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Petition aims to keep park from being 'isolated island' in west

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news Dickinson, 58602

Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

Marc Landblom decided he had to do something when he discovered an oil well was being drilled along the celebrated Maah Daah Hey Trail.

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The trail, which winds through the rugged Little Missouri Badlands, is a favorite among mountain bikers, horseback riders and hikers. They flock from around the country to test their endurance on the hilly, 100-mile trail -- and to enjoy the scenery.

"Nobody's going to want to come to the North Dakota Badlands and ride around oil well locations," Landblom said.

Landblom, who works as a mountain bike outfitter along the trail, has mounted a petition drive to urge federal and state officials to protect public lands in the Badlands from drilling.

The online petition drive, which started a week ago, had collected more than 550 signatures as of Thursday, and Landblom is spreading the word via Facebook and other means.

"This is public land, and we're all taxpayers," said Landblom, an over-the-road truck driver during the off season. "This is technically all our land. We should have a say in what goes on out there."

The petitions ask Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Tom Vilsack, the U.S. secretary of Agriculture, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, to halt oil and gas drilling on public lands.

Dalrymple and officials for the U.S. Forest Service, which runs the Little Missouri National Grassland in the North Dakota Badlands, have said state and federal law allows mineral development on public lands.

In response to calls to protect public lands from energy development, the state has been working to do a better job of identifying areas of concern for conservation and wildlife habitat on public lands it owns, Dalrymple said in an interview Friday.

Petroleum development on public lands has been an issue in recent weeks as officials from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, as well as wildlife advocates, have asked state land officials to spare pristine Badlands areas from oil and gas drilling.

State public lands officials now will consult with Game and Fish as well as tribal authorities to work to minimize impacts from energy development, Dalrymple said. The lands can be protected by mineral lease stipulations, he said.

If it turned out that a well was proposed for a popular outdoor recreation site on state land, the governor said officials would act.

"They may have a point," Dalrymple said. "Maybe we don't have every location flagged." But if informed of a threat, he added, the state "would be responsive to that if it came up."

Landblom's online petition, on change.org, notes the Badlands are home to abundant wildlife, including bison, mule deer pronghorn, eagles and bighorn sheep.

Besides outdoor recreation, he said, the area also is important for industries including cattle grazing and tourism.

The grasslands largely surround Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The oil well that provoked Landblom to speak out is located along the Maah Daah Hey Trail near the grasslands' Elkhorn Campground, located north of Medora and south of Grassy Butte. It's more than a mile from the location of Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch cabin, a part of the national park.

Babete Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service in Bismarck, said the national grasslands must balance "multiple uses," including recreation, grazing and mineral development.

"Because of the mineral rights they have to give people reasonable access to that," she said.

Before the oil well near the Elkhorn Campground trail was drilled, officials from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, which handles mineral leasing on federal lands, visited the site to minimize impacts and ensure public safety, Anderson said.

The trail at that location is being rerouted, with work expected to be complete this summer, she said.

It's not the first oil well to be near the Maah Daah Hey Trail, Anderson said.

In other areas, because of the "checkerboard" pattern of public and private land ownership in the grasslands, mineral development could be occurring on private or state land, Anderson added.

Jan Swenson, executive director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance, said the petition drive will help spotlight the threats to public lands in the area because of oil and gas development on an unprecedented scale.

"How can we help but be supportive of a citizen's effort to raise awareness about what's happening in the Badlands?" Swenson said. "The units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park are becoming little, isolated islands."

Oil and gas activity disturbs the landscape, pollutes and generates big truck traffic that produces noise and dust, she and Landblom said. Even inside the park, they say increasing activity just outside the boundaries diminishes the experience.

Jennifer Morlock, who runs Dakota Cyclery in Medora, an outfitter for mountain bikers on the trial, said energy development is a reality cyclists and others are having to learn to live with.

Springer is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

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