Priceless public N.D. land in jeopardyIt’s sobering to realize that of the 1.2 million acres in North Dakota’s treasured Little Missouri Badlands, only pockets totaling about 60,000 acres remain pristine enough to qualify as wilderness.
By: The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, The Jamestown Sun
It’s sobering to realize that of the 1.2 million acres in North Dakota’s treasured Little Missouri Badlands, only pockets totaling about 60,000 acres remain pristine enough to qualify as wilderness. All of those areas, fortunately, are public lands. So their stewardship is a matter left up to the public. That means public opinion should help guide what is done with those valuable natural resources — places that, if disturbed by roads or energy development, might never be the same.
Pressures on the landscape of western North Dakota have never been greater as the state and its residents grapple with an oil boom that seems at times to be galloping out of control. Last week provided a window into the fears expressed by residents over the changes upending their communities. A Williams County commissioner, where Williston is located, bluntly told legislators: “Our quality of life is gone. It is absolutely gone, and I’m heartbroken.”
At almost the same time, officials of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and wildlife advocates were pleading with the state land board to withhold from mineral leasing tracts totaling 5,334 acres from more than 73,000 acres of public lands that will go on auction Feb. 7. The tracts of greatest concern are in an area of about 9,000 acres that were set aside to be left roadless. They are near badlands landmarks, Bullion Butte and Kendley Plateau, that are two of North Dakota’s five remaining “backcountry” pockets that would qualify for a wilderness designation. They provide valuable habitat for species including bighorn sheep, sage grouse and mule deer.
The good news is that the land board, whose members are elected officials including Gov. Jack Dalrymple, decided to withdraw from the February mineral leasing auction 13 tracts totaling less than 2,000 acres. The hope is that some arrangement can be made, perhaps through a swap with the federal government, to spare those areas from development. But the withdrawal from leasing extends only until May, so the reprieve might only be temporary.
We understand that by statute the land board is charged with managing lands to generate income for public schools and other educational institutions. Trust funds from land revenues total almost $2 billion. In the last biennium, distributions from the funds totaled $82.3 million and grew by 15.5 percent. The board just increased state royalty rates in seven oil and gas counties, so the revenue stream will be healthy.
Will we be able to say the same about areas like Bullion Butte? Or will we wake up some day, heartbroken, and find that prized pieces of our natural heritage are “absolutely gone”?