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When in 2008 the Badlands Conservation Alliance and other groups formulated a plan to set aside a few thousand acres across North Dakota as wilderness, I thought it was a great idea. If ever there was an exceptionally modest proposal that bent over backwards to accommodate existing settlement and land use patterns, and suggested nothing more than designating a few scattered parcels for permanent wilderness protection, this was it. The land in question (except for 40 acres) is already part of the public domain, managed by the U.S. Forest Service under the jurisdictional umbrella of the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, or owned by the state of North Dakota. In other words, the proposal does not contemplate buying or taking private lands and adding them to the federal system; it merely re-designates a few parcels already in the public domain, to give special protection to a handful of remote and serene little grass islands thus far uncompromised by economic development. No one’s ox is gored.

The wilderness proposal includes six parcels, five in the badlands in the west, and one in the Sheyenne National Grassland in southeastern North Dakota: Twin Buttes (13,590 acres), five miles west of the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park; Kendley Plateau (16,810 acres), northwest of Amidon; Bullion Butte (9,720 acres), 15 miles south of Medora; Long X Divide (10,670) a few miles south of the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park; and Sheyenne Grasslands (5,410 acres), 20 miles east of Lisbon, North Dakota. The proposal would also designate an 11,510-acre parcel at Lone Butte, a few miles south and east of the north unit of TRNP, as a wilderness study area. Add all of that up, including the proposed Lone Butte study area, and that totals 67,710 acres.

The total land area of North Dakota is 45 million acres. At the moment there are 39,652 acres of already designated wilderness in North Dakota in four existing parcels: one in each of the two main units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park; one at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge; and one at Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge in Burke County. That represents 1/10 of one percent of the North Dakotaa landbase. Add the proposed new parcels to the system and you get a grand total of 107,362 acres or a puny one fifth of one percent of the North Dakota countryside. Here’s a little perspective. Fully 52 percent of Alaska is wilderness, 57.5 million acres! California has 14.9 million acres of wilderness (14 percent), Montana 3.4 million acres (3 percent), and Minnesota 816.267 acres of wilderness or about 1 percent of the land base. Even South Dakota has 77,570 existing acres of wilderness. Nobody can call this a radical proposal.

If the idea seemed attractive and practicable four years ago, before the advent of the Bakken oil boom, the wilderness proposal is ten times more important in 2012. We should do this, now more than ever, now while it is just still possible, now before it is too late. If we don’t do it now, we’ll lose our last chance to protect a few unique parcels of our prairie homeland, because the pressure to lease every leasable acre of North Dakota is going to be overwhelming. In the 1970s, almost half (500,000 acres) of the Little Missouri National Grasslands was suitable for wilderness. Today there remain only a few tens of thousands of suitable acres—all encompassed in this modest proposal.

We, the 680,000 citizens of North Dakota, should agree to set aside this teeny, almost miniscule, percentage of our magnificent grasslands as a permanent sanctuary for the human spirit, as a reminder of what North Dakota was in the days of Theodore Roosevelt and Sitting Bull, as a symbol of our heritage value system, which understood (and still understands) that there are some things in North Dakota—including the idea of North Dakota--that are not for sale. We should agree that a few pristine acres of land already in the public domain are so beautiful and so satisfying and so untouched by human development that we can afford to protect them--at a time when virtually every other acre of North Dakota is open for industrial business. The imperatives of the Bakken oil boom are going to transform most of the landscape of western North Dakota into something that is not pristine. To create this wilderness would not reduce our state’s net oil output in any measurable way. North Dakota is awash in oil—certainly 5 billion recoverable barrels, probably 10-15 billion barrels, and perhaps even 25 billion barrels or more. People who know the industry are now beginning to say that this could be the largest oil field on earth. The amount of oil we might have to leave in the ground if this wilderness is created is statistically negligible. To call it a drop in the bucket would be a hopeless exaggeration. If you do the math, it’s more like a bead of perspiration in Lake Sakakawea.

Hunting would still be permitted in these wilderness parcels. So would livestock grazing. It might even be possible, thanks to the sheer (and increasing) ingenuity of oil extraction technology, to work out some compromise in the future to enable long-distance lateral access to the shale under these wilderness parcels.

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Some critics of this proposal just don’t want to give the conservation community even this tiny little victory. No wilderness, period! But it is important to remember that this is not an Armageddon-like battle between developers and environmentalists. Fully 95 precent of North Dakota is available for oil development. Proponents of this proposal are not trying to shut down or impede the industry. Nor is this a “foot-in-the-door” proposal as some have alleged. These parcels represent the sum total of land that is still suitable for wilderness designation. Nothing further is contemplated because nothing further is available. Some critics say that even 40 acres transferred from private to public domain is an outrage to the sanctity of private property in North Dakota. Surely a land swap could be worked out for those 40 acres (and a mule!) in the Bullion Butte parcel. Some say we would be locking up part of the badlands for a handful of “elitists.” Nonsense. In recent statewide polls, a substantial majority of North Dakotans have indicated that they want to do whatever is reasonably possible to conserve the state they call home.

As usual Roosevelt got it right. When he first gazed at the Grand Canyon (millions of acres) in May 1903, he said: “Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.”

We have all agreed that man can develop almost every acre within the boundaries of North Dakota. Let’s set aside these few parcels as a reminder of who we are and what we also value.

(Clay Jenkinson is the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College and director of the Dakota Institute. Clay can be reached at Jeffysage@aol.com or through his website, Jeffersonhour.org.)

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