Wilderness Designation: Slim Buttes land being considered

Carrie Stadheim
The two pieces of property being considered by the U.S. Forest Service for Wilderness Designation are on the far north and far south ends of the Slim Buttes. Map courtesy USFS

Steps for land to become Wilderness

Step 1- Inventory- This step looks across the entire national forest and determines where are the areas we should start our evaluations. Step 1 is supposed to be very broad and inclusive, and typically large percentages of the forest get included in this Inventory step 1. We look at areas to exclude with roads and infrastructure, past timber harvest and some current management activities. The remaining lands are basically the footprint that we use to look closer and evaluate if there are specific areas that have wilderness character and should be evaluated further in Step 2. The remainder of the lands in the Inventory are not studied further and have no change to their management, as far as a wilderness study is concerned. For the entire Sioux Ranger District, there are two relatively small areas in the Slim Buttes that qualified to be in Step 1. On the Inventory map there is Polygon #3 on the far north end is 5,235 acres and Polygon #29 at the far south end is 8,508 acres. They qualified to be evaluated.

Step 2- Evaluation- From the starting footprint of the Inventory, we now answer basic questions about each area and see if they have the characteristics that qualify them for further consideration, or we document the conditions within the area and they are dropped from further consideration.

· Evaluate the degree to which the area generally appears to be affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprints of man’s work substantially unnoticeable (naturalness characteristic).

· Evaluate the degree to which the area has outstanding opportunities for solitude or for a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.

· Evaluate how an area less than 5,000 acres is of sufficient size as to make it practicable for the preservation and use of the area in an unimpaired condition.

· Evaluate the degree to which the area may contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historic value.

· Evaluate the degree to which the area may be managed to preserve its wilderness characteristics.

Step 3- Analysis of the information provided in the Evaluations, using our formal National Environmental Policy Act process.

Step 4 – Recommendation to Congress. When our Forest Plan is completed in late 2019, the final decision by our Forest Supervisor will include, if any, “Recommended Wilderness” to Congress. Only Congress can pass laws to actually designate an area as Wilderness. If that doesn’t occur, these areas will be managed by the Forest Service as recommended wilderness which retains the characteristics they held that qualified them for recommendation.

Two parcels of land in the Slim Buttes of western South Dakota are being considered for Wilderness Designation.

In their efforts to revise the “forest plan,” the document used by the federal government to manage the U.S. Forest Service property, staffers looked for parcels of land that qualify for certain designations.

According to Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan, the U.S. Forest Service believes that the two pieces of the eastern-most segment of the Custer Gallatin National Forest fit into the “initial criteria” for Wilderness Designation.

“Initial inventory is meant to be very broad. We exclude anything that has a road, infrastructure, past timber harvest. The remaining land is what we start with for inventory,” said the Public Affairs spokesperson on behalf of the Forest Plan Revision. Leuschen-Lonergan is from Bozeman, Montana.

Leuschen-Lonergan said the parcels should be 5,000 acres or more.

The northern parcel is 5,234 acres while the parcel at the south end of the Slim Buttes is 8,508 acres.

Because of the small size of the northern one, Leuschen-Lonergan isn’t overly confident that it will ever be proposed. “That one is extremely close to the minimum acreage. We are really looking closely at the overall landscape, to see if it’s practical to be managed as wilderness,” she said.

Dillon Lermeny’s family has ranched on the northern end of the Slim Buttes, near Reva, South Dakota, for 110 years. His children represent the sixth generation on the ranch. His family ranch’s grazing allotment includes some of the northern parcel.

While neither of the parcels have officially been proposed for Wilderness Designation, the process has begun to do just that.

Congressional action is required in order for any land to become Wilderness. However, any land that is officially proposed for Wilderness will be managed as such at least for the duration of the current forest plan. For example, the current forest plan was approved in 1986 and includes some proposed Wilderness that is managed as Wilderness.

“With the current plan we’re operating on I think all the recommended Wilderness is around the Red Lodge area. Even those that are recommended are re-evaluated. They are being re-evaluated and gone through again per our planning rule. We’re looking at all the lands to see if they qualify or don’t qualify,” said Leuschen-Lonergan of past Wilderness Designations.

One of the main challenges to Wilderness Designation is the restriction on mechanized vehicles.

“(c) Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area,” says the Wilderness Act.

According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, these are the criteria for Wilderness Designation:

(c) A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

Lermeny is concerned if the proposal is made, fire suppression will be next to impossible, and management of weeds and predators will be inefficient at best without the benefit of motorized vehicles.

He also worries the trees will overgrow and choke each other out.

“It’s a young forest,” he said. “The numbers of trees are exploding up there now. I can’t imagine what it will look like in 100 years.”

One requirement with their grazing allotment is fence management, which requires regular tree trimming and some thinning, Lermeny said, which will be challenging if the Wilderness Designation is implemented.

“They (Ponderosa Pine) grow in spots just inches away from each other,” Lermeny said, explaining that when his grandpa was young, the trees were far more sparse because fighting fire was next to impossible in those times.

With modern fire suppression tactics, and no sawmills close enough to justify logging, the trees become overgrown and are not healthy without some thinning.

Lermeny also fears grazing reductions that often come with Wilderness Designations.

“Right now they say it’s not going to affect us, they like to downplay it. They say we’ll still be able to graze cattle, but I know what’s happened in certain spots. They’ll still hold our lease but they’ll cut the number back every year. There are Wilderness areas where the grazing units are still technically open but they don’t allow cattle in them.”

The northern parcel is not easily accessible, Lermeny points out.

“It’s such a small area, it really doesn’t fit like some areas that are in the middle of a national forest. It’s very inaccessible.” Lermeny said that the only roads to the parcel, or within viewing distance of it, are on private land. The only way to get to the parcel, aside from these roads, is to hike at least a couple of miles, he said.

Lermeny’s brother lives within a half mile of the edge of the parcel.

Dan Hotchkiss’s family ranch is situated on the southern end of the Buttes and he has grazing allotments on the larger parcel.

The part that includes his grazing allotment is not forested. “It’s got one uranium mine, one washed out dam, and it’s got a road that pretty much bisects it.”

Hotchkiss said he doesn’t understand why the land is even under consideration for the designation. “That particular chunk of ground doesn’t seem like Wilderness to me,” he said.

Springs are a useful source of water for Hotchkiss’s cattle as well as livestock in the area. With a Wilderness designation, he would not be able to keep the springs up. “You don’t do that with a shovel,” he said.

He also explained that the road through that parcel is crucial for fire suppression in the area and he worries that the designation could prevent upkeep of the road.

The Lermeny family has appreciated working with their local USFS office over the years, and said between the ranchers and the staff, the land is currently in good shape.

“They are good to work with. If there is a drought, we go in late and come out early. It’s our livelihood, we want to maintain it as well as we can.”

“The chance to review and provide feedback can happen at any point by sending us an email to: and the ‘Proposed Action’ will be released this winter, providing an outlet for formal comment,” Leuschen-Lonergan said.