If the legal appeals don't work, two of the nation's three largest grasslands will become home to the biggest railroad project since Abraham Lincoln was president.
Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad plans to
build a 260-mile line through Buffalo Gap National Grassland in
South Dakota and Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming. The
line would connect to the railroad's existing track to create a
900-mile network designed to haul low-sulfur coal out of the Powder
River Basin in Wyoming. I wish I could do something to protect
these grasslands, to help people understand they are treasures more
scarce here than forests or mountains.
do you save a grassland? What do you say to help people understand
it needs to be preserved? A grassland doesn't help. It doesn't do
itself any favors by what it is.
A grassland is
subtle; not like the Grand Canyon that threatens to devour you if
you fail to give it the honor it is due. Nor is it like Devil's
Tower, which suddenly erupts out of the prairie and then mesmerizes
you as you draw close to it. It's nothing like the boiling mud
pots, geysers and mineral terraces of Yellowstone that make you
wonder what planet you accidentally landed on.
Think of this grassland as open. To some, that
means the same as empty or void, characteristics which imply a need
for corrective measures: That which is empty should be filled.
Perhaps that is why some are all too obliging to fill that void
with what they call progress or development.
grassland is vast. It creates the feeling that it is abundant. Its
Sheer volume suggests that there is plenty. Certainly it wouldn't
hurt to use just a little. At the same time its expanse frustrates.
It is too big to take in, to get a grasp of its meaning. It sprawls
before the eyes incomprehensible. It surrounds, cutting off hope of
A grassland is unsettling. One does not
know what to make of all that space. It lies there untamed,
uncommercial, uncivilized. If man has not mastered it, it might
unleash some unseen danger.
In its blank state,
it may reflect the one who looks. It may stir a sudden awareness of
one's discontent, of the pressure man exerts on the natural order,
of the distance one regularly keeps between oneself and something
greater, be it nature or God. And as one becomes aware of this even
at some subconscious level, the grassland inspires flight, the need
to get away from a possible life-altering awakening.
That is, unless one lingers to experience what
is not obvious, letting in this great expanse that we don't
manipulate or control.
Three of the five
cooperating agencies that have authority over the land and water
that lie in the path of the project realized the problems that the
railroad would create. The Forest Service, the Bureau of Land
Management and the Bureau of Reclamation all recommended that it
not be built. Nonetheless, in its final environmental impact
statement, the Surface Transportation Board approved the route
through the grasslands. As part of its approval the board required
the railroad to meet 147 conditions designed to "mitigate its
I never heard the word mitigate before
I started following this project two years ago. Initially, I
thought it meant to resolve issues or concerns that individuals or
groups raised. But the word's definition acknowledges that the
intended action will create a situation that cannot be resolved. It
means to cause to become "less harsh or hostile," to make "less
severe or painful."
Building the railroad causes
problems. Mitigation doesn't make them go away. It only lessens
So why build the railroad? Simply put, the
rationale goes like this: Electric companies need coal, people need
electricity, therefore the railroad must be built. For the sake of
providing electricity to populated areas hundreds of miles away,
one fourth of the National Grasslands' 4 million acres will be
transformed into just another avenue to get the goods to market.
The change will sacrifice the subtle wonder of these rare
treasures. And isn't it ironic: These semi-arid lands have returned
to their fragile balance after misguided pre-Dust Bowl attempts to
convert them to croplands.
from the last bad idea. They don't need another.