VERMILLION, S.D. | It seems hard to believe that ownership of an island that's been in the middle of the Missouri River for perhaps 200 years remained as one big unsolved problem.
Yet for decades, Goat Island has been that proverbial child caught in the middle of a custody battle between parents.
But in this case it was two states and a federal agency that reached an amicable solution, cutting through miles of red tape to finally provide Goat Island with some certainty for its future and a chance for its full potential to be realized.
"When we got the word this impasse had been resolved, you probably heard a yell from my office in Yankton to Sioux City," said Rick Clark, superintendent of the Missouri National Recreational River in Yankton, South Dakota.
On Oct. 12, Nebraska, South Dakota and the National Park Service announced that the island would be managed by the National Park Service as part of the Missouri National Recreational River.
It's a solution that makes so much sense, it makes you wonder what took so long.
"It's really a crown jewel on this section of the Missouri River. It's highly attractive for canoeists and kayakers making their way down the river," Clark said of the island that's nearly three miles long and a quarter mile wide at its widest point and covers nearly 600 acres about four miles west of Vermillion.
It's a popular spot for those river travelers to stop and pitch a tent. Daytime visitors hike through cottonwood trees that could well be 100 years old.
That old age had always been part of the problem, said Tim Cowman, natural resources administrator with the South Dakota Geological Society and adjunct professor and former director of the Missouri River Institute at the University of South Dakota.
Historically, islands and sandbars came and went in the Missouri River's shifting channel. No one's certain when Goat Island became permanent. Some believe it was already established when Lewis and Clark first passed by in 1804. Cowman said it was never surveyed by the federal government before or after Nebraska and South Dakota became states in 1867 and 1889, respectively.
"Nobody had claimed ownership," Cowman said. "It had never been deeded."
As legend has it, the name was spawned by the goats Jack Jaquith once raised on the island. Some local residents also knew it as Jake's Island after Jaquith, an attorney from Vermillion.
Farmers also grazed cattle on the island over the years. People in canoes and kayaks stopped by for a look around. A few hunters used it for duck and deer hunting. But local residents never really embraced Goat Island's possibilities, Clark said, because the uncertainty over ownership left them worried about trespassing.
Those worries are now over, and Goat Island's future now has some certainty.
"I was glad to see they came up with a resolution," Cowman said. "It's best for the public and the management of the island."
Clark said the National Park Service and federal Bureau of Land Management will spend much of the next year surveying the island's vegetation and wildlife. A big stand of red cedar trees, an invasive species, must be dealt with, Clark said, as well as some Russian olive trees. Their treatment will be part of a preliminary draft management plan that will be open for public review.
Clark sees potential for a trail system, maybe a camping site with water and toilet facilities. Overall, he anticipates few changes.
"Likely it will remain in its primitive state," Clark said.
Preservation will provide a glimpse of a Missouri River feature that was much more common before the river was was dammed and channelized.
"There are not many features like this on the Missouri Natural Recreational River," Cowman said. "It's a nice place to hang out and enjoy the river on a summer day."
Goat Island is now full of possibilities rather than uncertainties.
Deciding the best way to preserve it and make it a destination for those who enjoy the Missouri River won't be nearly as problematic as settling the ownership issue.
And park service officials will probably have a lot more fun solving it.