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Clash over future of grasslands


MEDORA, N.D. - Young Theodore Roosevelt thought western North Dakota an eerie, lonely place when he came here in 1883 to bag one of the few remaining wild bison on the northern Great Plains.

Yet the future 26th president of the United States fell in love with the stark beauty of the undulating grasslands and of the Badlands, with their variegated canyons and jutting buttes.

It was here that Roosevelt honed the conservation ethic that became a hallmark of his presidency. He dabbled in cattle ranching along the Little Missouri River and immersed himself for a few years in the fading lifestyle of the cowboy before returning to his political destiny back East.

Now, more than a century later, western North Dakota's sparsely settled residents are embroiled in a dispute over how far to take Roosevelt's ideals of conservation.

Environmentalists have squared off against cattle ranchers and oil and gas interests over the fate of the Little Missouri National Grassland, a million-acre remnant of the vast oceans of grass that Merriwether Lewis and William Clark found when they explored the uncharted region nearly 200 years ago.

The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Little Missouri and 19 smaller tracts across the Great Plains, has proposed to scale back the amount of cattle grazing allowed on the grasslands, and to limit oil and gas exploration.

Government biologists say they want to return more of the grasslands to their original denizens - bison, black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs, as well as native plants, such as the rare western fringed prairie orchid.

"We have the largest chunks of unroaded prairie remaining in the northern Plains, so if there are going to be opportunities for wilderness, it's going to be in the national grasslands," says Larry Dawson, supervisor of the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, four tracts encompassing more than 1.25 million acres in North and South Dakota.

But the Forest Service plan, unveiled last year, has sparked a bitter outcry from North Dakota ranchers and petroleum activists, who see themselves as practitioners of the rugged individualism that Roosevelt espoused.

They warn that the government's tilt in favor of nature could devastate the region's battered economy, heavily dependent on agriculture and energy.

"This land was intended to be ranches," insists Merle Jost, a third-generation rancher from Grassy Butte who, like many here, grazes his herd on leased government land. "It's not intended to be wildlife land."

It's a debate that carries echoes of the pitched political battle that began more than a decade ago over logging of old-growth forests in the Northwest. But it reflects in a way how the nation's long-neglected grasslands have finally been discovered.

"Prairies have come of age," says Dawson. "Everybody loves the grasslands, and that's what causes the controversy. They love them for different reasons."

One of the first things you notice here is the wind. It blows relentlessly. It riffles across vast, gently rolling swells of grass, marked only by an occasional copse of trees or a ranch house on the horizon.

In spring, the prairie brown is painted with wildflowers, such as the purple cone flower - whose root is the popular herbal remedy echinacea.

This was the Wild West at one time, where the buffalo roamed and George Armstrong Custer fell at Little Bighorn. But in the late 19th century, homesteaders began moving in and plowing up the grass, lured by hopes of farming 160-acre government land grants on the high plains.

They found it rough going, especially in the western Dakotas, where less than 20 inches of rain normally falls in a year. The wind conspired with slumping crop prices and severe drought in the early 1930s to turn the sod - and farmers' dreams - to dust.

The federal government stepped in to buy up thousands of failing farms, resettling the families and attempting to restore the badly eroded land. Federal officials enlisted the help of the remaining ranchers, who formed grazing associations to oversee use of the converted farms as summer pasture for their cattle and sheep.

Ranchers have helped rehabilitate the land, acknowledges Dawson. But this is not the wild, wide-open prairie of old, spanning 10 million acres across the continent's midsection.

The national grasslands are carved up and exploited now, for cattle grazing and oil and gas.

On the Little Missouri - the largest public grassland in the country - there are 550 producing oil wells and more than 3,000 miles of roads. The prairie also is largely fenced off into 240-acre allotments, which are leased to ranchers who hold permits to graze their livestock on them.

The Forest Service says it intends to shift its management slightly in favor of nature, setting aside more grasslands for wildlife and native grasses. Grazing will remain a major activity, Dawson assures, because the grasslands evolved being cropped by bison.

Bison, which are raised on private ranches and in public herds at nearby national and state parks, are not a major focus of the grazing changes.

But the government does hope to give a boost to prairie dogs, whose hole-in-the-ground colonies cover just 2,600 acres of the Little Missouri now. They also hope to reintroduce black-footed ferrets, natural predators of prairie dogs.

Prairie dogs and bison are incompatible with cattle, in the eyes of many ranchers, who see the move as a threat to their livelihood. While the Forest Service estimates grazing would be reduced by 10 percent under its plan, locals contend the real impact of the various management changes proposed is a much more devastating 40 percent overall cutback.

"Originally," says Dale Veeder, economic development director for McKenzie County, federal officials liked cattle grazing. "They thought it was more environmentally friendly than breaking the lands up and letting them blow away."

Between the grazing and energy jobs dependent on the grasslands, Veeder estimates, "We'd have to increase tourism by 70-fold to make up the difference."

The federal grassland covers half of the county and exerts a similar impact on the local economy. The oil and gas wells conservatively generate $13 million a year in revenue.

"We're trying to manage it right, and apparently it's not good enough anymore," complains rancher Jost. He raises 120 cattle on 1,000 acres, nearly a quarter of it government-owned grasslands.

"It's not much fun," he says, dryly. "But that's all we know how to do."

His grandfather sold land to the government, he recalls, in return for retaining the right to graze cattle on it.

"That was the deal," Jost contends, "and now it's being broken."

Others see it differently. The changes seem long overdue to environmentalists, who want the federal government to curtail grazing and energy exploitation even more.

They contend that the economic losses can be replaced by increasing tourism, outdoor recreation and wildlife viewing, as well as hunting and fishing on the grasslands.

"We've lost the wolves and grizzlies, but the antelope, buffalo and a lot of plant species are still there," says Wayde Schafer, an organizer with the Sierra Club, which attempted to rouse public opinion with a radio advertising blitz last fall.

Of the ranchers, Schafer says, "Nobody can blame them, but they've actually been taking more grass than the system can sustain."

He discounts dire warnings from the grazing associations about the plan's impact, asserting that two-thirds of the ranchers in McKenzie County - one of two counties encompassing the Little Missouri grassland - do not use public lands at all.

"This is a totally different ecosystem," Schafer adds. "It's the largest in the United States; it stretches from Canada to Texas and from the Mississippi River to the Rockies.

"It's a huge part of the cowboy range we all remember from the movies. It's important we try to have parts of that remain as natural and historic as it has been."

Local ranchers and businessmen, feeling endangered, have organized their own lobbying group, the Heritage Alliance of North Dakota, to oppose the plan. Local and state politicians have rallied to their cause, pressing the Forest Service to re-evaluate its stance.

The final management plan for the Little Missouri and other grasslands in the region is due by the end of the year. A Forest Service spokesman says the agency is considering "some revisions."

"Will they be enough to smooth things out?" says Steve Williams, the spokesman. "I don't think so."

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