There is a majesty to this place that belies the name, a serenity that mocks the furor over its future that is brewing on the ranches and Indian reservations and in the towns on the other side of the ridges.
Ponderosa pines and mountain cedars sway in the breezes that cut across the rugged landscape. A tiny creek bed, often dry, meanders through the grasses and rocks on the canyon floor. At night, the cries of coyotes resonate around the cliffs, and twinkling stars crowd the sky.
Elk, deer, bobcats, black bears, mountain lions, golden eagles and rattlesnakes abound. Man does not.
One thing more. The gorge here is very steep, the gap between the walls is narrow, making it a perfect buffer from the chaos of the world.
Perfect too for someone who wants to blow up things without bothering the neighbors much or having outsiders get in the way. Someone does, and therein lies the struggle for control of Hell Canyon.
The Honeywell Corp., a Minneapolis-based conglomerate that makes thermostats for the home and anti-tank shells for the Pentagon, wants to turn the pristine canyon into a test range for some of its weapons. The company has the strong backing of the state government and officials in nearby Hot Springs who hope the development will help to renew the sagging local economy.
But the plan has also outraged Sioux Indians who consider all of the Black Hills sacred land and Hell Canyon one of its most hallowed spots. "That's our temple, that's our church," said Germaine Tremmel, one of the Sioux leaders of a drive to block Honeywell. "That's where we come from."
Past attempts by the Sioux to assert those claims led to bad blood between Indians and white ranchers. But this time, at least, some of the ranchers have joined the Sioux in an unusual pact they call the Cowboy and Indian Alliance.
Members of the group filed suit last month in U.S. District Court in Pierre to block Honeywell, charging that weapons tests, now scheduled to begin before the end of the year, would harm the fragile canyon environment, threaten land values, usurp prime grazing land and desecrate an area held holy by the Sioux.
Rancher Tells Opposition
"The whole aura of having a ranch next to a bombing range is detestable," said rancher Bruce Murdock, whose property borders the canyon on the west.
Hinting vaguely at more militant action should it fail in the courts, the alliance has manned a pair of protest camps--one along a dirt access road leading to the site and another deep inside the canyon on an island of land owned by the U.S. Forest Service that is surrounded by Honeywell property.
"This is not Indian versus white," insisted Cindy Reed, an alliance leader who, with her husband, Marc Lamphere, lives on a 7,000-acre ranch on the canyon's edge. "It's a land-based ethic versus a profit-oriented motive. This is a beautiful place. There's no reason to begin to ruin it."
Honeywell contends it will use elaborate safeguards to protect the environment, and its backers in town argue that the Sioux had virtually ignored the canyon until ranchers like Reed started making a fuss when the company first announced its plans last February.
A Honeywell Defender
"A lot of people believe the Indians are being used by the ranchers to bring in the religious and historical rights," charged Charles Najacht, editor of the weekly Hot Springs Star and a staunch Honeywell defender. "It's just a handful of people raising a stink. They're grasping at the Willie Nelsons and Jane Fondas and the bleeding hearts of the world to bail them out."
The Honeywell controversy has, in fact, attracted some who ride a kind of Orpheum Circuit of left-wing protest. Among those at the alliance camps recently were a San Francisco State University anthropology professor who fondly reminisced about his days at the nuclear-power protests in Diablo Canyon, a California film maker putting together a video on Hell Canyon to be used at anti-Honeywell fund-raisers around the country and a smattering of both Indian and white devotees of Leonard Peltier, a militant Indian leader convicted of murdering two FBI agents on a South Dakota reservation in 1975.
But the depth of feeling against the munitions site goes well beyond radical chic. Three dozen elderly Sioux from the Pine Ridge Reservation, part of a senior citizens' group called the Gray Eagles, moved up an annual autumn Black Hills retreat to July so they could pray in Hell Canyon against Honeywell. Despite their advanced ages, many of the group hiked the last few miles when the grade on a dirt road became too steep for their bus.
Nine Tribes Back Alliance
Of broader significance, leaders of the nine Sioux tribes in the Dakotas voted at an Aug. 12 council to back alliance members in their lawsuit and to enter briefs in the case as friends of the court.
"Honeywell doesn't understand their relationship to Mother Earth, but we do," said Alex Lunderman, chairman of the 15,000-member Rosebud Sioux tribe. "It's not so much a religion as a way of life."
Traditional Sioux have a passionate link to the land and see the Black Hills--which are really mountains, despite their name--as a kind of Indian Jerusalem. Before the white man herded them onto reservations, Sioux would camp in steep Black Hills canyons to shelter themselves from the harsh winters of the adjacent plains.
Canyon walls are studded with symbols and pictures called petroglyphs, some hundreds and some possibly thousands of years old, etched by wandering tribes to record their history as well as point the way to convenient campsites, water holes and buried caches of food and supplies.
U.S. Reneged on Treaty
The government gave the mineral-rich Black Hills region to the Sioux in an 1868 peace treaty but reneged a few years later when gold was found in the area. Subsequent court cases have upheld the religious and land claims of the Sioux and ordered compensation of tens of millions of dollars, but the tribes have squabbled for years over how to split up the money.
Honeywell's interest in the area began only after it first tried to relocate many of the operations at its present 3,000-acre munitions range near Minneapolis to a larger, less populated facility in Morrison County in central Minnesota. But authorities there, citing environmental concerns, refused to rezone the area to allow for testing.
Then, at the invitation of South Dakota officials, Honeywell turned to Hell Canyon. One of the prime attractions was that Fall River County, in which the canyon is situated, has no zoning laws.
But Honeywell had other reasons for picking the site. Kathy Tunheim, a company spokeswoman, said the terrain is ideal for keeping explosions from rattling Hot Springs, the nearest town, 10 miles to the northeast. Just as important, she said, the rough terrain and distance from major highways and transportation would enhance security and help buffer the area from errant sounds and vibrations that could affect the integrity of precision tests.
Honeywell Bought Land
Last February, Honeywell purchased 6,200 acres of the canyon from ranchers. It is still trying to arrange a swap with the Forest Service for another 15,000 acres of federal land on the edges and in the middle of Honeywell property.
The alliance suit, which is yet to be heard, seeks to block any federal land transfer. But even without the extra property, Honeywell has enough space to begin testing, Tunheim said. She said most of the tests would involve firing shells as small as 20 millimeters and as large as 155 millimeters down a 1.8-mile range on the canyon floor into a sand-and-cement catch basin.
Tunheim said the facility would not be used to develop or refine new weapons, only to ensure that those Honeywell now sells to the Pentagon meet government standards. She denied rumors that the firm would test guided missiles and other sophisticated munitions at the site, but acknowledged that the weapons mix could change if government standards or testing requirements were revised in the future.
Critics contend that frequent explosions would harm vegetation and frighten wildlife, but they are most fearful of plans for firing an anti-tank shell tipped with armor-piercing depleted uranium. That, they say, could contaminate both the water table and the atmosphere.
But Tunheim responded that few tests at the facility would involve the substance, which emits low radiation levels. Residue disposal would be supervised by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, she said, adding: "We know we can operate a facility that meets the requirements of the laws and regulations to safeguard all the things that should be safeguarded. We hope we have the chance to do it there."
Despite such corporate confidence, Honeywell recently postponed its original September start-up date for at least two months. Gov. George S. Mickelson, a strong supporter of the firm, asked for the delay after an incident in the canyon underscored the project's touchy nature.
Sweat Lodge Torn Down
In July, a team of sheriff's deputies, Honeywell employees and forest rangers tore down a Sioux ceremonial sweat lodge, which militants had built a few weeks earlier on a patch of poorly surveyed canyon land, the title to which remains unclear. Sweat lodges are canvas-covered, igloo-shaped structures used in a Sioux purification rite. They are filled with steaming hot rocks that turn them into saunas, causing occupants to sweat profusely.
Destruction of the sweat lodge infuriated many Sioux, who consider such structures sacred. Honeywell executives later apologized in a meeting with Indians held in a tepee only feet from the ruins of the sweat lodge, which has since been rebuilt. But the action did little to ease tensions, and a few days later the tribal chiefs voted to enter the alliance case.
The sweat lodge controversy has also angered Honeywell backers. Some accuse militants of building the structure to deliberately provoke a confrontation. "They're not there to worship; they're there to stop a project," said Najacht, the editor. "What right do they have just because they're Indians? Why don't they get out and work like the rest of us? They just want to be given everything."
Creation of Jobs
Carl Oberlitner, the mayor of Hot Springs, insisted that although the test facility would initially create only three to five new jobs, its economic impact eventually would be far greater. He said Honeywell believes the payroll could rise to about 25 in a few years, and that the company has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on land and road-clearing operations. In addition, he said, cash-strapped local governments would benefit because property tax revenues could be doubled if the property were converted to a non-agricultural use.
And if Honeywell should pull out, he said, the economic impact would be chilling. "People feel if Honeywell is intimidated or moves out because of this, it is liable to establish some sort of goofy precedent that may affect them," he said. "It definitely is going to make it harder to sell to the next company like Honeywell."
Sentiment for and against Honeywell is not split evenly along city-country lines. Howard Cape, a rancher who lives four miles from the test site, said most of his fellow ranchers favor the project, despite claims to the contrary by alliance members. And Paul Gull, a retired cattleman, insisted Indians had been conspicuous by their absence in the canyon until the Honeywell controversy erupted. "There hasn't been any Indians in there for 100 years," he said. "Any of the old-timers will tell you the same thing."
But some Indians say if ranchers have never seen them in the canyon it is because they were not looking.
"We go up every year," said Elaine Quiver, one of the Gray Eagle elders who went to Hell Canyon in July. "We pray for the coming winter and survival. We pray to the Great Spirit. We praise him for the universe he gave us and thank him for all the things that he provided--the clean air, the clean water and all the living things. Then we pledge to live another year and to live in harmony with nature."