Clash over future of grasslands


Plains: A Forest Service proposal to scale back grazing and petroleum exploration on federal land sparks an outcry.

July 09, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

MEDORA, N.D. - Young Theodore Roosevelt thought western North Dakota an eerie, lonely place when he came here in 1883 to bag one of the few remaining wild bison on the northern Great Plains.

Yet the future 26th president of the United States fell in love with the stark beauty of the undulating grasslands and of the Badlands, with their variegated canyons and jutting buttes.

It was here that Roosevelt honed the conservation ethic that became a hallmark of his presidency. He dabbled in cattle ranching along the Little Missouri River and immersed himself for a few years in the fading lifestyle of the cowboy before returning to his political destiny back East.

Now, more than a century later, western North Dakota's sparsely settled residents are embroiled in a dispute over how far to take Roosevelt's ideals of conservation.

Environmentalists have squared off against cattle ranchers and oil and gas interests over the fate of the Little Missouri National Grassland, a million-acre remnant of the vast oceans of grass that Merriwether Lewis and William Clark found when they explored the uncharted region nearly 200 years ago.

The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Little Missouri and 19 smaller tracts across the Great Plains, has proposed to scale back the amount of cattle grazing allowed on the grasslands, and to limit oil and gas exploration.

Government biologists say they want to return more of the grasslands to their original denizens - bison, black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs, as well as native plants, such as the rare western fringed prairie orchid.

"We have the largest chunks of unroaded prairie remaining in the northern Plains, so if there are going to be opportunities for wilderness, it's going to be in the national grasslands," says Larry Dawson, supervisor of the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, four tracts encompassing more than 1.25 million acres in North and South Dakota.

But the Forest Service plan, unveiled last year, has sparked a bitter outcry from North Dakota ranchers and petroleum activists, who see themselves as practitioners of the rugged individualism that Roosevelt espoused.

They warn that the government's tilt in favor of nature could devastate the region's battered economy, heavily dependent on agriculture and energy.

"This land was intended to be ranches," insists Merle Jost, a third-generation rancher from Grassy Butte who, like many here, grazes his herd on leased government land. "It's not intended to be wildlife land."

It's a debate that carries echoes of the pitched political battle that began more than a decade ago over logging of old-growth forests in the Northwest. But it reflects in a way how the nation's long-neglected grasslands have finally been discovered.

"Prairies have come of age," says Dawson. "Everybody loves the grasslands, and that's what causes the controversy. They love them for different reasons."

One of the first things you notice here is the wind. It blows relentlessly. It riffles across vast, gently rolling swells of grass, marked only by an occasional copse of trees or a ranch house on the horizon.

In spring, the prairie brown is painted with wildflowers, such as the purple cone flower - whose root is the popular herbal remedy echinacea.

This was the Wild West at one time, where the buffalo roamed and George Armstrong Custer fell at Little Bighorn. But in the late 19th century, homesteaders began moving in and plowing up the grass, lured by hopes of farming 160-acre government land grants on the high plains.

They found it rough going, especially in the western Dakotas, where less than 20 inches of rain normally falls in a year. The wind conspired with slumping crop prices and severe drought in the early 1930s to turn the sod - and farmers' dreams - to dust.

The federal government stepped in to buy up thousands of failing farms, resettling the families and attempting to restore the badly eroded land. Federal officials enlisted the help of the remaining ranchers, who formed grazing associations to oversee use of the converted farms as summer pasture for their cattle and sheep.

Ranchers have helped rehabilitate the land, acknowledges Dawson. But this is not the wild, wide-open prairie of old, spanning 10 million acres across the continent's midsection.

The national grasslands are carved up and exploited now, for cattle grazing and oil and gas.

On the Little Missouri - the largest public grassland in the country - there are 550 producing oil wells and more than 3,000 miles of roads. The prairie also is largely fenced off into 240-acre allotments, which are leased to ranchers who hold permits to graze their livestock on them.

The Forest Service says it intends to shift its management slightly in favor of nature, setting aside more grasslands for wildlife and native grasses. Grazing will remain a major activity, Dawson assures, because the grasslands evolved being cropped by bison.

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