Along with other federal agencies, the U.S. Forest Service is hurrying up rule changes that will make a big difference in land use, in this case in North Dakota’s Badlands.

On July 1, the Forest Service suddenly released a draft of changes to the long-standing Land Resource Management Plan for federal lands. The plan was adopted in 2002; essentially, it set the rules for development on the Dakota Prairie Grasslands. An environmental impact statement offering three alternatives for modest changes was published in 2018. Nearly two years later, in July 2020, rules making significant modifications were issued. This came as a considerable surprise and it surely looks as if the agency is hurrying to get the new rules adopted before the political climate changes. Those who had commented earlier were given until Oct. 1 to submit reactions to the new plan.

A group called Backcountry Hunters and Anglers did just that, and sent copies of their concerns to Brad Dokken, the Herald’s outdoor editor. He asked me to have a look, since he’s a Minnesotan by birth and recreational inclination, and I am a North Dakotan in both particulars. My own experience in the Badlands spans pretty close to 60 years of birdwatching, hiking, canoeing and camping.

I’ve seen a lot of changes in the Badlands, including the changes brought by oil development. As it happens Suezette and I are mineral owners, since we both grew up in Oil Country, though north of the Badlands themselves. Her last royalty check was about $14. Mine was about $100 more than that, but we’re not oil millionaires by any stretch of the imagination. We do appreciate what oil has done for North Dakota, but we also feel that more care should be taken to recognize and protect ranching, wildlife, recreational and wilderness values.

Probably something should be said about the importance of the Badlands, especially for those who might not have experienced them. North Dakota’s Badlands are unique geologically, ecologically and historically. Geologically the Badlands are the result of erosion in a north-facing landscape, an anomaly that makes the rugged landscape more verdant than South Dakota’s Badlands, which are sere by comparison. The North Dakota Badlands are ecologically diverse, with much of the state’s best hunting and best birding and certainly its best camping and canoeing.

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Historically, the Badlands have been ranching country. They’re linked in the public imagination with Theodore Roosevelt, who nurtured his conservation ethic as a cowhand and rancher. Later he said he wouldn’t have been president if he hadn’t spent time in North Dakota, about three years altogether.

Too bad Roosevelt didn’t use his bully power to withdraw the Badlands from private entry, as he did a number of other scenic natural areas. Drought took care of that. Much of the Badlands reverted to federal ownership during the Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Three tracts were set aside as Theodore Roosevelt National Park through the efforts of William Lemke, long a member of Congress from North Dakota. Other lands were made national grasslands. These are managed by the Forest Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Most of my time in the Badlands has been spent on Forest Service lands. I haven’t kept track of how much time I’ve spent in some part of the Badlands, but it’s got to pretty close to a year, although I haven’t been there since Covid struck. I have missed the Badlands. Badly.

There has been disagreement about land management in the Badlands for decades, if not generations, and several important issues are ongoing, but none is quite so great a threat as this attempt to change the management plan.

Everyone understood that the plan agreement reached 18 years ago was a compromise and that nobody would be completely satisfied. The plan recognized about 140,000 acres, a small share, about 10 percent of the federal holdings, as essentially roadless and barred from surface occupancy.

This year’s revision reduces that acreage by expanding the definition of a road; rather than just right-of-way, a road would include ground within a quarter of a mile – half a mile in some places – either side of the center of the roadway.

Presto! Change-O! The road is now half a mile wide. Surface oil and gas activities would be allowed in this so-called “buffer.” The compromise is that any oil drilling facilities would have to be built parallel to the road surface rather than perpendicular to it.

This is a concession to oil and gas development and a rebuke to lovers of back country. The hunters and I are just examples; 74,000 people offered suggestions for the land management plan in 2002, equivalent to more than 10% of the state’s population at the time. The changes the Forest Service now suggests are a betrayal of that agreement facilitated by a hasty process that didn’t allow for significant public comment.

Much of this is couched in a miasma of regulatory language, but the effect is plain. The Badlands experience that Roosevelt relished and that generations since have enjoyed, North Dakota residents and visitors alike, will be diminished, its wildlife values lessened, its silence shattered, its vastness enclosed and much of its majesty lost.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.