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Oil boom threatening state parks? State officials working to minimize impact

The Little Missouri River runs through the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in this Sept. 9 photo. An oil boom in North Dakota is potentially threatening the serenity of such an oasis, but the state is working to minimize the impact.

LEWIS AND CLARK STATE PARK -- Sit down for a picnic at Lewis and Clark State Park, and you almost forget about the Bakken.

Views of Lake Sakakawea and the rugged buttes of the North Dakota Badlands offer an oasis from the flurry of oil activity just a few miles away.

But some fear the oil boom is getting too close to some of western North Dakota's parks.

Outside the boundaries of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, oil wells, gas flares, traffic and dust are visible to park-goers, said Eileen Andes, chief of interpretation and public affairs.

Noise from oil industry equipment can be heard in designated wilderness areas, Andes said.

Fargo resident Larry Heilmann prompted a lot of discussion about Little Missouri State Park with his recent letter to the editor published in The Forum. Heilmann, a retired scientist, said in an interview this week that he wanted to raise awareness about drilling in and near the park.

"We just need to say, 'Hey, there are some places that we just don't want to touch,'" Heilmann said. "We don't need to drill every square inch."

But state officials say it's not that simple.

The state constitution prevents the state from interfering with the rights of private property owners, said Lynn Helms, director of the state Department of Mineral Resources.

In the case of Little Missouri State Park, 17 miles north of Killdeer, the state owns 20 percent of the surface and less than 7 percent of the mineral rights. The remainder of the surface and mineral rights are privately owned.

To minimize impacts to parks and other areas, the department has begun adding more stipulations for certain drilling permits, Helms said.

For example, in some cases drilling will be prohibited between April and October, Helms said. The placement of a site can be chosen to minimize the visual impact. And the department may require trees to be planted for screening.

The department also is aggressive about restricting gas flaring in and around parks, Helms said.

"The parks, unfortunately, are pretty small in comparison to the private ownership in and around them," Helms said. "We work very aggressively with the tools that we have within the law to minimize the impacts. But we can't totally eliminate them."

Five well pads will be located in Little Missouri State Park on land that is rented from private owners, Helms said. A 30,000-acre unit is being developed in a way that will minimize the effects on the park, he said.

Bernel Appledoorn, one of the landowners, said he's concerned about the oil development, but he thinks it can be done right.

"If everybody works together, it will be fine," said Appledoorn, who does not own mineral rights. "But if they don't, there's going to be problems."

Leroy Fettig of Dickinson, a landowner who also owns mineral rights, said the state should not interfere with the property owners' rights.

"Just because the park is there, that doesn't mean the whole world's got to stop," Fettig said. "We were there first."

Gordon Weixel, public information officer for North Dakota Parks and Recreation, said park officials are monitoring oil development near Sully Creek State Park near Medora and Lewis and Clark State Park near Williston.

At Lewis and Clark State Park, drilling will not be allowed within the park boundaries, but a well will be drilled about a half-mile north of the park, Helms said. Among the steps being taken is to place the site so it's less visible from the road, he said.

The state Department of Trust Lands works with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and the State Historical Society to be aware of wildlife habitat or areas of historical significance that could be affected by oil development, said Commissioner Lance Gaebe.

The department has begun adding stipulations to drilling permits for mineral acres it manages if they're identified as sensitive areas, Gaebe said. Oil companies have cooperated with those requirements, Gaebe said.

"They, too, want to do this right," he said.

Gaebe said it's not practical to say certain areas of the state are off limits, but the development can be done in a way that preserves the state's resources.

"We're trying to emphasize that it can be done, not one at the exclusion of the other," Gaebe said. "There's a way to coexist and work together to minimize impact on wildlife resources."

Dalrymple is a Forum Communications Co. reporter stationed in the Oil Patch.