MATTERS AT HAND: Wilderness dreams live in western N.D.

More than 100 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt said, "In utilizing and conserving the natural resources of the nation, the one characteristic more essential than any other is foresight."...

More than 100 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt said, "In utilizing and conserving the natural resources of the nation, the one characteristic more essential than any other is foresight."

I found the quote last week, when I visited Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota's Badlands.

Roosevelt's words appear on a signboard at the entrance to the ranch site.

Given the situation that prevails in the Badlands, there is irony in these words. Oil development and road building threaten the last areas that might qualify as wilderness under federal law.

Ah! But hope springs eternal -- and, in this case, from a surprising set of circumstances.


First, the U.S. Forest Service has acquired a large ranch adjacent to the Elkhorn, bringing 5,500 acres into federal hands. Second, a conservation-minded individual now owns two other ranches nearby, creating a significant area where development will be directed, even if it's not stopped completely.

Third, the political worm has turned, and this is perhaps the most surprising, and potentially the most significant, development of all.

For more than a decade, U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan has been the biggest impediment to designating wilderness in the Badlands, consistently blocking efforts to introduce legislation. The latest example happened last summer, when Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota introduced legislation to designate some lands in South Dakota as wilderness. Dorgan rebuffed suggestions areas in North Dakota should be included.

Dorgan is leaving the Senate.

Rick Berg has been elected to the U.S. House. Berg caused a furor during the campaign, when he suggested funding Social Security by drilling for oil in national parks, including North Dakota's Roosevelt National Park.

There were two important developments in the ensuring uproar.

John Hoeven, who will take Dorgan's seat, distanced himself from Berg's statement.

And Berg himself backed away from it, saying he'd favor directional drilling allowing recovery of oil under the park without actually drilling within it.


In other words, he acknowledged the value of the park itself.

A look at Berg's own history suggests a more nuanced view than his initial statement, too. He grew up in western North Dakota, so he understands the passion surrounding land use issues, and he's been closely involved with the Roosevelt Medora Foundation, a private undertaking that operates tourism attractions in the Badlands while promoting Roosevelt's conservation philosophy.

He's also heard the argument for wilderness from its most passionate advocates in the state. There's a surprise here, too. Even while controversy about his statement filled the letters columns in North Dakota newspapers and political advertising on North Dakota television, Berg met with wilderness advocates -- at the insistence of a Republican donor who embraces Roosevelt's conservation ethic.

Berg, the candidate, traveled to Medora to hear supporters of wilderness press their case.

It is a very simple case.

North Dakota is a large state, but it has less land in public ownership than any other state west of the Mississippi River (and several east of it). Most of this land is managed for commercial uses, ranging from ranching to oil extraction, and the kinds of experiences that were once commonplace in the Badlands -- uninterrupted vistas and long periods of silence -- are becoming much more rare.

The opportunity for such experiences ought to be preserved, and designation as wilderness would accomplish that. Wilderness designation would direct road building and mineral development away from especially sensitive areas, keeping them inviolate for ours and future generations.

Wilderness advocates, organized as the Badlands Conservation Alliance, have identified a handful of areas that still meet the requirements for wilderness designation set out in federal law.


They're seeking designation of the areas. As their literature suggests, it's a "humble" suggestion.

Last week, I went to Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch site with one of my oldest friends. We've been visiting the Badlands together for nearly half a century, and we've seen a whole lot of change in that time.

The Badlands experience is still intact, however. Despite rapid development, especially of oil and gas, the character of the area is wild -- and it can remain wild if we recognize the essential characteristic that Roosevelt enunciated.

If we have foresight.

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