BISMARCK — A new Trump administration decision has cleared the way for oil and gas drilling on more than 200,000 acres of the Little Missouri National Grasslands.

The decision by the U.S. Forest Service was celebrated by members of North Dakota's congressional delegation in a joint statement this week as the latest step forward in President Donald Trump's advocacy for the energy industry in North Dakota.

"North Dakota continues to lead the way for American energy independence, providing good paying jobs for thousands of North Dakotans," Rep. Kelly Armstrong said in the statement, alongside Sens. Kevin Cramer and John Hoeven. "We have worked with the Forest Service and the Trump Administration to safely expand production opportunities and we will continue our advocacy for regulatory certainty in North Dakota."

But local conservationists argue that the final decision, which opens up large, mostly undeveloped sections of the grasslands for surface drilling, includes major changes from previous drafts that they said they had minimal chance to contest.

"The vast majority of the public is only becoming aware of it after the decision is made and after there is no opportunity for public comment," said Liz Loos, director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance.

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The decision affecting some 216,000 acres of the Little Missouri grasslands has been on the table dating back to the George W. Bush presidency, but the final version of the decision rewrote portions of the proposal that were publicly workshopped during an environmental review two years ago, according to North Dakota Wildlife Federation director John Bradley.

About 140,000 acres — a relatively small portion of the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, which encompass the Little Missouri grasslands — are considered "roadless," but Bradley said changes to the final version of the Forest Service decision substantially shrink the amount of roadless land shielded from surface drilling work.

"We would like to see those areas kept for their kind of wild character," he said, highlighting the losses that new development could deal to the local hunting community. Bradley argued that the roadless portions of the grasslands are some of the best-preserved of the region, a natural purity that he said would be sacrificed with the introduction of infrastructure and new drilling projects.

In a response from the Forest Service shared with Forum News Service by Hoeven's office, the federal agency argued that the revised impacts for roadless areas of the grasslands "are not substantially different in terms of environmental impacts nor are they a substantial change in the proposed action."

At around 1 million acres, the Little Missouri National Grasslands have become a frequent battleground in North Dakota for companies looking to capitalize on oil and mineral-rich territory and for conservationists who see energy developments as destructive to one of the state's ecological treasures.

Conservationists also see the latest Forest Service decision as part of a pattern of cutbacks to environmental protections during the Trump presidency. In the last year, the Trump administration has announced major rollbacks to National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) laws, the 50-year-old environmental guardrails on new infrastructure projects, as well as major changes to the Endangered Species Act, among scores of other reversals on environmental policy.

While Bradley said he and his organization support the "multiple use" purpose of North Dakota's public lands, he fears that "development is being prioritized at the expense of other uses." The latest decision from the Forest Service, Bradley said, threatens the natural habitats of wildlife like elk and mule deer, and marks a major loss for North Dakota hunters and outdoor recreationists.

Members of the North Dakota delegation have previously argued that Trump administration rollbacks to environmental regulations preserve environmental responsibility while cutting out unneeded red tape. In a statement, Hoeven said the new decision "will help expand production with good environmental stewardship."

"At the same time, we continue working with the Forest Service to address permitting delays by ensuring they have the necessary staffing resources to reduce the backlog in permit requests," Hoeven wrote.

Appeals for a new public comment period have been submitted by several North Dakota environmental groups, including the Badlands Conservation Alliance, Dakota Resource Council and the Wildlife Federation, but Loos said those appeals have so far "been soundly rejected."

Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.