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Protect N.D.’s key spots

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead

It’s starting to look as if western North Dakota’s “extraordinary places” will get reasonable protection from intrusive development by the oil and gas industry. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem recently unveiled his much-anticipated list of proposed “extraordinary places” along with draft rules for regulations aimed at keeping them extraordinary. His list of 18 locations includes Lake Sakakawea and the entire length of the Little Missouri River, Little Missouri State Park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park and wildlife management areas.

The list also includes some of North Dakota’s most iconic landmarks, including the Elkhorn Ranch, Killdeer Mountain Battlefield Historic Site and Bullion Butte. Stenehjem is proposing, to his colleagues on the Industrial Commission, buffer zones of up to two miles around these designated places, with one-mile buffers on each side of the Little Missouri.

It’s important to note, as Stenehjem himself is quick to point out, what this designation would and wouldn’t mean. First, it would not bar mineral development of these places. It would, however, set forth a formal process for gathering input from the public and experts to enable development to be as unobtrusive as possible. It would put industry on notice that they must tread as lightly as possible in these places, and create a framework of rules.

It’s a sensible, serious proposal, one that many have long clamored for the state to adopt in the face of unprecedented oil and gas development. Predictably, there were naysayers. Most disappointing was Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, who raises straw man concerns about restrictions that would hamstring farmers and ranchers. Goehring is spouting the Farm Bureau line, which is reflexively opposed to any sort of governmental intervention except those that help farmers.

Drilling would not be barred in a buffer zone. “All I’m suggesting is that when you’re siting those wells, you do everything you can to mitigate the impact,” Stenehjem said, responding to concerns like those expressed by Goerhing, Stenehjem’s fellow Industrial Commission member, along with Gov. Jack Dalrymple. For his part, the governor greeted the proposal with caution, saying he wants time to study it with his staff. In the past, Dalrymple has spoken about the idea of designating special places to protect from intrusive development.

Because the proposal would amend administrative rules, it would have to go through an extensive public hearing and comment process. That will allow everyone to have their say about the proposal.

So Stenehjem’s proposal will be thoroughly vetted before it can go into place, assuming he can convince one of his fellow industrial commissioners to go along with the idea of protecting extraordinary places. The time to act is now, as North Dakota regulators are approving 200 to 300 drilling permits every month. Future generations will judge how we act. Let’s not disappoint them.

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