Senator John Hoeven, R-N.D., a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, held a roundtable meeting with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen, as well as Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring Friday, Aug. 30, at the Mckenzie County Courthouse in Watford City.

The meeting sought to address growing concerns from North Dakota’s ranchers and energy producers, and covered issues ranging from prairie dog infestations on grazing lands to the expediency of oil companies to reach subsurface minerals from federal properties.

“This meeting is about ensuring the Forest Service is a good neighbor to our local communities and works cooperatively with ranchers, energy producers and others to properly manage the grasslands,” Hoeven said. “Federal lands often create uncertainty for local economies, including our energy industry, with Forest Service permits taking anywhere between three months to three years to process.”

Hoeven thanked Christiansen for “accepting (his) invitation (to attend the meeting) and receive direct input on this and other issues.”

While Hoeven and the USFS have, historically, been somewhat at odds, the mood at the roundtable was perceivably jovial with Christiansen offering the maxim that “if you only see obstacles, you’ll never see opportunities.”

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“We need to be nimble here, as the opportunity and growth in the energy sector (in North Dakota) takes off,” she said.

Christriansen, speaking on the federal regulations that prevent subsurface mineral procurement, was careful to add, “we can’t just can’t ask Congress to do this for us; we have to do our part by changing both the way we utilize our resources, as well as by changing our demeanor and stewardship.”

Resolute in expressing her concerns with the human element of federal land governance, or as she put it, “where the rubber meets the road,” she offered advice on a path forward by saying that all involved must seek to work together to solve the problems, no matter “how daunting or insurmountable they might seem.”

The spirit of cooperation was expressly illustrated as representatives of several grazing associations opened the floor, including Keith Winter, of McKenzie County; Gary Anderson, of Sheyenne County; Dan Anderson, of Grand River, S.D.; and Wes Obrigewitch, of Medora.

Prairie Dog towns

Prairie dog towns were the first topic of concern for grazers.

According to the agriculturists, prairie dog overpopulation is a major problem for grassland ranchers whose cattle and properties are affected negatively by the herbivorous rodents. These ranchers have explored a number of solutions, both lethal and holistic, but seem to find many legal and natural roadblocks hindering their ability to deal with the animals.

An example given of a common roadblock included how combating the populations with a particular sort of poison for an extended period of time results in the animal eventually catching on to the efforts of the toxins and leading to the population avoiding the substance altogether. Unfortunately for hopeful ranchers, many other effective poisons are illegal under EPA regulations — a topic discussed during the meeting.

Grazers stated that they had no intention to eliminate the rodents altogether, but as one representative put it, “prairie dog (populations) have grown so much in the past 15 years, we’d just like to go back to (the numbers) we had 20 years ago.”

Complaints raised by the grazers prompted Hoeven to extend an aphorism about U.S. political solutions as a whole: “DC likes to think that one size fits all, but really, when one size fits all, one size fits none.”

Energy concerns

Ambassadors from North Dakota’s growing energy sector also had a chance to express their concerns to Hoeven and his associates during the meeting.

Clayton Miller, president of the North Plains Energy Services, communicated his concerns with the acquisition of subsurface minerals in North Dakota, in addition to the federal regulations that prevent their procurement.

As it stands, those seeking to reach the natural resources must first apply for a permit “when less than 50% of subsurface minerals are owned or held in trust by the federal government and there is no federal surface land.”

Legislation proposed by the congressman, namely his Bureau of Land Management Mineral Spacing Act, would effectively waive this requirement.

Hoeven’s proposed bill also includes the ONSHORE Act, which hopes to “empower states with the authority to manage oil and gas permitting on federal lands within their borders.”

Concluding his trip to Watford City, Hoeven visited the Little Missouri National Grasslands where he witnessed firsthand the growth of the prairie dog population. After reviewing the extent of damage caused by the overpopulation, Hoeven once again summoned the spirit of cooperation by highly encouraging Forest Service representatives to communicate as openly as possible with ranchers in the area on jointly coming to a solution for the problem.