In its early years, Goat Island was used as a place for — well, goats.
Now, thanks to recent federal action, the 800-acre island in the Missouri River channel will soon offer more recreational opportunities for visitors of the human kind.
“The integrity and the quality of the island are outstanding. There are few areas like it in the region or even the country,” said Rick Clark with the National Park Service (NPS).
Clark serves as superintendent of the Missouri National Recreational River (MNRR), headquartered in Yankton. Goat Island lies between Vermillion and Wynot, Nebraska, that is part of the MNRR.
Goat Island, also known as Jake’s Island, supports a variety of wildlife within the forest of cottonwood and Eastern red cedar. It lies in a stretch of the “Mighty Mo” that mostly resembles what the Missouri River was like before dams and during the time when Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery voyaged up and down the river in 1804 and 1806.
The island lies about 200-300 yards from Clay County and about 400-500 yards from Cedar County, Nebraska, according to Clark.
“Goat Island has been so popular for years,” he said. “Now, we can move forward with our management plan, but I don’t think you’ll start seeing any changes until 2020.”
The NPS intends to focus on improving the many opportunities already available, Clark said.
“We’re looking at providing more amenities for things like canoeing, kayaking and boating,” he said. “It would be a great place for people to stop while they’re traveling down the Missouri River.”
The NPS management plan calls for offering hunting opportunities, Clark said.
“In 2020, we would allow deer hunting with archery only. There would be licensing by the states of South Dakota and Nebraska. Under the National Park Service, the seasons would be different,” he said.
“We would allow no firearms except for waterfowl, no permitting of blinds, and possibly allowing two tree stands. Hunters would need to obtain a back-country use permit for gun use.”
The camp sites would be limited during hunting seasons, Clark said. “We would have only the designated camping areas around the perimeter (of the island),” he said.
Clark emphasized one point when it comes to amenities — don’t expect major development on the island.
“We aren’t adding big-ticket items. We want people to have a wilderness type of experience. We’re going to keep the same pristine qualities that draw so many people to it,” he said.
“Over time, the island will be developed (in smaller ways). We’ll have two primitive camp areas, a tent pad, fire ring, a shared privy and hiking trails. Now, there’s a trail system that is crude and will need realignment. But we’re not going to have a visitor center or hook-up.”
No exact historical records exist, but explorers Lewis and Clark likely found the island — located between modern-day Yankton and Vermillion — during their expedition from 1804-06.
“The island isn’t listed in the (explorers’) journals,” Rick Clark said. “However, there have been studies on the geomorphology of the island. Those studies basically date back to the same island that Lewis and Clark would have discovered during their exploration.”
The island has never really been developed for one reason, Clark said. Neither South Dakota nor Nebraska had filed any claim to the land, leaving it in jurisdictional limbo.
“The Department of the Interior conducted a cadastral (land record) study, and it was discovered the island was untitled,” he said.
The ownership of Goat Island had been in dispute since 1999. Imprecise mapping and the Missouri River’s changing boundaries had previously made its ownership unclear.
The status changed in 2016, when Goat Island was designated as public land and assigned to the NPS for management. The MNRR sought input from other parties, including public comments.
The discussions involved the NPS, State of Nebraska, State of South Dakota, the Clay County and Cedar County (Nebraska) commissions and other stakeholders.
“We also held discussions with the three culturally-affiliated (American Indian) tribes: the Ponca, Santee Sioux and Yankton Sioux,” Clark said.
The Goat Island development plans respect historical and cultural interests such as artifacts and burial sites, he added.
The NPS conducted a 37-day public scoping period for the management plan and environmental assessment earlier this year. The NPS then reviewed 171 comments and worked with state, federal and tribal partners. They developed the selected action and prepared the Finding Of No Significant Impact (FONSI).
In August, the National Park Service’s acting regional director, Patricia Trap, approved the FONSI. With her signature, the MNRR can now implement its Goat Island management plan.
Both South Dakota and Nebraska officials told the Press & Dakotan they are pleased with the process so far and the National Park Service’s plans for Goat Island.
Jeff Van Meeteren of Yankton, the regional park supervisor at the Lewis and Clark Recreation Area, served as a South Dakota consultant on the Goat Island plans.
“Our South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks goal was threefold,” he said.
The first goal called for maintaining the tradition of hunting and fishing at Goat Island, he said.
“Those uses are a really important part of the island. We’re really excited and glad to see the National Park Service has really embraced, in many ways, the same mission as us (in regards to) the traditional hunting practices,” he said. “But we also have to take safety into concern. Firearms were restricted on that island, but it’s certainly open to archery for deer hunting, and we’re grateful for that.”
The second goal dealt with opening up the island for camping, kayaking and canoeing, Van Meeteren said.
“We’ve heard from residents repeatedly that getting more sites on the Missouri River for those kinds of things and activities would just be awesome,” he said. “We’re excited the National Park Service seems to be embracing (the idea).”
The third goal deal with establishing a partnership with the NPS that opens up more of the Missouri River to the public, Van Meeteren said.
“The river between Yankton and Vermillion is a really neat section. In our state, that point has had limited access and use,” he said. “Anything we can do to offer more activities and more access for that point of the river is a really positive thing, especially for Yankton and Vermillion. This is the connecting link between our two communities.”
Michell Koch represented the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) in the Goat Island talks. She shared many of the same sentiments heading into the process.
“The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission wanted to represent the interests of our constituents and to provide input regarding recreation and natural resource management on Goat Island,” she said.
The NGPC received a consistent message in the feedback from Husker State residents and others, Koch said.
“Most of the people we heard from wanted to be able to engage in a variety of traditional and new recreational activities while limiting infrastructure development and keeping the island as natural as possible,” she said.
Koch sees the potential for many activities on Goat Island, particularly with the settlement of the ownership issue.
“Ownership by the National Park Service makes it clear that Goat Island is open for public use,” she said.
The Nebraska and South Dakota agencies’ leaders commended the ability to receive input from many parties, including the general public.
NGPC Director Jim Douglas said the discussion covered many angles.
“The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission appreciates the process allowing the free flow of ideas for the Goat Island Management Plan to maintain traditional opportunities and to provide new opportunities for the public,” he said.
South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Secretary Kelly Hepler agreed.
“South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks is pleased to have participated in the process of shaping the vision for recreational opportunities on Goat Island,” he said. “The National Park Service will be a great partner in managing this unique island complex for the public, offering new opportunities while maintaining a balance of traditional uses.”
The NPS management plan is expected to be implemented over a five- to 10-year period. Development of a trail and campsites is targeted to begin in 2020.
Clark noted the Myron Grove and Clay County access from the South Dakota side and the Brooky Bottom and St. Helena boat ramps from the Nebraska side. Because of the Missouri River’s high flows, the island has been subject to erosion at certain times.
The Missouri River dams, including Gavins Point near Yankton, have played a role in the formation and sustaining of Goat Island. The island has received Missouri River flooding during the historic 2011 floods with Gavins Point releases of 160,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) for an extended period and again this year with the high flows reaching 100,000 cfs at one time.
Goat Island’s extended recreation offerings could exert an impact up and down the river, Clark said.
“A lot of people wanted the opportunity. They can go to Niobrara, Lewis and Clark or Ponca and take in Goat Island,” he said.
“I see canoeing and kayaking starting at the bubble below the (Gavins Point) dam or at Riverside Park (in Yankton) and continuing down the river with Goat Island as part of it.”
The MNRR wants to make Goat Island part of a much larger vision, Clark said.
“We want to make a better defined water trail. We would like to do it over the entire 100 miles (of the MNRR). We’re looking at more and better signage and portage,” he said.
“We do have available some discretionary funds, but we would need to see more funds for special projects,” he said. “All of this isn’t going to happen instantly. It’ll take years to implement major changes.”
In the end, the National Park Service wants to enhance, not change, Goat Island’s special characteristics, Clark said.
“Goat Island is a special place in its own right,” he said. “We’ll continue to work with our partners to ensure this resource remains available to all visitors.”
For more information on the Goat Island project, the NPS planning documents can be found at https://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectID=71840.
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