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Invisible roads block wilderness


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

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.

The 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 wilderness.

"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 concluded.

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.

A 1993 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 acres today.

"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."

But 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 development.

"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."

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Michael Milstein