LONG X DIVIDE, N.D. - The green Forest Service rig pants like a winded dog on the rim of this canyon. The two-track ahead is washed out; I've taken the vehicle as far as it will go.


But the view from the edge is breathtaking. On the horizon, a dusky cerise sky. Below lie rugged badlands and the Little Missouri River winding its serpentine way through a labyrinth of color-banded buttes, canyons and cottonwood forests.


I'm staring into Long X Divide, a 10,100-acre roadless area on the Little Missouri National Grassland in western North Dakota.


Until now, Long X Divide has been strictly a local place, known mainly to ranchers, hunters and hikers for its seemingly limitless space. But now this badlands prairie has become part of a national question.


Just this July, the Forest Service released a draft management plan for eight national grasslands and one national forest. Called the Northern Great Plains Management Plans Revision, it analyzes 2.9 million acres of public land in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Wyoming. As part of the analysis, the Forest Service examined 42 roadless areas, and ended up recommending five to Congress for wilderness designation.


Of the recommended areas, totaling 62,000 acres, four are in the badlands terrain of the Dakotas and Wyoming. They are Long X Divide and Twin Buttes on the Little Missouri National Grassland in North Dakota, Red Shirt on the Buffalo Gap National Grassland in South Dakota and Cow Creek Buttes on the Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming. The fifth area is in eastern North Dakota, on the Sheyenne National Grassland, and was chosen for its imperiled tallgrass and oak savanna.


From one perspective, the five areas are a drop in the bucket, where the bucket is 3.8 million acres of national grasslands the Forest Service manages in 12 Western states. The agency declined to recommend wilderness status for 37 of the areas it considered because of problems that include intense livestock grazing, oil and gas production and off-road motorized recreation. Still, as precedent, the recommendation is huge: No designated wilderness areas exist anywhere on America's national grasslands.


Until recently, national grasslands were an afterthought, much less vivid in the public's mind than the Forest Service's high-altitude mountain holdings. Historically, the grasslands have been managed for cattle and minerals production and hunting. Anything else was more than the conservative Plains' social and political fabric - both within and outside the agency - could handle.


Some of that has to do with history. These are the lands John Steinbeck wrote about in Grapes of Wrath. They hark back to the 1930s, when drought and dust storms and the Great Depression drove thousands of homesteaders off their farms.


In response, the federal government bought more than 10 million acres of foreclosed-upon land. The land was replanted to grass, and by 1960, some 3.8 million acres were organized into national grasslands and managed by the Forest Service. But to many in the region, this is still a working landscape, public land only in a technical sense.


So the Forest Service is risking heavy political fallout by recommending the creation and protection of even a few wilderness areas here.


There is little counterpressure to anti-wilderness sentiment, because the Great Plains states lack not only mountains, but also a strong environmental constituency.


However risky the agency's decision to recommend five wilderness areas, it is only a recommendation. Congress has the sole power to declare a wilderness. In fact, Congress can recommend all 42 areas for wilderness or recommend none. The key players will be the delegations that represent the northern Great Plains states.


Many Americans see the Great Plains as a nuisance - the land that separates the urbanized East from the Interior West. Those who think that have probably never walked the tallgrass prairie or floated the Little Missouri River through a badlands prairie area. Long X Divide is just one of many parts of the grasslands that still roar with solitude, offer unspoiled beauty, and have a fascinating history. How long these qualities can survive without added protection is another story.


The public has until Nov. 29 to respond to the agency's draft plan. To request the draft plan and environmental impact statement, call the Nebraska National Forest at 308/432-0300. The plan is available on paper, on a CD, or on the Web at www.fs.fed.us/ngp. n





Tom Domek worked as writer/editor on a temporary basis for the Forest Service's national grasslands planning team. He lives in Custer, South Dakota.