Bill seeking state help in Custer State Park killed

By: 
Jason Ferguson

A proposed bill that would have granted conservation officers in Custer State Park more authority, put more officers in the park and required an officer be available 24-7 in the park from May 15 through Sept. 30 was killed in committee during this year’s legislative session.
Senate Bill 122, primarily sponsored by District 30 Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, would have “ensure(d) the availability of law enforcement and emergency services in certain state parks and to declare an emergency.”
The bill was voted down Feb. 1 by the Senate Judiciary Committee in a 4-2 vote, and was then referred to the 41st day by a unanimous 6-0 vote, killing the bill.
Frye-Mueller testified in favor of the bill, telling the committee a similar bill was brought forward last year, and that there is need for additional conservation officers in Custer State Park, particularly in the summertime.
“This is a huge, huge issue that has been going on for a few years now,” Frye-Mueller said. “This last year Game, Fish & Parks (GFP) said it would work it out if we pull the bill to come to some kind of compromise or work together (to solve the problem). That did not happen.”
Custer County Sheriff Marty Mechaley also testified in favor of the bill, saying Custer state Park is too large for any one agency to handle, and that his office works with GFP conservation officers to police the park.
“I hope we can build upon that,” he said.
Mechaley has stated at Custer County Commission meetings he doesn’t seek more money from the state for services his office renders, but rather, he wants the state to take the lead on policing the park, with the Custer County Sheriff’s Office supplementing that effort.
Mechaley told the committee members if they were in the park and had a car/deer accident, while a park conservation officer can respond to the call and gather insurance and registration information, they cannot, due to state statute, write an accident report. The conservation officer must contact a sheriff’s deputy or Highway Patrol Trooper to respond to the accident to write the report.
“In the summer months it might take us an hour to get there, or we might not even be able to get there due to call loads,” Mechaley said.
Mechaley said the conservation officers go through the state’s law enforcement training in Pierre the same as his deputies do, and they are capable of writing an accident report if allowed to do so.
“I’ve always thought if it’s state statute, why don’t we change it?” Mechaley asked. “That’s proven to be easier to talk about than do.”
Mechaley brought up the expense Custer County incurs for law enforcement to the park, as well as for the fire protection, dispatch and search and rescue service provided to the park. The county also has four roads it maintains that serve as entrances and exits into the park.
The state allocates $8,700 for each of the first four entities annually, and also partners with the county highway department to help provide funds for the roads that enter and exit the park, although that money fluctuates and has been described in the past by county highway superintendent Jess Doyle as inadequate.
The Custer County Commission has said in the past the money the park gives for the emergency services doesn’t scratch the surface of the money and man hours spent in the park providing those services, which costs Custer County taxpayers.
“We are just asking for some help and to give them more authority, so they can help out and assist as well,” Mechaley said.
Mechaley said the Custer County Sheriff’s Office responded to 250 calls in the park in 2023, and that at the end of the year, he had $289 left in his budget, which is dwarfed by the state’s GFP budget.
“We all need to come to the table and try to work things out and give a little more authority to these professional officers so they can do some of these simple tasks so we aren’t doing everything over and over again,” he said.
Scott Simpson, deputy secretary for GFP, spoke in opposition to the bill, saying it is unnecessary and causes confusion for law enforcement agencies it intends to help, while thrusting responsibilities on conservation offices that are a “significant departure” from the specialized roles they ordinarily perform. Simpson said conservation officers deal with game laws, boating laws and other recreational pursuits, not accident investigation.
Simpson said the law could muddy the waters as to who conducts investigations on other government land, and does not provide authority for a conservation officer to write a ticket for any violation identified in an investigation.
Simpson also said the bill also does not provide GFP with any additional full-time employees, which is a necessary piece when seeking additional hiring.
“Are we sure we want to start legislating operational decisions?” Simpson asked.
Simpson said the state already hires additional conservation officers seasonally, as well as for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and Buffalo Roundup.
Simpson called SB 122 an “attempted solution looking for a problem” that would have negative impacts on the citizens the state serves.
According to Simpson, the state provides around $100,000 to Custer County annually between the money paid for emergency services and road maintenance. He added GFP has met some of the requests of the county already, including requiring the park’s concessionaire do more thorough background checks on its seasonal employees, having conservation officers collect pertinent info to pass along to sheriff’s deputies when they arrive on the scene of an accident, and to provide additional assistance during late evenings and overnight.
“We have made progress,” he said. “We know there is more to do.”
Simpson said GFP secretary Kevin Robling and director of parks and recreation Jeff VanMeeteren met with District 30 Reps. Trish Ladner and Dennis Krull to discuss the Custer County Commission’s concerns, and have pledged to have ongoing discussions regarding the matter.
“It’s a funding issue, and I don’t know the solution to the funding issue is going to be identified through the (GFP) budget,” he said. “There is more conversation to come and we have committed to making that happen.”
Frye-Mueller was skeptical a solution would be found, saying the bill wouldn’t have been introduced if there were no problem.
“Game, Fish & Parks has billions of dollars. Why is it a  big deal to help out from May 15 to Sept. 30?” she asked. “The county doesn’t get property taxes from that park. They are providing a valuable service for Game, Fish & Parks. The park is responsible for the things that happen to people in the park.”
Earlier in his testimony Simpson had said there is no statute that requires GFP to provide law enforcement in state parks.
Mechaley said the state could keep its money if it likes and just provide more services. He also said the purpose of his testimony was not to bash Custer State Park or its conservation officers.
“They are very good people,” he said. “We need more help. I appreciate the park and everything they do for us. They receive the same training and if they need more training we would help them with that. It’s not that complicated. They are doing most of the work already.”
Mechaley said he even offered to deputize the conservation officers.
“I don’t know why there is pushback to give them more authority,” he said. “I don’t have the answer for you.”

 

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