Imagine a map of North Dakota with every section line - the crisscrossed lines that stretch north-south and east-west across the state precisely one mile apart - converted into a public road.
That's just what the Dakota Territorial
Legislature imagined in 1871, when it designated every section line
in the state a public highway - whether any road existed there or
whether the landscape was passable.
Legislature's long-ago action now lies at the heart of a debate
over the Forest Service proposal to designate about 2 percent of
North Dakota's national grasslands as permanent, roadless
"Section lines have been public
highways since territorial days," state Attorney General Heidi
Heitkamp wrote in an opinion earlier this year. "Congress did not
modify or annul the Territorial Legislature's 1871 law making
section lines public highways. It let stand and acquiesced in this
assertion of local authority over the public domain." Any federal
wilderness proposal would unlawfully deprive the state of its right
to develop section lines into roads, she
At present, no designated wilderness
exists anywhere in the grasslands, but the Forest Service wants to
change that. The agency's new management plan proposes protecting
just over 22,000 acres of national grasslands as wilderness.
Ranchers could still drive into wilderness areas to maintain
fencing and water developments.
"We're trying to
find little pockets that are left - very modest little pockets, we
think - that we want to leave for our grandkids; areas that are
still like they were when Teddy Roosevelt rode through here," says
District Ranger Scott Fitzwilliams.
proposal by environmental and wildlife groups suggested nearly
200,000 acres of national grasslands for wilderness status. They
noted that roadbuilding and oil development in the 1970s and 1980s
reduced the portion of the Little Missouri National Grasslands that
qualifies for wilderness from about 500,000 acres to about 150,000
"The grasslands of North America are
actually one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet in
terms of acres left and acres protected," says Wayde Schaefer of
the Sierra Club, a sponsor of the 1993 proposal. "They're very
underrepresented in the wilderness system."
that's the case for a reason, many local ranchers say. They point
out that much of Theodore Roosevelt National Park has been
designated as wilderness. Additional wilderness areas in the
grasslands would unfairly restrict motorized access for hunting,
they argue, and would put the areas off-limits to valuable oil
"If they prevent oil development
from occurring, because of the state's rights of way, it's a taking
without compensation," says Dennis Johnson, the state's attorney in
McKenzie County, which includes much of the Little Missouri
National Grassland. "It harms not just McKenzie County, it harms
everyone in the state because the state is denied royalties from
that development. Everyone in the state would have a tax increase
if the Forest Service plan goes through."