Access to N.D. Badlands may be changingFor 35 years, Tom Joyce and his family have escaped the Red River Valley to camp, hike and hunt on some of the state’s most scenic and rugged terrain in the Little Missouri National Grassland.
By: By Mike Nowatkzi, Forum Communications Co. , The Jamestown Sun
For 35 years, Tom Joyce and his family have escaped the Red River Valley to camp, hike and hunt on some of the state’s most scenic and rugged terrain in the Little Missouri National Grassland.
Every hill holds the promise of Mother Nature’s surprises on the other side, from mule deer and prairie dogs to bighorn sheep and sharp-tailed grouse. The flatlanders from West Fargo appreciate the Badlands’ grassy slopes and rocky buttes.
“My kids loved just running up and down the hills,” Joyce said.
But he fears a U.S. Forest Service plan would effectively eliminate access to his favorite getaway.
The plan’s central proposal would close 703 miles of mapped roads — including the two Joyce uses to reach his spot — and 600-plus miles of so-called “unauthorized” roads in the national grassland.
Two alternatives, developed after a scoping process that drew about 170 public comments, would close either 97 miles or 870 miles of mapped roads and all of the unauthorized roads. A fourth option is to take no action.
The plan has drawn fire from the state Game and Fish Department.
“I can’t come up with who benefits out of this,” said Mike McKenna, the department’s conservation and communications chief.
Game and Fish officials don’t believe closing roads to the public — roads that may continue to be used by others — will benefit wildlife, plant life or water quality, he said.
“But I can certainly tell you who gets hurt, and that’s the public who own and use these lands,” McKenna said.
The Forest Service will accept public comment on the travel management plan through Aug. 27.
Final decisions on the road closures are expected in late fall, with changes slated to go into effect Jan. 1, said Paula Johnston, the Forest Service’s recreation manager for the grassland.
McKenna said he’s hopeful a compromise can be reached. An acceptable starting point for Game and Fish, he said, would be somewhere between the no-action option and the less impactful alternative.
“We’ll never go along with what they’re proposing … without some serious modifications,” he said.
Why it’s being done
The Forest Service is developing the plan to comply with a federal rule published in 2005 that requires each national forest and grassland to create a map of roads open to the public for motor vehicle use.
Since 2001, the general rule on grasslands has been “if it looks like a road, it is a road, and you can drive on it,” Johnston said.
The plan would change that. It categorizes roads into two groups:
? About 1,565 miles of “system” roads, which have been mapped, numbered and inventoried by the Forest Service. These include paved, gravel, scoria and two-track roads.
?Unauthorized roads, which are mostly user-created and may or may not be mapped. The Forest Service lacks a complete inventory of unauthorized roads, but a partial inventory in 2008 identified about 600 miles of them.
The total doesn’t include 265 miles of oil and gas industry roads that are off-limits to the public.
The plan’s proposed action would close about 45 percent of the system roads. The first alternative would close 6 percent and the second alternative would close 55 percent.
The unauthorized roads would all be closed to the public, based on botanical and archeological surveys and design and safety requirements for system roads, Johnston said.
“We can’t just take all these unauthorized roads and add them to our system and put a number on them,” she said.
The Sierra Club’s Dacotah Chapter supports the option with the most road closures, which spokesman Wayde Schafer said are needed to offset the spread of roads as a result of recent oil development.
Too many roads also increases the chances of poaching, disturbs migration patterns, fragments wildlife habitat and makes it harder to have a true primitive experience in the Badlands, he said.
“I think basically it’s trying to restore balance,” he said of the plan. “It’s gotten out of whack with all the oil activity.”
Game and Fish officials agree that a number of superfluous roads closely paralleling each other should be shut down.
However, McKenna said closing the roads to the public doesn’t mean people won’t drive on them. Permitted users such as ranchers and oil companies will still have access.
Also, because the closed roads won’t be dug up or blocked off, he said the public may continue to use them even if they’re not shown on the official Motor Vehicle Use Map.
“It’s not like these roads are gone,” he said. “It’s like these roads are just closed to the public, which is ironic in that they’re the users and owners of those lands to begin with.”
The state issues thousands of hunting permits every year in the grassland. Conservation Supervisor Steve Dyke said the bulk of hunters spend only three to seven days there during deer rifle season.
Game and Fish is more concerned about vehicle traffic during the fawning, calving and bird nesting seasons, which typically aren’t in October and November when deer hunters are present, Dyke said. He also noted the plan won’t affect snowmobiles, which can disrupt wildlife.
A North Dakota Tourism representative said the department is still reviewing the proposed changes.
Comments not extended
As of Friday, the Forest Service had received “a couple dozen” comments on the environmental assessment, Johnston said, adding she expects more as the deadline nears.
Johnston said it’s “hard to say” how much of a role the comments will play in which roads get closed.
“It’s not a vote,” she said, “but if someone identifies an issue that we didn’t analyze or some sort of access that we didn’t analyze, then of course we’d be happy to review it in the analysis process.”
Game and Fish officials want the 30-day comment period extended to 90 days, but Johnston said that’s not allowed under federal rules for environmental assessments. However, if the agency receives input that leads to issuing a revised assessment, that would trigger a new comment period, she said.
Final decisions on which roads are closed will fall to Ron Hecker and Ron Jablonski Jr., the Forest Service district rangers who oversee the grassland’s McKenzie and Medora districts, respectively.
They must weigh public access against the resource impacts, Johnston said.
“I personally believe that they take to heart what the public has to say,” she said.
‘Closing everybody out’
Game and Fish officials met with the Forest Service on Thursday but didn’t get most of their questions answered, McKenna said.
Dyke noted that two of the primary purposes of the plan are to provide public access to the grassland for recreation and other uses and developing a travel plan that’s easily understood by the public.
Johnston said the driving force behind the plan is to benefit the natural resource, whether it’s a reintroduction area for the black-footed ferret, archeological sites, a particularly erosive landscape or an area with too many roads.
Asked if it will make the grassland less accessible to the public, she said, “That’s really hard to say.”
Closing unauthorized roads will reduce access for motorized users, but there may be better opportunities in other areas because the map will show all public system roads, she said.
“I think the opportunities will be improved,” she said.
Joyce doesn’t see it that way for his family members and friends who regularly visit the grassland. He’s worried a lot of people in eastern North Dakota aren’t aware of the pending changes and will miss their chance to comment.
Without the two half-mile segments of road he uses, he said he’ll have to hike across four rugged miles of Badlands to reach his spot, which isn’t feasible.
“If they do this, that land I’ve been going to for 35 years, I’ll never see that land again in my lifetime,” he said. “It’s just closing everybody out, and what’s frustrating is this is U.S. Forest Service land owned by the government, owned by the people.”
Mike Nowatzki is a reporter for the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.