The announcement by Jack Dalrymple earlier this month that he and fellow Industrial Commission members are going to take a tour of the oil patch and develop a “list” of places where they probably shouldn’t be permitting oil development rankled some in the preservation community, and rightly so. That list pretty much already exists.
Jack, just call in Merl Paaverud, Mark Zimmerman and Terry Steinwand, three of your cabinet members you probably don’t see very often, and have them bring in their lists of historic sites, parks, and wildlife areas in western North Dakota. There you go. Mark’s list probably has the national park on it as well as his state parks. Merl’s list has his state historic sites on it, as well as areas on the National Register of Historic Places, since he’s the State Historic Preservation Officer. Terry has his own wildlife management areas, state school lands which have significant wildlife habitat areas, and the national wildlife refuges. And they likely all have some “unofficial” places—culturally, historically or environmentally significant areas—they’d prefer not to be disturbed by drilling rigs and a thousand fracking trucks. I bet they’d welcome the chance to tell you about them.
Finally, the Tribes have their own historic preservation officers and conservation officers. Make sure that Merl, Mark and Terry are talking to them pretty often these days. Their lists are probably the most important of all.
The Bismarck Tribune story about all this says the idea of making a list of protected places comes from a suggestion by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who brought it up at a meeting in January. Well, maybe. That was January. This is May. My guess is that someone probably told Stenehjem, and Dalrymple and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, that their cabinet guys already had that list. So nothing happened.
Among the things that didn’t happen is that no one gave the lists to Lynn Helms and said “Keep an eye out for these places if some oil company asks to put oil wells on them.”
So sure enough, along about March, Helms published a list in the paper of a hearing on a proposal to put four oil wells next to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Maybe Helms should have been part of a conversation something like this:
“Hey, Mark, Merl, Terry, is that Elkhorn Ranch on the list?”
“Well, ummm, yeah, I guess it is.”
Too late. The bloggers and the newspapers and the TV stations got hold of it, and pretty quickly the proposal was withdrawn. Temporarily, at least. XTO Energy, the company proposing the well site, paid good money for that lease, and they’re going to get that oil somehow. Stay tuned.
Oh, probably the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield and the Little Missouri State Park are on one of those lists too. Too late for them, though. Drilling is underway there. On sites approved by the Industrial Commission.
A Letter to the Industrial Commission
In early April, a loose coalition of groups dedicated to the protection of the Elkhorn Ranch and Theodore Roosevelt National Park wrote to the Industrial Commission expressing their concern about the near-miss at the Elkhorn.
“We strongly urge you to identify special places of natural and cultural importance that are deserving of protection, like the Elkhorn Ranch and lands adjacent to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and implement regulations to deny oil and gas development in those areas,” the group said in the letter, which was signed by the Friends of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Badlands Conservation Alliance, the Dakota Resource Council, the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club, The Environmental Law and Policy Center, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Parks Conservation Association. An impressive group.
“The incongruous visual, audio and pollution impacts caused by development can devastate the integrity of the landscape,” the group wrote. “There are some places so important to our nation and state’s history that they should be protected from irreversible harm.”
Within days, Dalrymple announced he was taking a tour. “We’re trying to make sure we’re not missing something that’s not on an existing list,” he told the Tribune.
Here’s Your List, Jack
Well, you know what, there’s a list no one in state government has looked at yet. It’s a pretty short list. Only has five places on it. Five very important places, though. And it is a list that is threatened by an action that has been taken by those very same members of the Industrial Commission. A very mean-spirited action. I wrote about it last fall. In two different posts.
In the first, I explained that some county commissioners in western North Dakota, led by the notorious Jim Arthaud, the same county commissioner who wants to put a bridge over the Little Missouri River next to the Elkorn Ranch, have filed a lawsuit against the United States of America seeking access to build roads on all the section lines in western North Dakota, including those in areas being protected by the United States as roadless areas of the Bad Lands.
In the second, I wrote that Arthaud has been joined in that lawsuit by Jack Dalrymple and Wayne Stenehjem, on behalf of the state of North Dakota. Their goal is to open up all the closed areas to oil development.
Bottom line is, there are five small areas of the Bad Lands, besides the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which have not been leased for oil development because the U.S. Forest Service, which manages them for all the People of the United States, is protecting them as “suitable for wilderness.” They are primitive areas, rich in scenery, history and wildlife, and the Forest Service has not leased the minerals under those parcels, nor have they allowed any roads to be built or any vehicle traffic inside their borders. The areas total about 60,000 acres, or about six per cent of the million acres the Forest Service owns, known as the Little Missouri National Grassland. The other 940,000 acres are leased and open for development.
If the lawsuit filed by the county commissioners and Dalrymple and Stenehjem is successful, the last 60,000 acres of the Bad Lands will fall to the drillers. That means every single acre of the Bad Lands except the land inside Theodore Roosevelt National Park will be open to oil drilling.
(As an aside, the land inside the National Park is protected, but not its borders. Lillian and I drove up to the top of Buck Hill, the highest point in the South Unit, the other evening, just after sunset. From that point, inside the park, we could see somewhere between three and four dozen oil well gas flares lighting up the park’s borders. In every direction we looked, there were wells and flares. And huge gobs of bright lights from drilling pads or some other kind of industrial sites near the park. What I saw nearly took my breath away. And not in a good way. All I could say was “No shit. Look at that.”)
The five areas threatened by one of the most mean-spirited lawsuits ever filed by our state include Bullion Butte (you’ve read about that here before), Kendley Plateau, which is just across the Little Missouri River from Bullion, Twin Buttes, which is just northwest of Medora, and Long-X Divide and Lone Butte, on the southern and eastern boundaries of the North Unit of the Park. Those last two protect the viewshed of lookout points in the North Unit, one of the most spectacular views in the state.
Those five areas are the focus of an effort to declare formal Wilderness in North Dakota. The Badlands Conservation Alliance, a group of North Dakotans who have banded together to try to keep an eye on these last few wild places in the Bad Lands, have drawn up the Prairie Legacy Wilderness plan, asking Congress to protect these last few significant areas of our state. You can read the plan by going here and clicking on the button down in the bottom left hand corner of the home page.
The Dalrymple and Stenehjem and Arthaud lawsuit would negate the effect of that, declaring that the state has the right to build roads through them. There’s no good reason for the state to do that, except to kowtow to the oil industry, which wants to drill on every fracking acre of the Bad Lands.
It’s outrageous that Dalrymple and Stenehjem are going to spend our state’s tax dollars, maybe millions before this is all settled, to destroy the last few unspoiled areas of our state. At the same time they are making a “list” of places to protect from oil drilling. Go figure.
The lawsuit is against the People of the United States of America, represented by the U.S. Forest Service, which is doing its best to preserve these few small areas as wilderness, a place where people and critters can get together on equal terms and know that they are in a place at least protected from the dust and cacophony of drilling rigs and oil trucks.
The federal government has a lot of lawyers and a lot of resources, and it is reassuring to know that there are people at all levels of government, both staff people on the ground here in the Bad Lands, and decision makers at the highest levels, who believe there are some special places worth saving. These are the same kinds of people who once decided that Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon were worth saving. The Bad Lands are no less important.
Help From The Private Sector
This week, it was good to learn that there are others joining the battle. The same Badlands Conservation Alliance (disclosure—I am a member, and my wife is the Founder) that is seeking the wilderness designation for these areas has joined forces with the federal government in defending the Bad Lands. The BCA is being represented by Earthjustice, a nationally acclaimed non-profit environmental law firm. The BCA and Earthjustice filed a motion in federal court to intervene in the lawsuit last week. Lawyers for the United States welcomed their help. Their skilled team has been involved in many major environmental lawsuits around the country. Dalrymple and Stenehjem may just have bitten off more than they can chew here. And they’re going to spend our tax dollars to find out. And if they lose, they may end up spending even more of our tax dollars paying for the good guys’ lawyers as well.
The 2013 Legislature appropriated money to defend the state’s constitutional challenge to the country’s abortion laws. They probably should have appropriated even more for this one.
There’s an easy out on this one. The first five stops by Dalrymple and Stenehjem and Goehring on their “summer tour” should be these five places. Then the five areas should be put on the “list” of places to be protected from oil development. The quickest and easiest way to do that would be to drop the lawsuit. And then tell Arthaud and his county commissioners to drop their lawsuit, because these areas are on the list of places where oil wells won’t be permitted anyway.
If Dalrymple and Stenehjem and Goehring are sincere, that’s what they will do. Anything less is just a meaningless publicity stunt.
Footnote: Here’s what a local archeologist had to say in an online post last week.
“Here’s what I suggest to the Industrial Commission: rely on your federal and state and tribal historic preservationists to do their jobs, make sure they are leading your tour. Visit a wide range of sites, from a single rock cairn or an effigy on the top of a remote hill that might be a burial of an important person, or a sacred marker. Or it might just be a beloved grandfather. You might not know who it is, but it is no less important than that ethnic iron cross marking an un-named site on the edge of your hometown. Visit a large scattered stone feature site that looks like nothing at all to you, but has meant the world to a Native family for hundreds, if not thousands of years, a family that might have used it to mark births, marriages, deaths, important life decisions. Visit a site where people have been gathering medicinal plants and leaving ephemeral evidence of sweat lodges for sweats or been doing vision questing for generations. A place as important as any historic church. Visit a site that doesn’t look like much on the surface but has evidence of 10,000 years of occupation in burnt dirt hearths, and chipped stones, and seeds, and broken bones, underneath. Visit a site that looks like a grassy ditch to you but that tells us more about how homesteaders built irrigation systems to settle the plains, or built railroads long gone. Visit some sites that show how a wide variety of people used the landscape and its resources for ten thousand years. Basically, get the State Historical Society and the tribal historians and the federal historic site managers to show you what they do on a daily basis.”
Pretty good advice.