Selling South Dakota: Gov. Dennis Daugaard Promotes His State's Natural Resources and Public Lands to Encourage Economic Development and a Sustainable Future

By Taylor, Danielle | Parks & Recreation, May 2015 | Go to article overview

Selling South Dakota: Gov. Dennis Daugaard Promotes His State's Natural Resources and Public Lands to Encourage Economic Development and a Sustainable Future


Taylor, Danielle, Parks & Recreation


He's been dubbed "South Dakota's No. 1 Salesman, and the description definitely fits. Since winning the 2010 gubernatorial election with running mate Lt. Gov. Matt Michels and becoming governor of the Mount Rushmore State in 2011, Dennis Daugaard has worked tirelessly to advocate for the people of South Dakota as well as its spectacular natural attractions. With federally managed icons like Badlands National Park, Black Hills National Forest, Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Wind Cave National Park, as well as state-managed gems like Custer State Park and Good Earth State Park at Blood Run, Gov. Daugaard has plenty of remarkable resources at hand.

However, his job is certainly not without its challenges in terms of public land management. For the past several decades, a mountain pine beetle epidemic has plagued the state's forests, causing massive die-offs in critical wildlife habitats. The loss of pheasant habitat has also become a state concern, and Gov Daugaard has responded to both ongoing crises with decisive, effective solutions. Furthermore, with several significant federal properties in his state, he and his employees work hard to function seamlessly with the national government, a relationship that drew widespread attention during the 2013 federal shutdown.

Fortunately, the governor brings unique insight to his position due to a specific set of formative experiences and motivations, and the South Dakotans he represents clearly approve. Growing up on a family dairy farm in the southeastern corner of the state, Gov Daugaard learned the importance of balancing sustainable natural resource management with economic realities. Both of his parents are deaf, and American Sign Language was the primary form of communication in his home as a child. He earned his bachelor's degree in government from the University of South Dakota and his Juris Doctor degree from Northwestern University, working his way through both schools as a dish washer, waiter, assembly-line welder, water tower sandblaster and painter, city bus driver and security guard. Following law school, he worked as an attorney in Chicago for three years before moving home to marry his high school sweetheart, and his career included several years as a banker and nonprofit director before he turned toward public service.

Gov. Daugaard first ran for public office in 1997 and was elected as a state senator, and the voters re-elected him by wide margins in 1998 and 2000. In 2002, he was elected as lieutenant governor alongside Gov. Mike Rounds and then re-elected in 2006. Accompanied by Lt. Gov. Michels, Gov. Daugaard won the 2010 election with 61.5 percent of the vote. When they ran again last year, voters kept the pair in office with 70.5 percent voting in their favor, the largest margin in South Dakota history.

As a result of his experiences, Gov. Daugaard is extremely cognizant of and responsive to employee concerns at all levels as well as equity issues in public facilities, and he's also highly aware of how preserving and protecting South Dakota's natural resources is vital to the economic prosperity of the state. This writer was privileged to meet with Gov. Daugaard last September during his family visit to Custer State Park for the park's wildly popular annual Buffalo Roundup. Here, he shares his thoughts on managing South Dakota's public lands, recent legislation to support parks and recreation throughout the state, and his thoughts on continuing his involvement with state public lands after his term ends in 2019.

Parks & Recreation magazine: As governor, your main objective has been to promote business and economic development in South Dakota, and you've recognized the potential of your state's spectacular public lands to help make this happen. How have you seen the investments you've made in these areas generate positive returns for your state?

Gov. Dennis Daugaard: Our biggest return is seeing people using the outdoors as a place to get together, relax and share their experiences with each other. …

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