Testimony of Dan O’Brien
South Dakota rancher
Hermosa, South Dakota
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests
Regarding S. 3310
The Tony Dean Cheyenne River Valley Conservation Act of 2010
June 16, 2010 – Washington, DC
Mr. Chairman, it’s an honor to speak to the committee today in support of S. 3310. My name is Dan O’Brien and I live on and operate a ranch adjacent to the Indian Creek area. My wife and I run both cattle and buffalo and hold the largest grazing permit in the Indiana Creek area. My livelihood is dependent upon the grasslands that surround my home, so I have a huge stake in this legislation.
I bought my first cattle in 1974. I have long been a member of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association and am an avid hunter. I have lived on the Great Plains all of my adult life. I have weathered the winters and the droughts. I have experienced the violent swings in cattle prices and the stresses of severe credit crunches. While I am a proud member of the community that will be most directly affected by wilderness, I have always had an interest in western South Dakota as it relates – historically, socially, economically, and environmentally – to the rest of the nation and, indeed, to the larger world.
In addition to ranching, I have worked as a biologist, a teacher, and a writer. My area of consuming interest is the northern Great Plains and I have researched and written a dozen books on the subject. In addition to my point of view of an in-the-trenches rancher, I bring a unique perspective to the question of Great Plains wilderness. It is my considered opinion that no American grassland better fits the spirit of the Wilderness Act than Indian Creek
Visitors to Indian Creek are uniformly awestruck by the beauty and the silence. From many of the high spots you can see Mount Rushmore. It is too far away to see the faces but I can feel Teddy Roosevelt staring down at me. I know that good Republican president, war hero, and self proclaimed “Dakota Man” would approve of this bill. He was one of the first men of power to recognize that “increasing population, accompanied by expansion of settlement and growing mechanization” were grave threats to the silence and solitude that helps keep us all sane.
It is unfortunate that the debate over managing public lands has become so divisive that testifying is uncomfortable. Though the majority of South Dakotans are in favor of the Indian Creek Wilderness, some are adamant in their opposition. Acrimonious disagreements between neighbors are particularly unproductive. They can be intimidating in a close- knit community and they tend to tamp down valuable debate. The fact is that nearly all South Dakotas share the desire to keep our land wild, healthy, free, quiet, and grazed. The rub comes in management of our lands.
I am a believer in American and in the democratic government we are participating in today. The Forest Service is part of that government and I believe that, considering the present low profile of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, they do a good job. Is it perfect? Of course not. Would I like to see it done better? Absolutely. I appreciate the language that Senator Johnson has inserted into S. 3310 concerning the management of invasive species, fire, prairie dogs, as well as other issues important to ranchers.
I believe management problems do not stem from a lack of Forest Service expertise or from complacent staff, but from a low position on the Forest Service’s list of priorities. Community support and involvement would go much farther toward solving management problems than flat-out opposition. Elevating the visibility of Indian Creek is the best bet for improving its management.
I am a proponent of wilderness designation for four simple reasons: First, I find nothing in the Wilderness Act that would change my ranch’s operation. Grazing shall clearly continue under the Wilderness Act and the congressional grazing guidelines. Second, I believe that without this additional layer of protection the Indian Creek Area will eventually fall prey to the abuse and destruction of ever expanding off-road traffic. Third, a prairie wilderness experience is a rare privilege that all citizens should be able to access. Finally, as a rancher and a businessman, I believe that wilderness adds value to South Dakota’s economy through expanded opportunities for tourism, unique hunting experiences, and new forms of income generation for a way of life that has always needed to adapt to prosper.
Thanks for allowing me to testify. I’d be glad to answer any questions that I can.