Change on the Plains

Ranchers on the national grasslands see their power ebb as a new era rushes in

  • National Grasslands

    Diane Sylvain
  • BROKEN DREAM: Abandoned house on the grasslands

    Michael Milstein photo
  • Keith Winters, L, and Ron Whited, of McKenzie County Grazing Assn.

    Michael Milstein
  • Grasslands pasture eaten almost to the bare ground

    photo courtesy US Forest Service

MCKENZIE COUNTY, N.D. - About 85 years ago, Axel Larson rode the train west from Wisconsin to the tiny Plains town of Beach, N.D., walked 40 miles north and drove a stake into the ground. The stake marked the site of his homestead, land the federal government gave him for heeding the call of the frontier.

Larson and his family endured loneliness, bitter winters and ferocious winds. They ran up against open-range ranchers who resented their arrival and, later, the drought of the 1930s. It was during the desperate "Dirty Thirties," that Larson sold his land back to the government for a pittance.

But while Larson and others like him gave up ownership of their land, they kept control. Determined to keep settlers on the plains, the state and federal governments sanctioned associations of local ranchers to manage the repurchased range. That land would eventually become the national grasslands.

Today, Larson's grandson, Ron Whited, serves as vice president of the McKenzie County Grazing Association, which oversees grazing on much of the Little Missouri National Grasslands. It's one of the few expanses of public land where ranchers control grazing and keep a share of their own grazing fees to pay for range improvements and administrative costs.

Now, their control may be nearing an end. For the first time in 70 years, the U.S. Forest Service is demanding a stronger voice in managing the grasslands on behalf of the public. Last summer, the agency released a plan proposing reductions in grazing, tighter restrictions on oil and gas drilling, and modest areas of wilderness (HCN, 10/25/99: Finally, a National Grassland Wilderness?). Then, after two of the largest grazing associations, including Whited's, refused to produce documents showing how they manage the land and spend grazing money, the agency took the bold step of deep-sixing both associations' authority.

Ranchers have raged against the new direction, suing to block the Forest Service from taking away their authority. They've run ads in the Bismarck Tribune, warning that the Forest Service's "new grassland plan devastates our family farmers and ranchers." Ranching advocates say the plan would slash $1 billion from the economy over 10 years. Forest Service rangers have found threatening letters in their mailboxes and dead prairie dogs on their doorsteps.

"I'm not going to let my forefathers down or my children down," says Whited over lunch at Ginny's Burger Ranch in Watford City, a shrinking Plains town of 2,600. "This is where I started and this is what I love and I'm not going to give up the fight."

But Chris Wood, senior policy advisor to Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck, says the cattle and oil industries no longer have the grasslands to themselves. They must share with wildlife watchers, hunters, hikers and mountain bikers, all eager to indulge in the last remnants of the American prairie.

"For a long time folks have been trying to go down the road by looking in the rearview mirror," says Wood. "Sometimes that sense of history, while important, may have prevented us from looking forward as much as we should have."

Stewardship through peer pressure

Public-land debates have rattled many Western states for decades, but have never before reached such a pitch in North Dakota. This may be because public land makes up only about 5 percent of the state, compared to nearly 50 percent in nearby Wyoming. Nearly half of North Dakota's public land is national grasslands, which have never endured the same scrutiny as national forests farther west.

"Someone once said, 'Anybody can love a mountain, but it takes soul to love a prairie,' "says Larry Dawson, supervisor of the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, which includes the Little Missouri, Sheyenne, Cedar River and Grand River national grasslands - almost 1.3 million acres. These stretches of golden prairie, multicolored layer-cake badlands and cool wooded draws inspired much of Theodore Roosevelt's conservation legacy. Now, President Clinton is trying to emulate Roosevelt's legacy by protecting large swaths of the West's public lands.

For ranchers like the straight-talking Whited, the curious history of the grasslands makes them not multiple-use lands, not public lands, but grazing lands.

"The purpose the government bought this land was to maximize its production for grazing and to support the people out here," says Whited, who lives just inside Montana and ranches in both Montana and North Dakota. "It wasn't bought for aesthetics and all these other values out there. Mother Nature never intended for this country to be pristine."

Keith Winters is president of the McKenzie County Grazing Association, which now controls more grazing rights than any other single permittee in the national forest or grasslands system. He says the grazing associations practice "true ecosystem management." They offer a model of agrarian self-government that encourages stewardship through peer pressure, he says, rather than enforcement by Big Brother.

Grazing-association members pool their grazing rights on intermingled federal, state and private land and then the association itself doles out grazing permits to each member. An elected board of directors monitors grassland conditions for overgrazing, resolves disputes between members and administers penalties - typically either fines or a loss of grazing privileges - for overgrazing or trespass.

"It's kind of an extension of the idea that you help your neighbor and your neighbor helps you," says Ron Hartman, a third-generation grasslands rancher. "You share ideas, you advise each other and you keep the management in the hands of the people who know the land best. Out here, if you can't depend on your neighbor, who can you depend on?"

Certainly, ranchers cannot depend on the biggest cash cow on the grasslands: oil. Those who sold their land back to the government also unknowingly sold their rights to a vast underground reservoir of oil. That reservoir has since made North Dakota's national grasslands the largest oil-producing unit in the national forest system, enriching local schools and governments through tax revenues. All but 15 percent of the Little Missouri National Grassland is now leased for oil and gas drilling.

"That's the thing that bothers me the most," says retired rancher Karnes Johnson, who made it through the drought years by selling most of his cattle and feeding the rest cottonwood leaves along the Little Missouri River. "They not only sold the land, but they lost control of it and they lost millions of dollars in minerals. They made a tremendous contribution to this country and now it seems like they're being pushed out."

Keeping the cogs and wheels

No provision of the new grassland management plan suggests eliminating grazing. A Forest Service projection that cattle numbers could decline by 10 percent is based partly on a new definition of grazing units to account for larger cows. And Forest Service rangers and environmental groups agree that the grasslands evolved with great herds of bison and require grazing to flourish.

But growing legions of people believe the grasslands have value as more than just range for cattle and a platform for oil derricks - people like Jim Oberfoell, a soft-spoken, retired farmer who grew up collecting butterflies and hunting on the grasslands. Now 74, he still has many of the colorful insects preserved inside glass boxes.

"Some people drive through the badlands and they say, 'There's nothing there - this is the most godforsaken place I've ever seen,' " he says. "But you spend some time out there, do a little camping, get up in the cool of the morning and listen to the sounds you don't hear outside the badlands, and it really grows on you."

The sounds include the calls of the black-billed cuckoo, yellow-breasted chat and the "poor-wills."

Oberfoell's journals and observations suggest that such birds are not as plentiful as they once were, possibly due to the decline of trees in the wooded draws that stripe the grasslands. Cattle nibble young trees, he says, as older trees die off, leaving less cover for birds and other wildlife.

Oberfoell is not the only one to notice such declines. A review of the grasslands last fall by a team of university range scientists and wildlife biologists found that ailing woodlands were "the major limiting factor for wildlife."

According to the Forest Service, as many as one-third of the wooded draws lack enough young trees to sustain themselves. "We think that's too much," says Grasslands District Ranger Spike Thompson. "We're not going to have every woody draw in sustainable condition, but I think one-third is too much to be not sustainable."

Not only the woodlands are fraying, Thompson says. The broad, open grasslands are, too. He illustrates his point with three photographs. One shows grass cropped close to the ground. Another shows thicker grass, standing high enough to ripple in the breeze. The third shows rich, golden grass that rises almost to the knees of a person in the photograph.

There is room - and need - for all three grass structures, says Thompson, who spent much of his Forest Service career managing forests but has come to love the prairie. Prairie dogs and burrowing owls thrive with grass grazed near to the ground. But ground-nesting birds like grouse demand grass that stands higher. "It's pretty easy to decide where you'd want to go bird hunting," he says, pointing to the photo of the tallest grass.

But tall grass doesn't last long here. A Forest Service analysis concluded that only 2 to 4 percent of grazing land on the grasslands stands that tall at the end of the grazing season. Some years, cattle have grazed more than 75 percent of the range to within two inches of the ground.

Such findings prompted the Forest Service to propose new but not radically different directions in a routine revision of its management plan for the grasslands, issued in draft form last summer. It gives greater priority to native plants and animals, encouraging grazing of bison, for instance, and seeks to limit fencing and other grazing developments so hikers and bikers can enjoy large open blocks of native prairie. It would also designate so-called "Research Natural Areas' and "Special Interest Areas' largely free of new roads and oil development.

"Twenty years ago, the Forest Service's objectives and the ranchers' objectives were pretty much aligned - we were trying to maximize red meat production," says Dawson, who supervises the Dakota Prairie Grasslands from Bismarck. "Our goal is no longer to maximize red meat production.

"Aldo Leopold wrote that the key to successfully tinkering with the environment is to first preserve the cogs and wheels," he says. "So we've developed a plan, saying, "Let's maintain all the cogs and wheels that were there naturally." "

Reform hits resistance

But grazing associations have never accepted change easily. For example, the associations prohibited members from running bison on the grasslands for years. They softened their stance toward the native grazers recently, after the Forest Service threatened to step in and permit bison grazing (HCN, 6/8/98: Don't fence me in).

Now, the Forest Service is asking for more say in managing the grasslands, and the largest grazing associations are digging in their heels, refusing to give up control. The biggest struggle centers on "conservation practices' money - half of the standard federal grazing fee of $1.35 per animal unit month, which goes to the grazing associations rather than the U.S. Treasury as it would on national forests. This money has paid to construct fences and a spaghetti-like network of water pipelines and tanks that let today's ranchers put many more cattle on the range than their predecessors ever could.

Taxpayers would be appalled if they knew how the grazing associations were spending the rest of the money, says rancher John Heiser, one of the few conservation voices in the badlands. Conservation-practices money funds the associations' administrative costs, such as secretarial work and utility bills, he says, and has in the past even paid for killing prairie dogs.

"There is zero money that actually goes for conservation," says Heiser, whose Badlands Conservation Alliance used the federal Freedom of Information Act to obtain copies of some of the associations' records (see story page 9). "It's all pipes, fences and water tanks. It is just one giant cow pasture."

A similar Freedom of Information Act request has landed two of the largest grazing associations on the ropes. In 1998, the National Wildlife Federation and North Dakota Wildlife Federation requested records showing how the grazing associations have spent the conservation-practices money and administered grazing. The Forest Service asked the five associations for the records, and three associations supplied them.

But the McKenzie and Medora County associations refused, arguing that the records included private details about members. The two associations subsequently removed many of the sought-after records from their offices, Dawson says.

"I was perplexed and confused by their reaction," he says. "We're looking for only the same information that the other 25,000 public-land grazers have provided to us."

Without the records, says Dawson, the agency cannot make sure that the associations' grazing practices comply with federal rules. For instance, only those who own or lease the "base property," or ranch attached to a federal grazing permit can legally graze on the grasslands. This prevents permittees from subleasing federal grazing rights for windfall profits when the going rate for grazing on private land runs as much as 10 times what they pay for grazing on the grasslands.

"We need to know basic things, like whose cows are out there and are they permitted," Thompson says. "This is just a fairness issue to the taxpayers of this country."

Two members of the McKenzie County Grazing Association - John Dixon and Ed Tarnavsky - have themselves sued the association, alleging unfair treatment. They say the association, let other members graze more cattle than their base property entitled them to. When Dixon's cattle escaped through a broken fence, "because John is not part of the good old boys' society, he was found to be in trespass and fined," their complaint charges. While the association filed a response calling the allegations "frivolous," others say it's high time the Forest Service took back the grasslands.

The Forest Service plans to maintain its agreements with the three associations that have shared their records. But on June 1, it was set to cancel its agreements with the two associations that have refused to turn over their records.

The end of an era

Many ranchers and their political backers see the new direction from the Forest Service as an all-out assault. Some have proposed taking the grasslands away from the Forest Service and handing them over to the more rancher-friendly U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Industry groups have formed a group called HAND, for Heritage Alliance of North Dakota, that in its own analysis concluded that the new management plan for the grasslands will bring a far more drastic reduction in grazing than the Forest Service admits.

Gov. Ed Schaefer announced that the new plan would cost the state $96 million worth of business a year and demanded "a full appreciation for the economic impact these lands have upon North Dakota's citizens." Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota warned that the Forest Service plan is "disastrous' and said the agency "should help with disasters, not create them." Pat Robertson's "700 Club" broadcast a special report on the threat to grasslands agriculture.

The mud flinging has also gotten personal. Many ranchers have demanded Dawson's resignation. Spike Thompson found prairie dogs with their throats cut on his front porch. The wife of District Ranger Scott Fitzwilliams opened their home mailbox one day to find an ominous and threatening letter.

"It's a tragedy," says Fred Obermiller, a professor of public land law and policy at Oregon State University who has researched the history of the grasslands. "You have lots of ranching families who have depended on their benevolent associations to help look out for their welfare. They're not big ranchers. They can't afford to go up against the Forest Service. They work together and depend on each other."

They also see their communities already losing enough population to raise the specter of a vast, depopulated "Buffalo Commons," a future forecast by academics Frank and Deborah Popper (HCN, 2/2/98: The bison are coming). The McKenzie County Farmer, Watford City's weekly newspaper, reported Feb. 2 on the possible demise of the grazing associations. The same issue carried the headline, "Deaths outnumber births 44-0 during "99." While 10 couples married in the county during the year, the story added, 15 divorced.

"We're losing population fast enough without this Forest Service plan," mutters Keith Winters of the McKenzie County Grazing Association. "I got a degree in electrical engineering but I came back out here to continue my family's work. Now I wonder if that was a mistake."

In 1974, Gene Veeder was one of Watford City High School's 78 graduating seniors. Today, he is McKenzie County's economic development coordinator and is looking to attract high technology to this corner of North Dakota. His daughter will graduate from the same high school next year in a class of 42 students.

"Strictly from an economic point of view, if I felt this plan was going to be good for the economy, I'd be fully in support of it," he said, in his office in the county courthouse. "There's not many people left here. Sprawl and spoiled landscapes are not what we see here. I would have hoped we would be rewarded for how well we've managed the land, so that people say, 'It's the last best place.' "

In fact, the one growing slice of the economy is tourism, increasing roughly 20 percent each year.

Nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park attracts many visitors, but the grasslands have drawn more and more people to refurbished campgrounds and the new Maah Daah Hey Trail, a 120-mile, cross-country route for hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers recently featured in several travel magazines. The Forest Service projects that the 22,140 acres of proposed wilderness in its new plan - far less than environmentalists had advocated - as well as the plan's emphasis on native wildlife, will boost tourism, hunting and fishing.

But after several months of giving his standard "dog and pony show" on the new Forest Service grasslands plan, District Ranger Scott Fitzwilliams stopped arguing the value of tourism. He stopped rattling off numbers of acres and grass heights and oil leasing stipulations and federal land regulations. It wasn't getting the message across.

Instead, he started talking about Bill Gates and how Gates often begins his speeches by warning that Microsoft is 18 months from bankruptcy.

"And before everyone can run out and sell their stock, he says that even an incredibly successful company like Microsoft will fail if it does not anticipate change and even embrace change in the marketplace," Fitzwilliams says. "We can't afford not to think about that here, too. There is change on the grasslands. People see new values out there. That's not a bad thing. Change can be positive if you give it a chance."

Michael Milstein lives in Cody, Wyoming, and works for the Billings (Montana) Gazette.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- A dissident speaks up for the Badlands

- Elk find no home on the grasslands

- Invisible roads block wilderness


  • Northern Great Plains Planning Team, USDA Forest Service, 125 N. Main St., Chadron NE 69337 (308/432-0300);
  • Or, visit the National Grasslands Web site at;
  • Or, visit the Dakota Prairie Grasslands Web site at

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Michael Milstein

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