Gov. Kristi Noem hides guest list at historic state-owned cabin in Custer State Park
GFP, which oversees the property as part of the executive branch, denied a January 2023 request from South Dakota News Watch to view a list of people who stayed at Valhalla between 2020 and 2022.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, her family, friends and guests are the only people who can stay in a state-owned historic cabin in Custer State Park, and it’s unclear if the rustic Valhalla retreat is being used for political purposes.
Citing open records law, Noem’s administration won’t reveal who stayed there over the past three years or whether the state is reimbursed, despite more than $120,000 in taxpayer money being spent on property upgrades.
Noem, who was re-elected in November to a second four-year term, is on the short list of potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates and spent much of the past week giving policy speeches in Washington D.C.
State Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, spearheaded a voter-passed ballot measure in 2006 mandating that state-owned aircraft could only be used for state business. He has similar reservations about the governor’s personal use of Valhalla.
“It’s inappropriate for the executive branch to have a private retreat for the governor and her staff,” said Nesiba. “Nobody wants elected officials getting personal or political benefits from their elected office, and this sure looks like that.”
The secluded log cabin near Needles Highway was built in 1927 as a summer home by former South Dakota Gov. and U.S. Sen. Peter Norbeck, who was instrumental in developing the Black Hills and Custer State Park as a vacation destination. Valhalla, named by Norbeck for the great hall in Norse mythology, was purchased by the state in 1962.
The Department of Game, Fish and Parks, which oversees the property as part of the executive branch, denied a January 2023 request from South Dakota News Watch to view a list of people who stayed at Valhalla between 2020 and 2022.
Jon Kotilnek, senior staff attorney for GFP, said “no such record exists as no list is maintained” and added “if this information were available, it would be exempted under (South Dakota’s open records laws).”
However, Game, Fish and Parks did release a list of Valhalla visitors to KELO-TV reporter Bob Mercer in 2019. The record included Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden and Bureau of Finance and Management commissioner Jim Terwilliger as well as three former executives: chief of staff Joshua Shields, chief finance officer Liza Clark and Department of Veteran Affairs special projects coordinator Jake Monssen.
Asked by News Watch if the administration’s policy on releasing names of Valhalla guests changed after 2019 and why, Kotilnek and Ian Fury, Noem’s chief of communications, did not respond.
Game, Fish and Parks did provide News Watch with a list of capital improvements for Valhalla from 2020 to 2022, which include more than $120,000 of contracted work to re-shingle the roof and upgrade the heating, air conditioning and electrical systems, flooring and fireplace. The governor’s office also bought six Adirondack chairs for the cabin in July 2020 for a total of $618 through Pheasantland Industries, which provides work experience to prison inmates.
Past Govs. Mike Rounds and Dennis Daugaard also were scrutinized about their use of Valhalla, sparking debates about transparency and what records government officials should be allowed to shield from news organizations and the public.
“Do we need a law that says guests at Valhalla shall be a matter of public record?” asked David Bordewyk, executive director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association. “As crazy as it sounds, that’s what it comes down to because (government officials) can’t be trusted to do it voluntarily anymore.”
Bordewyk was part of legislative discussions in 2009 that led to an open-records overhaul with Senate Bill 147, making government records open to examination “except as otherwise expressly provided by statute.”
The ensuing list of exceptions, which include “any list of names or other personally identifying data of occupants of camping or lodging facilities from the Department of Game, Fish and Parks,” was broad enough to cause conflicts between state officials and media organizations when it came to potentially sensitive records. When interpreted correctly, the exceptions make non-disclosure legal but don’t prevent officials from releasing records if they are inclined to do so.
“Time and again, politicians talk about being transparent and sharing information with the public,” said Bordewyk. “Then when push comes to shove, suddenly they’re hiding behind 10 different exemptions in open records law as to why they can’t or won’t release the information.”
Valhalla, a one-and-a-half story log house that sits halfway up a hill, features a large main room with lodge furniture and a massive stone fireplace, as well as an open front porch where guests can survey the landscape largely hidden from passing vehicles. The cabin’s secluded setting and exclusive use present an interesting litmus test for government transparency.
Dating back to the 1970s, Valhalla has been used by South Dakota governors as a Black Hills retreat, not unlike Maryland’s Camp David for U.S. presidents. But some Democratic legislators have questioned the propriety of that arrangement, especially when Noem’s staff and Game, Fish and Parks officials refuse to provide visitor logs or rental policies for the state-owned property, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Norbeck’s devotion to Valhalla was not surprising given his affinity for the Black Hills, where he played a role in the development of Mount Rushmore, Needles Highway, Sylvan Lake and Wind Cave National Park.
President Calvin Coolidge made the State Game Lodge at Custer State Park his “Summer White House” in the late 1920s, inspiring architect C.C. Gideon in his architectural vision for Valhalla, which became Norbeck’s Custer residence.
After Norbeck’s death in 1936, Valhalla was occupied by his wife, Lydia, until 1944, when it was sold into private ownership, including a stint of summer occupancy by Rapid City hotel executive Elmer Boswell until the cabin was acquired by the state in 1962.
Though Valhalla has recently become an exclusive retreat for governors and invited guests, that was not always the case. The Game, Fish and Parks Commission in 1966 made it available as housing for a Youth Forestry Camp for “mildly delinquent” boys through the South Dakota Board of Charities and Corrections.
There was talk of alterations to accommodate more campers. But commission chairman John Anderson Vale argued against reconstruction, according to news reports at the time, because “eventually (Valhalla) would probably be turned into a museum.”
In late 2001, then-Gov. Bill Janklow offered up a “weekend getaway” at Valhalla as part of an Internet auction to raise money for families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The winning bid of $1,200 came from a urologist from Oregon, bringing renewed questions about the cabin and who controlled access.
“Valhalla was purchased (by the state) because of the historical value,” Rollie Noem, then the Custer State Park superintendent, said in a 2001 Associated Press report. “What’s evolved over time, because there was a lot of work that had to be done in the early years, is its primary use is as a retreat facility for the governor. It’s like the governor’s mansion. The governor uses it to accommodate special guests to benefit the state.”
— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at SDNewsWatch.org.