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Environmentalists react to protected site list

Press Photo by Dustin Monke Oil wells that are tucked into a hillside pump as natural gas is flared along Highway 22 north of Killdeer on June 6 near the Little Missouri State Primative Park site. Environmentalists are asking that the North Dakota Industrial Commission visit sites like the park that they want to see protected from oil and energy development.

The state has compiled a list of sites it might review for protections from drilling, and while environmentalists say it's a good start, they caution that it's not nearly enough.

The list of about 40 wildlife management areas, buttes and other significant sites is a tentative selection of where North Dakota's governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner, who make up the state's Industrial Commission, may tour and then consider preserving.

But the list represents how little is left of North Dakota wilderness for Wayde Schafer, organizer of the state's Sierra Club.

"It's gotten to the point where they're all special because it's all that's left," he said.

Representatives from the offices of each commission member didn't know of much touring the members had done and didn't know their plans for the future. The Industrial Commission wants to finish the visits by winter.

Many of the list sites were on a preservation proposal from Schafer's club back in the '90s. Half of those proposal sites have since seen energy development.

Now the window of opportunity to protect enough Badlands to have a quality wildlife experience is closing, he says, and people are realizing what they're losing.

"Everybody becomes an environmentalist when their backyard is threatened," Schafer said, "and that's what's happening."

Badlands Conservation Alliance President and state Sen. Connie Triplett said she thinks the initiative is just a result of public pressure, but she's glad the state responded.

Still, she said, broader regulations are necessary for all drilling applications on state school lands.

"The notion of just picking a few selected sites is a really short-sighted way to think about this," said Triplett, a Democrat from Grand Forks.

Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the Industrial Commission's Oil and Gas Division, said the commission has maps to compare proposed drill sites with any restricted areas, and it also posts approved permits online for three days of public comment before operators can build.

Triplett and others say they're also interested in how the list is used, not just what's on it.

If the Industrial Commission doesn't actually use the list to inform its decision-making, she said, "it will have been a waste of time."

Karlene Fine, executive director of the Industrial Commission, said the list is nearly complete but that the commission members are "always open for suggestions."

Multiple environmentalists said the list is missing significant sites, like wildlife management areas and wildlife refuges in the Oil Patch.

Triplett said she has asked Fine for the original list of citizen suggestions, and for a description of how the Industrial Commission narrowed it down if it did.

The environmentalists say they don't want to stop drilling -- they just want the state to be more mindful about where it's allowed.

"It's about making sure that enough voices are heard so that the drilling takes place in a way that doesn't damage other values that many people care about," Triplett said.

She said "no-surface occupancy," noise-reducing equipment and shifting site locations are some ways for developers and land advocates to compromise.

Commission member Gov. Jack Dalrymple has said horizontal drilling can help to avoid sensitive drilling areas.

The governor's trips are going to be informal visits, spokesman Jeff Zent said.

"(Dalrymple) wants to go out there just to see these sites for himself and to cover all bases," Zent said.

Environmentalists, like blogger and longtime North Dakota outdoors activist Jim Fuglie, say the state is so far behind with protecting its lands that the list is just not enough.

"The oil's not going anywhere but there's just so much money to be made that everybody wants to get it now and that's the problem," he said.

"It wouldn't hurt to slow things down a little bit."

Triplett, meanwhile, says the list is "better late than never."