Lease of state land questionedBISMARCK — The North Dakota chapter of the Wildlife Society is asking that parcels of pristine Badlands owned by the state be withdrawn from a list of lands slated for leasing to oil and gas developers.
By: Patrick Springer, The Dickinson Press
BISMARCK — The North Dakota chapter of the Wildlife Society is asking that parcels of pristine Badlands owned by the state be withdrawn from a list of lands slated for leasing to oil and gas developers.
The tracts are located in or near two of five remaining parcels of land in the Little Missouri Badlands that are roadless areas, a designation that makes them eligible for protection as wilderness.
The areas of concern include 640 acres near Bullion Butte, a landmark located about 15 miles south of Medora and three tracts totaling 1,280 acres in the nearby Kendley Plateau area, both set aside by the federal government as roadless areas.
The parcels are owned by the North Dakota State Lands Department, which leases surface land and mineral rights. The leasing revenue would support public schools and state educational institutions.
The sensitive parcels are among mineral leases for 73,000 acres of state land that will be on the leasing auction block Feb. 7, one of the largest lease sales in recent state history.
The last large lease auction, in May of 2010, involved 53,000 acres of state public lands and brought in $158 million in revenues.
The North Dakota State Lands Department manages the public lands and trust funds totaling $1.7 billion, including $1.5 billion for the common schools trust fund.
Mike McEnroe of Bismarck, a member of The Wildlife Society, said leasing the lands would be contrary to an agreement struck between then Gov. Ed Schafer and North Dakota’s congressional delegation that became federal law in 1998.
The agreement involved a swap of mineral rights on roughly 9,000 acres between the U.S. Forest Service, which operates the Little Missouri National Grasslands, and Burlington Resources, formerly Meridian Oil.
The leasing tracts of concern are within the area covered in the agreement, which was reached in consultation with The Wildlife Society and several other conservation groups, McEnroe said.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who is chairman of the five-member state land board, said Tuesday that when the board meets Thursday, he will recommend the state postpone leasing the tracts.
“We should look into the implications of the letter,” Dalrymple said of concerns McEnroe raised on behalf of The Wildlife Society.
The governor said Lance Gaebe, the state land commissioner, so far hasn’t located records detailing the agreement to protect “unique and sensitive areas of North Dakota.”
Beyond any agreement, however, Dalrymple said, the state should determine whether some of the tracts have conservation value.
“If this property has a greater value for conservation purposes, then really we should postpone any action on it and see if that is the case or not,” the governor said.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has also informed the state land office it intends to provide a list of tracts slated to be put up for auction that have conservation value.
Greg Link, a Game and Fish spokesman, said the office has identified about a dozen pieces of land set for leasing it will ask the land board to withdraw in hopes of finding a way to spare them from development.
The areas provide habitat for big horn sheep, which require rugged badlands terrain, and sage grouse, a candidate species for protection.
It might be possible for the state to swap mineral rights on land important for conservation with lands owned by the federal government, Dalrymple said.
Before that could be done, Gaebe said, the value of the mineral holdings should be determined to make sure a swap would not shortchange the state, which is entrusted to manage its lands to benefit schools and other institutions.
McEnroe believes a conservation strategy should also allow for management of public land to coincide with other state policies, including support of wildlife habitat.
“Let’s have a strategy how we do this rather than let’s do everything we can as fast as we can because there’s money to be made by somebody,” he said.
Before letting oil companies or speculators bid on leasing rights, the state lands office should consult with other state agencies that have a stake, he said.
“Did anybody consult with Game and Fish?” said McEnroe, a retired biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The state looks to conservation groups and other interested parties to alert officials if they have concerns about any tracts of land proposed for mineral leasing, Dalrymple said.
McEnroe said a dialogue about leasing public land is crucial because there are only five areas left in North Dakota, a total of about 60,000 acres, eligible to be designated as wilderness.
Springer is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.