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Excerpts from recent South Dakota editorials

May 17, 2018

Rapid City Journal, Rapid City, May 17

Policies need to be reviewed in wake of wildfire

Critical questions have been raised since the Legion Lake Fire torched 54,000 acres — or 84 square miles — in the southern Black Hills.

Was a Black Hills Energy power line too close to the Ponderosa Pine that crashed on it as winds blew at 50 mph? Are too many large slash piles left behind by loggers that sit for too long awaiting destruction? Should firefighting operations have been better staffed last winter considering the prime fire conditions that existed?

The biggest question, however, might have to do with the tactics used when punishing winds stoked a wildfire that would become the third largest recorded in the Black Hills.

The fire started around 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 11 in Custer State Park when the 70-foot pine fell on the power line and sparks were carried away by winds that would blow for days. After the fire reached 2,500 acres, the Rocky Mountain Blue Team saw an opportunity in the early stages of a brewing firestorm.

It decided to implement what amounted to a prescribed burn, which typically requires extensive planning with a keen eye on the weather. The plan called for creating containment lines and to let the fire burn 16,000 acres of rugged country.

It was undoubtedly seen as a way to make the best of a challenging situation.

But the wind and dry conditions continued to fuel the wildfire and by day three it was at 45,000 acres and threatened livestock, pastures and personal property. Evacuations were ordered for the small towns of Fairburn and Buffalo Gap. Ranchers had to leave their land. The fire was not fully contained until Dec. 19 and would claim livestock, fences and outbuildings.

While it is impossible to say if a more aggressive approach would have kept the fire in Custer State Park given the conditions, it is clear firefighters took a big risk with their decision.

It takes months of planning to prepare for a prescribed burn. Area fire departments, landowners and media are typically notified, and the weather is monitored with wind being a prime concern.

In the case of an ongoing wildfire, however, it was impossible to meet those sensible requirements yet the decision was made to proceed even though it was too windy to use air tankers on the first two days of the fire.

In the end, firefighters did a great job in difficult conditions as no homes were destroyed or lives lost. The question remains, however, if the decision to let the fire burn was the right one.

The Forest Service and firefighters need to consider changing their policies on Black Hills wildfires. The area is growing in population and that needs to be given as much weight as the health of the forest when it is already burning.

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Madison Daily Leader, Madison, May 14

Should South Dakota get into sports betting?

We wrote last December about the state of New Jersey challenging a federal law that bars most states from authorizing sports gambling (Nevada is a notable exception), and the Supreme Court agreed to hear it.

The court did, and today issued its ruling: The federal law has been struck down, effectively legalizing sports gambling throughout the country.

New Jersey, of course, will start taking bets as quickly as it can, and other states are eager to follow. Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf said gambling revenue will be good for his state’s budget. The legislature had tentatively made sports betting legal, awaiting the Supreme Court ruling.

Those who are happy with the ruling include casino operators, state government officials, some professional team owners and others who see dollar bills coming to them. Discouraged are the NCAA, other team owners, some players’ associations, counseling services for addicted gamblers and others.

Consider us on the side of those discouraged by the ruling.

Most of the laws prohibiting gambling on sports were established in the last century, beginning with the famous “Black Sox” scandal of 1919, when gamblers paid Chicago White Sox players to throw the World Series.

A college basketball point-shaving scandal in 1951 revolved around City College of New York and other schools. It had long-lasting effects on not only the individuals involved, but the schools themselves.

The influence of gamblers and organized crime in professional and amateur sports was considered immoral, and in some cases, dangerous.

We can’t predict what South Dakota will do, but we certainly hope citizens won’t be able to place legal bets on the DSU Trojans or MHS Bulldogs. The potential for wrongdoing, corruption or conspiracy between a local gambler and a local athlete isn’t something we want to face.

Given South Dakota’s history with gambling in Deadwood, at Native American casinos and a statewide lottery, we don’t expect the state legislature to suddenly reject a new gambling opportunity. But we think it should.

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Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan, Yankton, May 14

Port Yankton tries a new course

Supporters of the Port Yankton proposal to eventually get a gaming/entertainment facility in this community have vowed to try the idea again, this time by taking their case directly to the people with a petition drive.

It’s a good idea to try this route, given the energy that had been expended last year prior to the proposal’s quick exit in Pierre this past winter. If proponents had given up on the idea so quickly, it would have said a lot about what they see as the true merits of the proposal.

This move will also entail a lot of mobilization in order to gather enough valid signatures — which will likely be in the neighborhood of 27,000 names; the number will be determined after this fall’s elections — to get the proposal for a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot. To make that, the signatures have to be filed by November 2019, which would be the first step in a long procedural process to get on the ballot.

The first attempt to get on the ballot, which was going through the legislative avenue, met a quick demise in Pierre. It moved out of committee without recommendation and then died in the Senate.

In some ways, trying to win over a handful of legislators can be more difficult than swaying a large swath of voters, so the petition process may produce different results.

In a story in Saturday’s Press & Dakotan about the new attempt to get the proposal on the ballot, a lot of familiar rhetoric was used. It was mentioned yet again that there were a lot of people who were in support of it, and we heard that the biggest beef for some lawmakers is that they believed the idea should go through the petition process the same way the Deadwood gaming proposal did 30 years ago.

The story also reported there will be attempts to reach out to possible partners, like other tribes, to make the Port Yankton proposal work in some fashion. That, too, sounded familiar.

Frankly, it all feels a little like the same kind of optimism we were hearing this past winter before the idea was sidelined before it ever got running. And those other partners that Port Yankton boosters tried to woo seemed resolutely opposed to the proposal — mostly, it appeared, to protect their own gaming interests.

But supporters also said they learned some lessons through last winter’s experience.

If this is going to work, those lessons must be taken to heart.

Every bit of that learning process may be needed, as it could be even tougher to get a constitutional amendment passed in 2020. The public will vote this fall on an idea to require a 55-percent vote to change the constitution, and another proposal may put strict limits on the sources of revenue for campaigns.

Port Yankton has a long road ahead of it, and supporters now must make the case to the public about the benefits this project can produce for the state. And it will have to be a very, very convincing case (depending on what happens this November) for this idea to become a reality.

(Interestingly, one of the arguments proponents have used is that gambling is already available on the Internet, among other places. In a broad sense, Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision about sports wagering might add some weight to that talking point.)

The determination appears to be there. It will be needed.

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