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Other Views: N.D.’s special places need special consideration

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Grand Forks Herald

There’s the North Dakota of drill pads and diesel fumes, of boom towns and Big Rigs and burgeoning bank accounts.

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But that’s not the only North Dakota.

There’s another North Dakota out there, too. It’s the North Dakota that Teddy Roosevelt loved, that hunters and hikers roam and that North Dakotans as a whole take great pride in, as shown by their choosing a scene of buttes and bison for depiction on the commemorative U.S. quarter.

Both North Dakotas, of course, are crucial to the future of the state. Both matter tremendously, inspire loyalty and figure prominently in the state’s history and lore.

But the second North Dakota now is under pressure from the first. That’s because oil wells can generate riches while Badlands scenery cannot.

So, here’s the situation: If North Dakotans want to save some significant piece of the wildlands element of their state, then they have to act, almost certainly through their government.

That’s where Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks came from at the national level. That’s what led to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota being set aside for recreation rather than development.

And that, in a much more limited way, is what Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is trying to do, by proposing a list of “extraordinary places” that have one foot in each of the two North Dakotas and so deserve special consideration.

Not full-on protection, mind you. Not bans on oil development and the removal of existing roads.

Instead, just “a process for comment by interested people on locations of those wells,” and a request that drillers “submit a proposal as they’re developing their wells on how to minimize any impact on the environment,” in Stenehjem’s words.

Bullion Butte, perhaps North Dakota’s prettiest spot and most perfect day-hike. Elkhorn Ranch, where young Roosevelt lived — the “cradle of conservation” for America and the world.

White Butte, North Dakota’s highest point. Little Missouri State Park.

Is it so outrageous to ask that when oil developers survey such spots, they also take scenery, wildlife and conservation into account?

Apparently, yes, according to critics of Stenehjem and his list. How dare the attorney general propose such a list, the adoption of which threatens not only to “slow or stop development of nearly 1 million privately owned mineral acres” but also jeopardizes North Dakota’s entire “economic miracle?”

Well, for one thing, those claims are wild hyperbole. As an executive of the Dakota Resource Council put it, “they’re setting up a completely false choice of ‘You either do it our way, or it will all stop.’ That is fear-mongering at its worst.”

For another thing, even though scenery can’t be monetized, Americans still can insist that their government recognize its value. And again, Stenehjem isn’t demanding that mineral owners give up their rights. He’s suggesting that the minerals be developed in ways that minimize the surface impact.

And where North Dakota’s most “extraordinary places” are concerned, that’s not an unreasonable request.

This isn’t all or nothing. North Dakota can have both boom towns and Bullion Butte. Without a doubt, that’s the outcome most North Dakotans would prefer; and with that in mind, the Industrial Commission should endorse and adopt Stenehjem’s list.

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