Open space is at the mercy of development and tax policy in the Black Hills

March 28, 2023 4:57 pm
Forested land in the Black Hills. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)

Forested land in the Black Hills. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)

We’re all lucky to live in the Black Hills for its outdoor beauty. Those who enjoy driving through the Hills may not realize that in many cases the idyllic meadows, timber stands, and meandering streams on either side of the road are private land, very often designated as agricultural.

Tree farms, or family owned and managed forests, comprise more than 20,000 acres in the Black Hills. This open space provides immense value to society. 

Tree farms protect wildlife, by providing vital habitat. They protect water and fisheries by providing filtration for our fragile aquifers that supply water to our homes. They improve recreation like hunting, fishing, off roading, and hiking. They are vital for our timber economy.

In some years, 25% of the timber milled in the Hills comes from private land. Maybe most importantly, tree farms provide fire protection. A wildfire in a well managed 300-acre timber stand is much easier to stop than one burning though 900 homes in a similar wildland-urban space. 

But the sad truth is the open space we all enjoy in the Black Hills is not a given for future generations. Of course, public lands are vital and should be cherished, but private land makes up a large portion of sensitive and critical habitat in our part of the country. As population booms here, pressure to develop these open spaces in and around the Hills will continue.

To save the Black Hills from overdevelopment, we should be making it easier to achieve ag land tax status, not harder.

The urban sprawl along the front range of the Rockies and associated gentrification and parcelization should be a warning for us here in the Hills. In many cases, ag producers can no longer afford to stay on the land as outsiders gobble up properties for development.

In some towns in Colorado, there are few workers left, as only the ultra-wealthy can afford to live in these gorgeous areas. Our beloved communities in the Hills may soon share the same fate without protection for local landowners and agricultural property. 

We prize landowner rights in our state, and someone should always be able to develop if they choose, but landowners should not be forced to develop or sell out because the tax system leaves them no other choice; unfortunately, that’s happening too often today.   

The 2021 state legislative session saw bills to strip many tree farmers of their ag tax status, which would have been catastrophic for the open spaces in the Black Hills, had it passed in full. This issue of expanding land values will only continue to put pressure on ag producers in coming years. To save the Black Hills from overdevelopment, we should be making it easier to achieve ag land tax status, not harder.

I was lucky to grow up in the Black Hills. I’m lucky to have spent much of my life here.  I’m amazed at how many areas in the Hills I hiked through, or haunted through, or fished through as a kid have since been turned into housing developments. Regardless of politics, I think we all want future generations to be able to enjoy the same quality of life we’ve been fortunate to have. 

I hope we can build broad coalitions of individuals and groups in the Black Hills to advocate for protection of landowner rights, agriculture, and preservation of open spaces for many years to come.  




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Charles Michael Ray
Charles Michael Ray

Charles Michael Ray is a tree farmer in the Black Hills and board chair of the South Dakota Family Forests Association, an organization advocating for family foresters across the state.