Well, this is embarrassing. Yesterday I finished a long article on the State Land Board and put it on my blog. In it, I congratulated everyone from the Governor to the dogcatcher for teaming up to offer protection to some valuable roadless areas of the North Dakota Bad Lands. When I wrote it, I had been told by the State Land Department that all the parcels of state-owned land within the U.S. Forest Service’s designated roadless areas had been removed from the Land Department’s oil lease sale offering, scheduled for May 1.
Turns out that wasn’t true. Somebody fibbed. I learned last night that the State Land Department (you’ve heard about them—I’ve written about them before) is going to put a full section of state land inside the roadless area—on the west slope of Bullion Butte, one of North Dakota’s most spectacular landmarks—on the auction block May 1. That’s a huge disappointment. Bullion Butte is one of North Dakota’s highest points, and it’s also the only high butte within a roadless area, making it far more attractive to hikers than a couple higher buttes which you can drive to. To place it, it’s the huge butte you see looking south from the plaza of Medora’s Burning Hills Amphitheatre. It’s so big that it actually changes the course of the Little Missouri River, sending it on a 40 mile or so detour to the east.
If the sale goes forward, there could be an oil well on Bullion Butte. That would be a very bad thing to have happen.
The Land Department says it will attach a “stipulation” to the lease which would allow them to prevent drilling on that section of land. The stipulation, as I shared yesterday, reads:
This tract is within an area identified as essential wildlife habitat. The lessee or lessee’s operator must contact the commissioner prior to any surface activity. Operational mitigation measures to reduce impact, including timing restrictions, location adjustments and reduced or restricted surface occupancy may be required. Habitat or terrain considerations may preclude locating a well site on this tract.
Again, as I mentioned yesterday, the operative word there is “may.” The Land Department is not known for its sensitivity to things like wilderness, or conservation, or scenic beauty, or places for solitude. It is into making money. Lots of money. Here’s one example: Last November, the Department leased out 80 acres for development right up against the fence on the east side of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The company that leased it, Davis Exploration LLC, of Stockbridge, GA, paid the Department a bonus of $14,000 per acre for that lease—a total of $1,120,000. Davis paid that just for the right to drill for oil there. With that kind of money already shelled out, how long do you suppose it will take them to drill a well there, to recover their investment? Bison, elk and prairie dogs on one side of the fence, an oil drilling rig with hundreds of trucks driving in on the other. Well, not for long. Don’t expect to see any kind of critters on the east side of the park this summer. And when you visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park this summer, don’t bother to hike up to the top of Buck Hill. You aren’t going to like what you see.
With that kind of insensitivity already displayed, do you really think they’re going to say “No” to drilling on the side of a butte in the middle of nowhere? Hah! Fat chance.
And even if they did, by leasing the minerals, the damage is already done. The Bullion Butte area is one of those areas that the Forest Service lists as “eligible for wilderness.” One of the major considerations in that listing is the fact that there are no leased minerals inside that area. Once the minerals on the school section are leased, the door is open to development inside the roadless area. The people who make the decisions on designating areas as wilderness get more than a little skittish about that. In spite of the Land Department’s “stipulations,” once the minerals are leased to a private entity, the surface is not protected from development. This could spell real trouble for efforts to get a formal wilderness designation for areas like this. That’s why wildlife groups and others have pressed the State Land Board not to lease these tracts of land.
It‘s not a big area, by the way. Under 10,000 acres, I think, about 15 square miles. You could walk the whole area in a day.
And so this is just one more reason why I believe the State Land Board should declare a 3-year moratorium on further leasing of State School Lands. If such a moratorium were in place, we wouldn’t even be talking about this. What we could be talking about is sensitivity to things like massive roadless buttes and National Parks. We could have a good conversation about what the responsibility of the state is. Is it just really all about money, or could we be setting an example? We could have public meetings, we could ask people for their feelings about how we should best manage our state lands. I can guess how some of those discussions might go, because I know North Dakotans. Maybe, for example, they would urge the State Land Department not to lease that land up against the National Park named for America’s Greatest Conservation President, to leave it as a buffer zone, so critters and the visitors who come to see them wouldn’t be disrupted by an oil drilling rig and hundreds of fracking trucks. Maybe they’d say “Let’s not put an oil well on Bullion Butte. We like the view just the way it is.”
Meanwhile, here’s another call for the State Land Board to make another short term decision: take the parcel of state land on Bullion Butte out of the May 1 lease sale. And then, take it out forever. Leave our roadless areas alone. They represent such a small piece of North Dakota’s Bad Lands, let’s leave them for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.
I could say “Thanks” in advance. But I think I’ll wait a little while, just to be sure this time.