South Dakota hotel caught in the middle of political battle over Keystone XL pipeline

At a regular weekly news conference at the Statehouse on Thursday, Noem — who acknowledged she’d never stayed at the locally famous Stroppel Inn Hotel, home to mineral baths, an hour west of Pierre in the small Haakon County town a hair over 100 residents — asked staff to hand out copies of an article from The Washington Examiner, a D.C.-based news magazine. The article included interviews with the hotel’s owner and another small-business owner in the state whose business was in jeopardy due to the Canadian-based TC Energy’s pipeline employees packing up.

“Why is it that no South Dakota reporters cover the real-life impacts of the loss of the pipeline?” Noem asked the gathered reporters. “I know if former President Trump had taken an action that had ended hundreds of thousands of jobs for South Dakotans, you would’ve covered that.”

It’s unclear how many jobs were lost when Biden rescinded the contested pipeline permit last month on his first day in office. The project’s owner, TC Energy Corp., told PolitiFact it estimates 1,000 people will be out of work directly due to Biden’s order. It’s also estimated a few hundred jobs were tied to pump station builds in western South Dakota, including the camp a mile north of Philip, S.D., thirty minutes west of Midland.

In a phone call shortly after the governor’s press conference Thursday, the Stroppel’s owner, Laurie Cox, said while demand dropped off following the pipeline’s closure, she’s seen an uptick in reservation inquiries with Valentine’s Day coming.

“Obviously, February is not a touristy month,” said Cox.

She also corrected the record, noting that — different than the Examiner’s telling of her story — she hadn’t even known about the Keystone XL pipeline crossing near Midland when she and her husband, Wallace, bought the old hotel in September.

“I know people will have a tough time believing this, but I need to make sure everyone knows that it wasn’t just the pipeline,” motivating her purchase, Cox said. “I love the history of it (the hotel). I want to be a conservator of the water that’s here.”

The Stroppel, a white-washed wooden roadhouse with a vintage “HOTEL” shingle sign, has sat regally at the end of the main drag in Midland since the Great Depression. The original owner, John Stroppel, sold mineral baths dug from a railroad’s well reaching the artesian waters nearly 2,000 feet below ground. Guests range from returning visitors to honeymooners to deer hunters.

“People are going to call ‘BS’ on this, but when we closed (on the purchase), we weren’t even thinking about the Keystone being around here,” said Cox.

Cox said it was a pleasant surprise as she noticed her bookings filling up two weeks afterward, in October, with what she calls “pipeliners” when the work camp started up north of Philip.

Cox said those “pipeliners” filled her 12 rooms, save for a week later in autumn, when “generational hunters” came for four or five nights.

“In December, we were booked,” said Cox. “So we’ve had enough to pay the bills.”

After moving around much of the last decade, following Wallace’s work as a millwright, Cox said she has enjoyed Midland, where she’s lived since 2018, and noted she has lost some friends over her support for the pipeline.

Cox said she deeply disagrees with Biden’s decision to rescind the pipeline’s permit and had grown close with her guests. She said the KOA campground in Belvidere, S.D., also invested money to make upgrades with the pipeline workers staying.

A phone call to the KOA was not immediately returned on Thursday, and a recorded message said the campground was “closed until the summer season.”

Nevertheless, Cox said, while she “doesn’t believe in climate change and windmills,” she was moved by many Lakota citizens and leaders in South Dakota, who have cheered Biden’s rescinding of the permit.

On Inauguration Day, for example, Chairman Harold Frazier, of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, whose historic trust lands are crossed by the pipeline, wrote that he welcomed Biden’s move, given the lack of formal consultation completed with the tribal nation.

“This project has scarred our territorial and treaty lands with its presence and threatened our people like a dagger to our throats,” Frazier wrote.

At a press conference Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, a Democrat from Mission, S.D., on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, said he was “pleased” with the permit’s cancelation.

“I understand the little town of Midland, that the hotel was full of workers while they were building whatever they were doing there. I feel bad for them,” said Heinert. “But those were temporary stays, anyways. Rural America is struggling, and putting in an unnecessary tar sands-filled pipeline isn’t going to help rural America in the long run.”

The 1,700-mile pipeline had been planned to run from Alberta, Canada, to a transfer station in Steele City, Neb., crossing South Dakota’s western half. Opponents, including environmentalists, ranchers and the region’s tribal residents had long fought the project’s completion.

Back in Midland, Cox said she just wants to avoid politics and keep running her hotel with its salt water mineral baths. She plans on upgrading the lodging with more “luxury resort” style amenities, including a massage therapist.

“Why does it have to be one or the other?” asked Cox, repeating the conflict circling this western town, between jobs for pipeline workers and small-town economies, and those calling for greater environmental and Indigenous rights. “Today is kind of a hard day to ask, but why does it have to be one or the other?”