SAVOY, S.D. (AP) — On a sun-struck Thursday, surrounded by cascading autumn leaves above a stunning waterfall, saviors of Spearfish Canyon gathered to dedicate the newest improvement to a special place that "is being loved to death."

Some 50 representatives of the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, Spearfish Canyon Foundation, U.S Forest Service and area chambers of commerce celebrated completion of the new Spearfish Falls Trail, the second of a three-phase attempt to preserve and protect the most visited spots in one of the Black Hills' most popular destinations, the Rapid City Journal reported .

The first phase, completed in 2008, targeted Roughlock Falls with upgrades to trails and railings to improve accessibility as well as to protect the environmentally sensitive canyon from continued erosion caused by heavy visitation.

The second phase greatly improved access to Spearfish Falls, added an observation deck which cantilevers over the sides of the falls, and placed interpretive signage and maps along the trail that are intended to educate and engage hikers.

In addition to grant assistance from the federal Recreational Trails Program, the National Guard provided backing during last summer's Operation Golden Coyote by removing an aging bridge that spanned the creek and building a new one, as well as construction of a lower observation deck.

All told, the game, fish and parks department invested about $400,000 in the project, according to Assistant Director Al Nedved. But Nedved's boss said the project was truly the result of public-private partnerships.

"Today is a celebration of partnerships, first with Homestake/Barrick, then with the Spearfish Canyon Foundation, and finally the commitment of the state of South Dakota to preserve this area that has been loved to death," said Kelly Hepler, secretary of the state game, fish and parks department.

Custer State Park Director Matt Snyder, who helped oversee the project, praised the foundation for acquiring the land and his department's staff for making the new trail system a reality.

"This is a great day, and a great project coming to completion," Snyder said in remarks made near the Latchstring Inn. He added that, while the project is substantially complete, "there will be some improvements, some tweaks to come. Our work is never done."

Spearfish Canyon Foundation Past President Susan Johnson said her nonprofit organization had raised nearly $800,000 and worked with local landowners and Barrick over the past decade to acquire properties included in the new trail system.

"This project took passion and patience," Johnson said. "We love being a part of this."

Before heading out on a one-hour guided hike along the new trail with her grandparents, Katie Ceroll, director of the state game, fish and parks department's Division of Parks and Recreation, said she found great satisfaction in witnessing how all of the partners in the project greeted Thursday's dedication.

"The biggest part today was just watching the partners' contentment and seeing the smiles on all of their faces," Ceroll said. "The true experience resulting from this partnership revolves around families and providing a multigenerational opportunity to recreate together."

A third-phase project in Spearfish Canyon, projected for completion next summer, will include a trail network linking Roughlock Falls, Spearfish Falls and the Savoy pond, located about two miles southwest of the Spearfish Canyon Lodge, according to Shannon Percy, district park supervisor for GF&P.

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com