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Approved plan keeps oil drilling out of view from Elkhorn Ranch

BISMARCK - Visitors to the historic Elkhorn Ranch in Theodore Roosevelt National Park won't have to worry about oil rigs spoiling their view after the North Dakota Industrial Commission on Tuesday approved a plan that will keep drilling activity about two miles away from the ranch.

Park officials and others raised concerns last March when XTO Energy Inc., a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, staked out a site about 100 feet from the entrance to Elkhorn Ranch.

The company responded by calling reports that it intended to drill on the site premature, but it nonetheless withdrew its permit application to develop up to four oil well sites on two sections of land adjacent to Elkhorn Ranch.

The proposal approved Tuesday combines those two 1,280-acre units into one 2,560-acre unit that XTO will tap using up to eight horizontal wells. All drilling will originate from an existing well pad that will expand from about 5 acres to 10 to 15 acres on U.S. Forest Service land in the Little Missouri National Grasslands, said Lynn Helms, director of the state Department of Mineral Resources.

Helms said the well pad is two miles from the Maah Daah Hey Trail and more than two miles from Elkhorn Ranch, where Theodore Roosevelt ranched for several years before becoming the nation's 26th president in 1901.

Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said that while park officials don't like to see any development near Elkhorn Ranch, they support XTO's solution because it will keep development hidden from the ranch. It also will protect the access road to the ranch and thereby a Forest Service campground and the Maah Daah Hey Trail, she said.

"I see it as a win-win-win kind of situation if it's done right," she said.

Naylor testified in favor of the plan during a commission hearing Sept. 26.

"I think in order to protect these important cultural and natural sites in western North Dakota, we all need to work together and we need to be creative," she said.

Park officials hope to meet with XTO officials later this month to address concerns about traffic, flaring and noise, she said.

Naylor said she also asked that the Industrial Commission ban surface drilling activity in two sections of land adjacent to Elkhorn Ranch, but it wasn't included in the approved order. Helms said the Forest Service wasn't comfortable with the commission stepping into its jurisdiction "and they expressed that quite strenuously." The order does recognize the existing well pad as the only acceptable site for development, he said.

Helms said landowners around the site are unhappy that federal land management restrictions forced the development onto their lands.

"There has to be some give in the equation somewhere, and that's where the give was," he said.

XTO Energy also had to give, he said, estimating that the four wells running east to west will cost the company an estimated $8 million more than if drilling had been conducted on one multi-well pad in each 1,280-acre unit.

Company spokeswoman Suann Lundsberg said in an email that XTO believes the new unit configuration will help address concerns previously raised by park officials.

Jan Swenson, executive director of the nonprofit Badlands Conservation Alliance, wrote in a letter to the commission that while the alliance would prefer a moratorium on further development near Elkhorn until the Industrial Commission finishes identifying special places in western North Dakota that need protection, "we would commend XTO for their efforts and see it as one significant move in the right direction."

Readers can reach Forum News Service reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at