyone?

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Last February, the state authorized Lawrence County to spend its $1.8-million mine severance tax fund on its battle against the mountain pine beetle. The county was already on the verge of using up the half million in private donations and county funds appropriated to thinning the forest. Lawrence County has now used nearly $650,000 from that severance tax fund and this week authorized moving $120,000 from next year's budget to this year's to continue the pine beetle effort. The pine beetle fight is supposed to continue for another five years.

Lawrence County Commissioners have thus burned up the interest from that fund. They don't want to use the principal, but with Governor Dennis Daugaard now backing away from offering additional pine beetle assistance to the county, they may have no choice.

The state's already in for $8 million to fight the pine beetle on state land and offer private landowners help. The delayed Farm Bill would spend another $200 million a year for five years to fight the pine beetle throughout the West.

Hmm... could Governor Daugaard be coming to the conclusion that we won't get a return on investment for any more state funds to chop down millions of trees? Perhaps Governor Daugaard is leaning toward the conclusion of the Defenders of the Black Hills, who say our response to the pine beetle has risen from hysteria, not facts about wildfire danger. We can bulldoze a bunch of new forest roads and clear loads of brush, but will anything short of a reversion of the climate back to really cold winters stop the beetles?

Don't forget: underneath all those trees are a lot of little green saplings. The forest can fix itself; it just won't do it on our time.

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Charmaine White Face inspired my latest online column in South Dakota Magazine. Her public testimony to the Lawrence County Commission against the Deadwood Standard Project got me thinking about the intersecting lessons of our efforts to dig for more gold in Spearfish Canyon and Native American efforts to outbid developers for Pe' Sla, the sacred grassland just north of Deerfield Lake:

In Deadwood, a Native woman says we whites cannot own, let alone mine, the Black Hills. Just down the road, Lakota people believe that, to protect the holy land, they must buy that which is not for sale from those who do not own it [CAH, "Black Hills, Mining, Land, and the Lakota," SouthDakotaMagazine.com, August 22, 2012].

I invite you to check out my full column at South Dakota Magazine... and say hi to Bernie while you're there!

* * *
I would like to discuss Charmaine White Face's testimony in more detail here. She said that she had heard nothing so far about the impact of the Ragged Top mine on Native Americans. Indeed, no one else at Tuesday's meeting mentioned how white men digging for gold anywhere in the sacred Black Hills offend the Great Sioux Nation. The DSP attorney said at the hearing that the conflict boiled down to the company and the community seeking economic opportunity versus a couple hundred Spearfish Canyon landowners, with no acknowledgment of legitimate concerns of anyone else—Native Americans, environmentalists, tourists—not holding a white man's title to the neighboring land. On DSP's website, the history of Ragged Top begins with white gold mining in 1896.

DSP's conditional use application to Lawrence County also makes scant mention of the folks from whom we stole the Hills. DSP's cultural and archaeological assessment sites one study from 1983 that focuses almost entirely on remnants of recent Euro-American activity. That study mentions one pre-historic jasper flake. It says nothing specific about the Sioux, the Arikara, or any other pre-Euro-invasion inhabitants. The socioeconomic study by Michael K. Madden takes a similar Eurocentric view: Native responses to further desecration of the Paha Sapa are absent from discussion of social impacts. As far as Deadwood Standard Project is concerned in its permit application, Indians are irrelevant to the Black Hills.

Ignoring Native Americans isn't unique to Deadwood Standard Project. It's how most of us occupiers of the Black Hills get through the day. It's how we sell most of our tourist attractions (I have a book review on that topic coming soon—you're still on my desktop, SDSHS Press!). It's how we avoid addressing the moral challenge of the original sin (think about that term) of our state and our nation.

And it's why a full meeting room was uncomfortably quiet when Charmaine White Face, Oglala Lakota of the Great Sioux Nation, questioned the right of Deadwood Standard Project and every other white person in the room to take anything (except themselves) from the Black Hills.

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Here is the most impressive part of the Lawrence County Commission's decision yesterday to delay its approval of the Deadwood Standard Project:

The Lawrence County Commission is made up of five Republicans. Wealthy businessmen, including tourism icon and DSP partner Ted Hustead, told these commissioners that building this gold mine just over the rim of Spearfish Canyon is a matter of jobs, high wages, and economic development over the "ludicrous" (Hustead's word) objections of a very small minority of Spearfish Canyon homeowners. Proponents spoke from a position of strength, advocating an industry with a deep and cherished history in Lawrence County.

And those five Republicans said... not yet. Commissioner Daryl Johnson validated the environmentalists' Precautionary Principle, saying that if he had to make a final decision right now, he'd vote not to allow the mine, because the Deadwood Standard Project has not met its burden to prove the mine will not harm Spearfish Canyon. When the company reps pushed for a decision timeline so they could assure their investors, the commissioners dug in, saying they would decide when they felt they had enough information, not according to some arbitrary or rushed timeline.

The Lawrence County Commission made two formal decisions yesterday. First, it officially waived, per DSP's request, its own statutory requirement to act on any conditional use permit application within 45 days. Then it officially said that it would not make a final decision on the application until the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has studied the project and issued its report and recommendation... which DENR's Mike Cepak told the commissioners would likely take fourteen months.

Lawrence County Commissioners made a really hard choice between immediate economic gain and environmental protection... or maybe they didn't. At the beginning of the meeting, the commission indicated that, since last July's meeting on the mine, they had received 19 letters in support of the Spearfish Canyon mine and 243 against.

So maybe, technically, yesterday's vote wasn't really a great blow for environmentalism over the GOP economy-über-alles mindset. Maybe it was just five elected officials doing what the people want.

That's still a victory. Nice work, fellas.

Update 09:05 MDT: Here's Derek Olson's KELO report. Watch for the handsome blogger in the green shirt! ;-)

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I'm at Deadwood City Hall, covering the Lawrence County Commission hearing on the Deadwood Standard Project proposal to mine for gold in Spearfish Canyon. I've been Tweeting public comment from proponents and opponents... Only to have Twitter go bonkers on me as we get to DSP's rebuttal time. Grrr, technology!

The mining company spent an hour this morning presenting data on its procedures and on environmental concerns. In a nutshell, the company says the mining waste won't get out, the noise won't be noticeable, and this mine won't make the mistakes of other companies. Local proponents say the Deadwood Standard Project will generate big economic benefits, with high wages, job opportunities for folks who've had to move away to make a living, and big local spending. Among the big business supporters is GCC Dacotah, which expects to sell truckloads of cement to the gold mine.

Spearfish Canyon homeowners following Lawrence County Commission's decision to postpone action on Deadwood Standard Project, Deadwood, South Dakota, August 21, 2012

These Spearfish Canyon homeowners oppose the Deadwood Standard Project's proposed gold mine in the canyon. The Lawrence County Commission decided this afternoon to postpone action on DSP's conditional use permit application until the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has studied the proposed mine and issued its recommendations. Pictured left to right outside Deadwood City Hall after the meeting: Beverly Shaw, Gene Shaw, Michael Goodroad, Roberta Noel, and Bob Noel.

Opponents have spoken passionately about the inevitability of accidents and the irreparability of lost water, wildlife, and beauty in the Canyon. Charmaine White Face of Defenders of the Black Hills noted the absence of any discussion of protection for sacred Lakota sites throughout the Canyon, many of which are kept secret to prevent exploitation. Rebecca Leas from Rapid City said she's seen in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere that mining and tourism don't go together. And the local Audubon chief Nancy Hilding said the commission should reject the application based on missing documents (and does yeoman debater work citing page numbers!).

The DSP attorney just finished reiterating his recognition that the commission likely will not grant approval today and his concomitant request that the commission today either delay or grant a conditional approval pending state approval. Stay tuned: commission discussion and decision coming up!

Update: Note that this meeting was scheduled to run from 10:30 to 12:00. Proponent testimony alone ran past noon. Commision chair Bob Ewing now officially closes public testimony at 14:00. The Commission recesses to let the stenographer stretch her fingers.

--14:45 MDT: USGS expert now talking about hydrology of Spearfish Canyon: heavy science! Now's the time when you want really smart county commissioners.

Mike Cepak from DENR is now taking questions about the environmental condition of the Ragged Top area. He says we're not seeing major issues from the area now aside from sedimentation. Cepak says DSP has at least one year of baseline data it still has to get to get state approval; even if Lawrence County approves DSP today, no state approval for mining could happen until October 2013 at the earliest.

--Commissioners finally are discussing the issue. Much of the discussion is about unanswered questions and the need for more information from DSP amd state experts.

--And the official motion is to accept the applicant's waiver of the 45-day limit to act on the Conditional Use Permit. Motion passes.

DSP wants a hard date due for further commission action, like November, but commissioners are balking....

Now moved to postpone decision until DENR provides report and recommendation: passes 4-1, no from Flanagan. Practically, this means the county does not act on this permit for another year.

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Last month, the Lawrence County Commission delayed action on a conditional use permit for Valentine Mining's Deadwood Standard Project, a gold mine proposed for just over the east rim of scenic Spearfish Canyon.

That month is up: tomorrow's (Tuesday, August 21) commission agenda includes continuation of the public hearing on the Deadwood Standard Project and board discussion and action from 10:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. That portion of the meeting moves down Sherman Street from the Lawrence County Administrative Annex to Deadwood City Hall, likely in anticipation of a crowd.

The local press has been crowded with letters and advertisements urging the commissioners to vote one way or another. One missive that grabbed my attention comes from Jerry Boyer, a local author, photographer, and conservationist. The Spearfish Canyon Society, of which Boyer is a board member, supports the mining project for numerous reasons, including Valentine Mining's promise to give the 408-acre mining site to the public after the ten-year mining project ends. In a column published in last Tuesday's Black Hills Pioneer, Boyer argues that the Spearfish Canyon Owner's Association, which opposes the mine, are arrogantly blocking one form of exploitation of the Canyon just to protect their own exploitation of the canyon:

Is not this view the height of human arrogance? Is the view of hundreds of million dollar cottages scattered throughout the world-class natural landscape any less intrusive than a mining project out of sight? Is the potential for water degradation by fecal matter any less threatening than mining contaminants? Is the noise of lawn mowers, barking dogs, and chain saws in the canyon any less disruptive to the natural tranquility than backup beepers? Is the smoke from stacks of cozy fireplaces and auto emissions saturating the pristine canyon air any less offending than the dust of machinery? Is the wildlife any less stressed by residence of man and his beast than mineral extraction?

Mining impacts on the natural landscape have a short life of 10 years while homeowner impacts continue in perpetuity ... forever. The mining project will spend millions on government imposed conditions to prevent intrusions on the natural landscape while homeowners pay nothing for theirs. Mining impacts will be reclaimed to a natural environment better than it was found, and the land likely gifted to the public as a canyon legacy [Jerry Boyer, "Human Arrogance," Black Hills Pioneer, August 14, 2012].

I've exploited the Canyon frequently myself, sullying the air with my car exhaust and bike exhaust, tromping on the ground for my personal fitness and amusement. Our Lakota neighbors could argue that my ecologically light footprinting around the Hills intrudes as blasphemously and imperialistically as jackhammers and dump trucks wresting gold from the sacred earth.

I'm hoping to attend the county commission hearing tomorrow to hear other views on the exploitation of our natural treasure. But as I get ready for the meeting, I'd like to hear readers' thoughts. Is more gold mining no worse an exploitation of the Canyon and the Black Hills than our relentless colonization of the Paha Sapa by vacation house, restaurant, trail, and four-wheeler?

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Let's hear it for not rushing: despite a unanimous do-dig recommendation from its planning and zoning committee earlier this month, the Lawrence County Commission yesterday said it needs another month to think about permitting Valentine Mining to dig up Spearfish Canyon for a little more gold. The mayors of Lead and Deadwood say dig and bring the mining jobs... which, at an average salary of $52,000 a year, make me wonder if I should give up teaching French and bring my pickaxe when we head back to Spearfish next month.

Mark Nelson, a partner in Valentine's Deadwood Standard Project, told the commission that South Dakota has good environmental regulations in place to protect the water and land in Spearfish Canyon. Local opponents take little comfort in that assurance:

"South Dakota laws gave us Brohm. They gave us Wharf. They gave us every single one of these mines that leak," said Gary Heckenlaible, community organizer for ACTion For the Environment. "This is the crown jewel of the Black Hills. Tourists come up here ... We're going to sacrifice all that to mine some more gold?" [Aaron Orlowski, "Lawrence County Delays Decision on Gold Mine Permit," Rapid City Journal, 2012.07.24]

The commissioners are still taking public comment on the proposed mine, so whether you're concerned about dust, dippers, or dollars, contact your Lawrence County commissioners and tell them how to manage the precious resources of Spearfish Canyon.

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