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Baumgarten: Threats won’t open the gates

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There are three things that you never threaten to take from a man: his life, his family and his land.

This lesson was a harsh one this week. The owners of the Medicine Hole closed the area to public access, upsetting a lot of outdoors enthusiasts and environmentalists. Representatives from the Killdeer Mountain Alliance have called it a shame.

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The closure comes after a year of debate over private landowner rights. The oil boom has pitted those who love the land and its natural beauty against those who wish to use the land to grab a valuable resource from the ground. A large concern has been ignited with flaring, especially along Theodore Roosevelt National Park. A transmission line has, as North Dakota State University professor Tom Isern said, threatened the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield historic site.

North Dakota leaders saw that people were concerned with this, and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem proposed a list “extraordinary places.” The proposal put 18 places in western North Dakota, including the park and mountains, on the map. Landowners were concerned private land that surrounds these special places would be subject to public comment, which would prevent landowners from utilizing their land.

That part didn’t pass, but if it did, landowners threatened to shut off their land to hunters and hikers.

This week, it finally happened. Access to the Medicine Hole was closed by Brian Benz and Craig Dvirnak, who own the area, because of disrespectful actions, comments and beliefs.

“The general public presumed, but never had, this right; it was only because the gracious generosity of the private landowners that the public enjoyed these privileges for so many years,” they wrote in a statement.

As much as the public may hate this development, Benz and Dvirnak are absolutely within their rights to close the property off. They legally bought the land (as recognized by North Dakota law). They have taken care of their land. They were nice enough to let people use it.

But now that someone has threatened to take it away or tell them how to use it, they have said enough is enough.

Another development in landowner rights caught the attention of our readers this week. Consolidated Telcom is attempting to bring fiber optic Internet to western North Dakota, but they may either have to pay a high price or find another route. Landowners are refusing to let the company access their land, and others are asking for “enormous” payments, according to Consolidated.

Is $5,000 for 10 feet of cable greedy? Some may say yes. Do people have right to fast Internet? I’m sure everyone can agree it would be nice. Are the landowners right? According to North Dakota law, absolutely.

And before you shout, “not every law is just,” listen to this. These people own the land and they have rights to it. If someone told you that you need to wash your hair because they find it offensive, you wouldn’t be happy. So telling a landowner they have to do something with their land more than pushes their button. It will force them over the edge.

Is there a solution to keep these lands sacred as some suggest? There is one. Someone can come up and make an offer to those landowners. But short of that, these lands will remain private.

These debates are not about making money off of oil and the beauty of nature. It was always about control of land. It was just who had control. I like to enjoy the view as much as anyone, but not at the cost of another person’s livelihood. My family’s land has been Hereford country for a century. Like many landowners, we aren’t about to give it up, nor the choice of what to responsibly do with it as we please, because someone wants to walk through it.

Like it or not, landowners can do what they like with their land. They don’t have to answer to anyone as long as they follow the law.

This isn’t an open wilderness where people can explore freely. This land is a person’s life, whether it is nameless or has years of history behind it. You can care about it as much as you want and argue that it should be open to the public, but that doesn’t change the fact that you have no right to tell a landowner what to do, despite how unpopular the decision is.

The best you can do is be polite and ask nicely. I can’t guarantee that they’ll take the “no trespassing” signs down, but saying an owner has to keep it open, or that a group will take it away for the good of the public, will surely close the gates for a long time.

Baumgarten is the assistant editor of The Dickinson Press. Email her at abaumgarten@thedickinsonpress.com and read her blog at baumsaway.areavoices.com.

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April Baumgarten
April Baumgarten joined The Dickinson Press as the assistant editor in January 2014 and was named news editor in October 2014. She helps lead a team of top-notch news reporters and plays a role in coordinating design for western North Dakota's award-winning newspaper. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college,  she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican, where she helped the two newspapers win numerous awards.   
(701) 456-1210
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