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A tale of two different worlds

Theodore Roosevelt National Park spokesperson Eileen Andes said park officials were encouraged by dialogue this week with Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, with Andes adding that the biggest challenge facing the park is cohabitation with the energy industry.

"It was a very pleasant and instructive visit (from Jewell)," Andes said. "Because of the oil and gas development around the park, we think it was really important for her to see the extent of the development and to see how it is impacting the park, its employees and its resources."

As part of her visit to western North Dakota, Jewell -- who took over as head of the DOI in April -- took part in a roundtable discussion with park management, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., on Tuesday before going on a tour of the park's South Unit.

Jewell said it is a goal of hers to strive for cohesiveness between interests that develop America's energy resources and interests that work to preserve the beauty of its natural resources.

"One of the priorities I have is to really leverage the technology tools we have to develop a landscape-level understanding," Jewell said. "Just to use an example, you get data -- and the oil companies have it -- that talks about where the Bakken play is, where the Indian reservation is, where the land ownerships are, but also where is the view scape that (TRNP) is trying to protect. You might have a park boundary here, but where are the vistas you're trying to protect? If we can put those things on a landscape level that is in the public domain, the oil companies can avoid going into those areas that can get them into conflict."

In March, park officials and other conservationists objected to ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy's request to the state Industrial Commission to drill for oil in close proximity to the 218-acre Elkhorn Ranch parcel, where Theodore Roosevelt himself once ranched.

Amid pressure, XTO removed its application. But the issue elevated concerns that the park was being encroached upon by energy companies in the midst of working the vast Bakken oil play.

During her time with Jewell, Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said she would welcome the implementation of a comprehensive landscape zoning plan in relation to energy development, especially near the park.

"We've had some success working with oil companies to try to protect viewsheds," Naylor said. "But it's been either if we find out about it or on a case-by-case basis. I'm always worried that there will be a really important one that will slip through."

A drilling rig has been prominently visible along the park's North Unit tour route this summer, but could have been even more prominent along the scenic drive, Naylor said.

"There was a (drilling site) planned for right at the end of the North Unit route that would have been the most prominent feature on the North Unit scenic drive," Naylor said. "We went out and met with the company and they were able to move it a mile and a half further back. You can still see it, but it's not the No. 1 feature."

Jewell said that Bureau of Land Management Principal Deputy Director Neil Kornze, who was present on North Dakota tour, is looking into the possibility of broader federal mitigation pertaining to drilling on federal lands.

"We can be a lot smarter," Jewell said. "A lot of times when we permit on federal lands, we'll have some mitigation, but it is typically localized. But if there's mitigation that we want to do that's actually a critical viewshed to protect that's involved with a national park, that may be more important than local mitigation. We can make those kinds of trades, if it's on federal land. Knowing that will help operators make smarter decisions."

Jewell also toured oil and gas operation sites near Williston during her two-day visit.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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