The grasslands of the Northern Plains - primarily under U.S. Forest Service jurisdiction - are home to abundant wildlife, from deer and elk to endangered swift foxes, mountain plovers and ferruginous hawks. But they are also the site of promising oil and gas deposits. With the release of the final environmental impact statement for the region's 2001 management plan revision, the grasslands have become the center of controversy.


Kirk Koepsel of the Sierra Club says changes between the draft and final environmental impact statements are "pretty amazing, when it comes to oil and gas." Draft plans recommended 42,790 acres of wilderness designation in the Dakotas and Wyoming, but the final plan sets aside only 3,800 potential wilderness acres in South Dakota, opening some of the remaining acres for oil and gas exploration.


"I can't see how anybody would view this as a move to open this up for oil and gas," says Claire Mosely, executive director of Public Lands Advocacy, an oil and gas advocacy group in Denver. While the amount of land available for exploration has increased, she says, there have also been increased restrictions on exploration.


The final plan excluded wilderness recommendations in North Dakota and Wyoming because the states' congressional delegations and local governments opposed them. But the Forest Service will manage the excluded acres to "maintain their wilderness characteristics," says Bob Sprentall, a spokesman for the agency.


The Forest Service has opened the final environmental impact statement for public review and will accept comments until Jan. 22. See the Web site at www.fs.fed.us/ngp. Send comments to Nebraska National Forest, 125 N. Main St., Chadron, NE 69337-2118, Attn: Bob Sprentall; call 308/432-0300, or e-mail cloop@fs.fed.us.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Dan Whipple