Agribusiness continues to stand in the way of robustly diversified economic development in South Dakota.
Visionaries are working to create a 75-mile rail to trail from Tabor to Platte. The trail would serve as a main northern line in a regional network of rural roads weaving weaving through the Yankton Sioux Reservation and Missouri River valley country (check out the Greenwood Loop!). The network would include existing trails around Gavins Point and connect to a proposed trail running through the Santee Sioux Reservation in Nebraska from Yankton to Niobrara:
The promoters of this trail see a natural and historical fit for their trail as well as an opportunity for economic diversification in an area that could use some economix stimulus:
Linked by the Missouri River, Boyd and Knox counties in Nebraska and Bon Homme, Charles Mix and Gregory counties in South Dakota share geography and history. Exchange between native tribes, the fur trade, and riverboat traffic facilitated commercial interchange and cultural interaction. Both states maintain significant investment in recreation areas that offer residents and tourists quality outdoor experiences. The Standing Bear Bridge testifies how cooperative efforts between Nebraska and South Dakota can yield mutually beneficial results. Common ground exists for collaboration.
‘Friends of the Tabor to Platte Rail to Trail’ intends to establish a core trail on ‘railbanked’ sections of the NAPA-Platte rail line. Recommended roadway routes will link this core trail to nearby communities, to South Dakota State Park areas at Lewis and Clark Lake and Lake Francis Case, to the Missouri National Recreational River 39-segment between Fort Randall Dam and Running Water, and via the Standing Bear Bridge to Niobrara State Park including a loop through Knox, Boyd and Gregory counties to historic Fort Randall. This trail adds another recreation option to underserved parts of both states and helps diversify local economies. Our idea is scalable and implies a multi-year development horizon [Friends of the Tabor-to-Platte Rail to Trail, “Latest Trail ‘Concept’ Map,” 2021.09.01].
But narrow-minded former legislator, not Bon Homme County Commissioner Ed Van Gerpen can’t imagine how one could build this trail, what with trees in the way:
Ed Van Gerpen, a former legislator from Avon and now an elected member of the Bon Homme County Commission, spoke against the project Wednesday. He said parts of the route are overgrown by trees that would make getting equipment in “impossible” [Bob Mercer, “Rail-to-Trail Fight Splits Southeast S.D. Residents,” KELO-TV, updated 2021.10.21].
Hey, Ed! Have you seen your farmer friends tearing out shelterbelts to plant corn and beans? If trees don’t stop radical ag-industrial expansion, why should they stop development of outdoor recreation?
And you know, Ed, unlike your scorched-earth farmer friends who don’t leave as much as a sapling standing when they scrape the land bare for their cash crops, trail builders probably won’t need to clear out all of the trees; keeping some trees along the trail will actually improve their appeal.
But no, no, no, King Corn and Boss Beef should get veto power over such strolling and rolling foolishness:
Van Gerpen suggested that trail supporters get easements along the route from landowners who farm and raise livestock. “Otherwise this project will never go forward, at least in my area,” he said [Mercer, 2021.10.21].
And oh my goodness, what if someone gets hurt on the trail?
The state board received letters of opposition, too. Approximately five miles of the trail would use township and county roads.
The liability that a local government could face worried David Scott of Geddes. “As a township officer, it scares the hell out of me what might happen,” Scott said [Mercer, 2021.10.21].
Farmers and ranchers run semis and tractors and giant machines on those same township and county roads (I passed some just this week while driving through that blessed country)—what might happen when those giant vehicles disrupt traffic? How does the liability that could arise from such multi-ton metal monsters not scare the hell out of you while a few skinny people on 30-pound aluminum triangles do?
Maybe what scares township officer Scott and the writers of the opposition letters linked by Mercer is that recreation brings outsiders to town and country, people who don’t look like the factory farmers and ranchers who think their business gives them an exclusive claim to the land and its uses. (Especially hilarious: Michael and Kristi Miller, who wail, “Who will be on this trail at all hours of the day? We have a machine shed that sits 56 feet from the railroad right of way.” Um, Michael? Kristi? Folks on bicycles are neither interested in nor capable of stuffing your combine in their panniers and carting them off to their campsite or their apartment back in the Cities.) The shrinking agribusiness minority builds this mythos that says they have special rights to clog the roads with their machinery, raise dust storms, and stink up the land (“the smell of money”, we euphemize, as if one industry’s profits justify the decline in quality of life).
But as farmers leave the land, their descendants consolidated and automated out of opportunity, recreation can bring people back, not just to blast a few tame birds for a couple darkening fall months but throughout the bright and sunny spring and summer, with bicycles and backpacks that won’t harm anybody. They won’t be wearing the bibbers and seed caps that you think are the only true mark of machismo and belonging, but they’ll do good for your community.
And for those complaining about possible maintenance costs, well, whatever we taxpayers spend to build and maintain this trail will likely be only a fraction of what we spend subsidizing you farmers when your industry year after year fails to prove sufficiently profitable on its own. Consider the Platte–Tabor trail as a way to thank the rest of the country for your farm subsidies.
An economy entirely dependent on agriculture is sickly economy that will totter from drought to hail to early freeze to China tariffs with little to keep it alive but farm welfare checks. An economy that builds on a diversified portfolio of sustainable agriculture, tourism, and other industries can better stand on its own two feet and grow to meet the needs of the 21st century.