State parks and oil rigs will never mix wellLittle Missouri State Park is 4,592 acres in size. That’s 7.175 square miles.
By: Grand Forks Herald, The Jamestown Sun
Little Missouri State Park is 4,592 acres in size. That’s 7.175 square miles.
That, in turn, is a parcel about 2.7 miles on a side.
But now there’s going to be up to 10 oil wells there? Plus roads, trucks, pipelines and heavy equipment?
Something’s wrong in North Dakota when construction crews can truck in materials and build oil rigs even inside a state park. Central Park in New York City occupies some of the most valuable real estate in the world. If it were opened to development, hundreds of billions dollars would change hands, and before long, skyscrapers would soar.
But instead, there’s not an apartment house or office tower to be found. Of course not: it’s a park.
Why is Little Missouri State Park so different?
Little Missouri State Park is a gem of the North Dakota state parks system. Set in a remote corner of the Badlands, the rugged landscape of the Little Missouri Breaks “offers the state’s most awe-inspiring scenery,” the state Parks and Recreation department’s website notes.
The land is folded and rolled, like the Red River Valley would be if God put two big hands on the landscape and pushed them together, wrinkling the surface like a great prairie carpet.
Add a few million years of wind scour and erosion — the result of which has exposed the dun-, charcoal- and rose-colored layers of the underlying rock — and you’ve got a sight that “literally takes your breath away,” as historian Clay Jenkinson has written.
“It is better even than ‘the Grand Canyon of the Little Missouri’ in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. … The view into the heart of the badlands from the bluffs on the south side of the Little Missouri is magnificent, even sublime.”
But add oil rigs and gas flares to the view, and “sublime” won’t be the word that comes to mind.
In part, North Dakota’s hands are tied. The trouble is that “the state owns only 20 percent of the surface within the Little Missouri State Park and fewer than 7 percent of the mineral rights,” wrote Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources, in a letter in Saturday’s Herald.
“The rest of the surface and mineral rights are privately owned.” Furthermore, “the North Dakota Constitution prohibits the state from denying private property owners the right to develop their property.”
So, when Burlington Resources comes calling for access to its minerals, North Dakota must deliver. The state can negotiate only to minimize, not eliminate, oil development, authorities suggest.
But that’s treating the status quo as if it resulted from fate, not policy.
In fact, North Dakota retains the power of eminent domain, a power acknowledged by the U.S. Constitution and duly authorized by North Dakota law. That power extends fully and completely to buying land for parks, the U.S. Supreme Court as early as 1893 declared.
In other words, the drilling of Little Missouri State Park is not a matter of destiny. It’s a matter of will. To date, North Dakota simply has been reluctant to spend the money it takes to acquire parkland.
And as a result, North Dakota has fewer acres in state parks than do 49 of the 50 states. Only Rhode Island — the entire state of which could fit inside Grand Forks County — has less.
Well, maybe the time to change that status is now.
Let’s be clear: On balance, the oil boom is an exceptionally positive thing. There’s no argument about that.
Let’s also be clear that North Dakota’s state government worked long and hard to bargain down the impacts to Little Missouri State Park.
But if residents want to fully protect a few corners of their state’s landscape — a few Central Parks, thoughtfully and deliberately set aside — then the time to do so is now.
It may be too late for Little Missouri State Park. But it’s not too late for Twin Buttes, Long X Divide and the Kendley Plateau, to name a few other special areas. North Dakotans should protect them.