A short history lesson on the Little Missouri National Grasslands of western North Dakota.
For thousands of years Indian nations hunted and thrived on the grasslands. A spiritual tie to the land based on Indian beliefs developed and is still honored today. However, as America pushed west, the grasslands became home to new settlers in the form of homesteads. It was U.S. government homesteading policy that encouraged these people to settle the prairie.
These new homesteaders tilled the land and raised crops to “prove up” the land for ownership. But when drought came in the 1930s, crops shriveled and the fragile, exposed soil blew. The “Dust Bowl Era” drove people away from the land and devastated local economies.
The homestead policy wasn’t always compatible with available land. Drought, temperature extremes, insects and fire played a significant role on the prairie. The grasslands could not sustain large-scale farming, but the land would grow grass in most years. With government help, farmers became ranchers and some of the natural processes that sustained the prairie throughout time began to take hold once again.
In an effort to add economic stability to failing local economies, the U.S. government began buying private lands, under programs called Land Utilization Projects. What began as a program to purchase and develop submarginal land, gradually evolved and expanded into a program designed to transfer land to its most suitable use: ranching.
Much history remains to be written about the national grasslands. These lands can help people maintain a quality of life, both for the people who live and work on these lands, and for the people interested in spending time visiting these American treasures. People come to the grasslands not only to seek solitude, but also to teach their children how to canoe, to camp, or to hunt – to appreciate nature. The potential for outdoor recreation to help sustain local economies is great, as is the potential to continue the tradition of providing our children and future generations with special places to develop an appreciation for the natural resources of the country.
Those words come from the U.S. Forest Service’s Record of Decision on use of the million-acre Little Missouri National Grasslands in western North Dakota’s Bad Lands, written in 2002 by Bradley Powell, Regional Forester for the U.S. Forest Service. Powerful words and an insightful analysis by a mid-level federal employee who obviously had found his calling in life.
Take serious note of the last line of that introduction, and its use of the phrase “special places.” Go back and look at that last sentence. Because you’re going to continue to hear, over the next few months, that phrase “Special Places” in the context of what the North Dakota Industrial Commission may or may not do to begin an awareness program that will recognize that there are pieces of land in North Dakota—even very small pieces—on which we should not drill an oil well. If the North Dakota news media does its job, and those of us who watch both the Industrial Commission and the news media do ours, and the public responds to what they read, see and hear in the media, then the Industrial Commission is going to have to follow through on something they’ve been talking about for almost a year now. They’ve crossed the River Rubicon. Now they must take at least a first tentative step on shore to see what lies there.
It all began about a year ago, when someone, I think it was Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, said at an Industrial Commission meeting last January that perhaps it is time to make a list of places that should get some consideration beyond rubber-stamp approval when a drilling permit application is received which might impact them. Then, in May, Jack Dalrymple (perhaps feeling a little cabin fever on a much warmer day than that one back in January on which Stenehjem spoke up) proposed the Industrial Commission take a tour of some of those places.
What prompted Dalrymple’s suggestion was a letter the Commission had received from a group of conservation organizations that said, in part, “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.” (Emphasis mine.) The letter was signed by representatives of 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. I wrote about them last year.
It’s the first time, I think, that the term “Special Places” was attached to the idea of protecting some areas of the state from oil development, and it is a phrase that has stuck. It has been the subject of much discussion. Discussion. But no action.
After getting some big headlines, and kudos in newspaper editorials, Dalrymple changed his mind and said that busy government officials just couldn’t find time in their schedules for such a tour. He did take a little one-day pilgrimage himself in August, and held a press conference with a dramatic Bad Lands background, but has proposed no action. Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring just blows the issue off, saying “all of North Dakota is special.” Stenehjem, though, has been a bit dogged in his determination to see SOMETHING done, and we might see the beginnings of a list and a special new rule for an approval process for drilling permits come before the Commission next month. It will be interesting to see if he can convince Dalrymple and Goehring that any new rules are necessary.
Earlier this month, I posted here, and sent to the Attorney General, my list of “Special Places.” For the most part, they involve public land, because sometime in the past, someone in a leadership position in government recognized that they had some important scenic, agricultural, historical, archeological, paleontological, recreational or environmental value and saw to it that they became publicly owned. Many of them are located in or near the million-acre Little Missouri National Grasslands which Forester Powell was writing about in his Record of Decision.
A Record of Decision is essentially a plan for the use of federally owned lands, and the process used to write that plan is painfully slow because it pauses, along the way to completion, for numerous public input sessions (something the North Dakota Industrial Commission has studiously avoided). The land, after all, belongs to all the people of the United States. We entrust its care, in this case, to the U.S. Forest Service, but the Forest Service must care for it the way we want it cared for.
Another short history lesson. The land purchase by the government that Powell refers to was specifically an effort to help keep ranchers on the land in western North Dakota during the “Dirty 30’s.” Generally what happened is that a rancher kept ownership of the “home place,” anywhere from a quarter section to a couple of sections, and sold the rest to the government, which then leased it back to the rancher, generally for pennies on the dollar. The cash infusion to the rancher from the sale of his land allowed him to pay some bills (maybe the mortgage on the home place) and remain on the land during those awful Dust Bowl days. In North Dakota, the government bought up about a million acres, and leased it all back to the ranchers for grazing cattle. Today, most of those ranches remain intact (thanks to what many term embarrassingly low grazing fees on the federal lands), either from having been passed down in the family to sons and daughters, or through sale to newcomers who wanted to be Bad Lands ranchers. For the most part, the ranchers who use our public lands now to sustain their operations have been pretty good caretakers. For the most part, it is a government program that has worked the way it was intended.
But because those million acres are publicly owned, there have been some restrictions placed on them over the years. The Grasslands Management Plan that came about as a result of that Record of Decision requires the National Grasslands to be managed under a “multiple-use” concept. In addition to allowing for ranchers to run their cattle, the Forest Service manages the land for outdoor recreation and mineral development, as well as habitat for wildlife and healthy, diverse vegetation. That was a land use policy championed by Theodore Roosevelt, who created the U.S. Forest Service during his presidency, and believed that each acre the government owned ought to be put to its best use—commercial, industrial, residential, agricultural or recreational.
Because of that policy (Roosevelt coined the phrase “wise use” to describe it), it wasn’t so long ago that half a million acres of the National Grasslands in North Dakota were still pretty much in a pristine state, used only for the grazing of cattle and recreation. Those were the wisest uses of the National Grasslands in North Dakota. That’s changed since we discovered they are underlain with oil. All but about 50,000 acres of the million acres of National Grasslands—about 95 per cent—is now leased for oil development. Wise use? Well, in some cases, with proper reclamation laws, I’d guess so. But there probably are some places where oil development is not the best use. And so there are efforts underway to protect that remaining 50,000 acres permanently, which I have written about before.
Soon, the drilling rigs are going to march south, across the Missouri River and its great Lake Sakakawea, and into the National Grasslands, an area we more commonly call the North Dakota Bad Lands and the Missouri Slope. And that’s where you’ll find most of the “Special Places” on anyone’s list for which the North Dakota Industrial Commission is being asked to provide protection.
Theodore Roosevelt recognized long ago, when he created the Forest Service, that there was a need to develop a “wise use” policy for millions of acres of “special places” in America. Forester Powell reaffirmed that in his Record of Decision for our own National Grasslands here in North Dakota. Now we just need to encourage our own Industrial Commission to follow Roosevelt and Powell’s lead.
Let me ask you just one more time to join with 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 in urging the North Dakota Industrial Commission, at its next meeting in December, to adopt its list of “Special Places,” and a process for dealing with oil and gas drilling permit applications that impact them. Remind them of Forester Powell’s words, worth sharing one more time:
These lands can help people maintain a quality of life, both for the people who live and work on these lands, and for the people interested in spending time visiting these American treasures. People come to the grasslands not only to seek solitude, but also to teach their children how to canoe, to camp, or to hunt – to appreciate nature. The potential for outdoor recreation to help sustain local economies is great, as is the potential to continue the tradition of providing our children and future generations with special places to develop an appreciation for the natural resources of the country.
American Treasures. Perhaps an even better phrase than Special Places.