The threats to the Bad Lands, and to some of North Dakota’s most important pristine places, never seem to end. In fact, the pace of the threats quickens each month, each week, each day, it seems. I’m not sure why I just learned about this—I must not have been paying attention—but a story in Sunday’s Forum by Patrick Springer highlights the latest threat. County commissioners in four southwestern North Dakota counties are suing the U.S. Forest Service to try to get them to open up five as-yet undeveloped areas to oil development. It’s not enough for the oil industry and their county commission lackeys that 94 per cent of the federal land in western North Dakota is open to oil development. They want the last six per cent. They want every fracking acre.
A couple of years ago, and again last year, I wrote two articles for this blog about the proposal to designate about 60,000 acres of the Little Missouri Grasslands as Federal Wilderness Areas. You can refresh your memory by clicking here and here. There are about a million acres of government-owned land in the Grasslands. 940,000 of them are open to leasing for oil development. Most of those are already leased. There might be a thousand or so wells already drilled—I’m not sure of the exact number. The rest of the land awaits the driller’s bit.
The 60,000 acres in the five parcels named in the county commissioners’ lawsuit are deemed “Suitable for Wilderness” in the Forest Service’s Management Plan for the Grasslands because they are roadless areas. They are Bullion Butte and Kendley Plateau south of Medora, Twin Buttes north of Medora, and Long X Divide and Lone Butte south of Watford City. There are no roads through them or inside them, aside from two-track trails used by the ranchers who graze their cattle there. There are no power lines, no ranch houses, no residents, no developed areas of any kind. Only fences and gates and cows. And grass. Lots of grass. With a wilderness designation, that grazing will continue. With a wilderness designation, nothing will change. Nothing. Ever.
That’s the idea of Wilderness. It is a place where people can go, but they cannot stay. They can only go on foot or on horseback. That’s what makes it so valuable, so desirable. There need to be places in the wild lands of North Dakota where there are no tracks except those of animals, and the boots—and only the boots–of Man. Places where the critters rule. These five areas are the last remaining places like that in all of North Dakota. There are advocates for keeping these few areas in North Dakota pristine. I am proud to say I am one of them. Earlier this summer, I traveled to some of them with people who are much more active, and much better informed, than I am. I learned much from them. I have now spent days hiking in each of these five places. What I see there is that aside from the fences, they look pretty much like they did when Theodore Roosevelt lived and ranched here 125 years ago. If the county commissioners are successful in their lawsuit, that will change. There will be roads through them. Trucks will come. Oil companies will drill. They will no longer be “Suitable for Wilderness.” The critters will no longer rule.
Just a few months ago, by raising a ruckus with Governor Dalrymple and the State Land Board, we were able to stave off an attack on the Bullion Butte Roadless Area when Land Commissioner Lance Gaebe was going to lease the minerals on a school section inside one of these areas. We shouted “No.” The politicians listened. We need to shout more often.
North Dakota is one of the least spoiled places in America. At least it has been for most of its history. That’s beginning to change. More and more people are nervous about that change. More and more people are asking why we can’t set aside just a little bit of our wild west landscape, protect just a little bit of it from development. A Wilderness designation would do that. Right now, we have almost no Wilderness in North Dakota. There are two small areas in the North and South Units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and there are a few thousand acres in a couple of National Wildlife Refuges, Lostwood in Ward County and Chase Lake in Stutsman County. Together they make up one tenth of one per cent of the land area of North Dakota. You read that right: 99.9 per cent of North Dakota is open for development. Under the Wilderness proposal by the Badlands Conservation Alliance for these five areas, plus a small area in the Sheyenne National Grasslands in eastern North Dakota, that percentage would drop to 99.8. You read that right, too. Wilderness supporters are asking for another one tenth of one per cent of our state to be protected as Wilderness.
Western North Dakota counties are realizing a huge windfall from their counties’ share of the tax on oil. Still, they want more. They won’t be happy until they see a well on every section of land. But it’s about more than money. It’s about a bunch of right-wing, anti-government zealots being used by the oil industry to do their bidding in the name of local control. And that’s just bullshit. If it weren’t for the federal government saving the Bad Lands ranchers during the dustbowl days by buying the land and leasing it back to them for pennies on the dollar, most of those county commissioners wouldn’t even be here today. Welfare ranchers, we call them. Dependent on the government for their very existence. How ironic.
So who’s leading the charge for wiping out the roadless areas through this lawsuit? Does the name Jim Arthaud ring a bell? He’s one of the leaders. He’s the chairman of the Billings County Commission who also wants to build a new bridge across the Little Missouri River to send a thousand trucks a day (his estimate) on a gravel road past Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch site. He doesn’t mention it, but his estimate is probably pretty good, since he owns most of the trucks that will go across there—his trucking company is one of the biggest oilfield contractors in the state.
The Wilderness proposal, called the Prairie Legacy Wilderness (you can read about it here) has drawn support from people all across the state, including most of the state’s major newspapers. Just yesterday, the Grand Forks Herald carried an editorial and a column by Brad Dokken supporting the Wilderness proposal. The Herald quoted President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Wilderness Act into law: “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of our technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”
What the supporters need now is for the proposal to be introduced into the United States Congress, to come under the protection of that Wilderness Act President Johnson signed. The bill is drafted. It sits on politicians’ desks in Washington. All three members of our state’s Congressional delegation are familiar with it. None have stepped forward to introduce it, however, despite pleas from many North Dakotans to do so. Now, it’s pretty urgent, with the threat of this lawsuit. E-mails to our U.S. Senators, asking them to introduce the Prairie Legacy Wilderness bill, might help. These addresses should get your e-mail to them.