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4 counties - Billings, Golden Valley, McKenzie and Slope - seek to build roads in western ND grasslands

FARGO -- Four counties within the Little Missouri National Grassland have gone to court seeking authority to build roads in areas now managed as roadless and eligible for wilderness.

The lawsuit, filed July 30 in U.S. District Court in Bismarck, would imperil a proposal to designate pockets of the grasslands as wilderness areas, advocates said Wednesday.

"They want to open the roads to make it ineligible for wilderness," Mike McEnroe, a conservation advocate who backs the wilderness proposal, told The Forum Editorial Board.

The federal government, which has 60 days to answer the lawsuit, has not yet filed its response.

"We're gathering information and we're working on a response," said Babette Anderson, a Forest Service spokeswoman, who otherwise declined comment.

A group called the Badlands Conservation Alliance has pushed the Prairie Legacy Wilderness proposal since 2008 to permanently protect almost 40,000 acres in six parcels that now are managed as wilderness areas.

Five of the areas are located within the Little Missouri National Grassland in western North Dakota, and one falls within the Sheyenne National Grassland in the southeast.

The lawsuit by Billings, Golden Valley, McKenzie and Slope counties, claims authority to establish section-line county roads. Although the land in question falls within national grasslands, the counties have not abandoned the claimed public road rights-of-way, according to the lawsuit.

Although put forth four years ago, the wilderness proposal has yet to be introduced in Congress, and backers are looking for legislative sponsors.

Badlands areas proposed as wilderness include Twin Buttes, Kendley Plateau, Bullion Butte and Long X Divide.

Lone Butte and Long X Divide are adjacent to the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Bullion Butte, with a sandstone caprock that forms dramatic cliffs, is described in the proposal as a "pivotal landmark" in the southern Little Missouri National Grassland.

Nearby is Kendley Plateau, located east of the Little Missouri River, and both are near a unique area of Ponderosa pine.

The areas proposed as wilderness are among 1.2 million acres of national grasslands in North Dakota, which has national wildlife refuges but no areas designated as wilderness.

Wilderness proponents say the North Dakota Badlands are under unprecedented pressure from petroleum development in the state's Oil Patch, thus making it even more important to protect remaining tracts that are undisturbed.

"Mr. Helms says they're going to drill and frack" -- shorthand for hydraulic fraturing -- "every section," said Jan Swenson, executive director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance, referring to Lynn Helms, the state's top oil regulator.

So far, about 7,300 oil wells are in production, but the number could top 40,000 after several more decades of drilling, with production to last even longer, she said.

Comparatively little drilling has occurred so far on the Little Missouri National Grasslands, but 85 percent has been leased for oil and gas development, said Connie Triplett, president of the Badlands Conservation Alliance.

"It will get chopped up, mile by mile, road by road," she said. "I think people don't realize it yet, but when it is, I think they'll be horrified."

Even if designated as wilderness, cattle grazing could continue, with certain restrictions, including a ban of motorized vehicles.

A spokesman for Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the public soon will have an opportunity to comment on the next management plan for the national grasslands, which still proposes to manage the areas as eligible for wilderness.

"We're very supportive of that process and will see what emerges," said Don Canton, Hoeven's press aide, adding that all stakeholders, including ranchers and energy developers, will be able to comment.

Dave Pieper, the retired Dakota Prairie Grasslands supervisor, who compiled the current 2002 management plan, supports the wilderness protection proposal.

The plan draws upon 75,000 public comments, including ranchers, oil and gas representatives, and conservation and outdoor recreation advocates, he said.

Lawyers for the counties could not be reached for comment.