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Posted 8/25/10 (Wed)

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

Is is possible to put a square peg in a round hole? Under normal circumstances, the answer would be ‘no.’ But if you keep shoving on that peg long enough, maybe you can finally get that square peg in that round hole. It may not look pretty and you may have damaged both the peg and the hole, but it is possible to do.
And that seems to be what the U.S. Forest Service is trying to do once again in trying to develop a Travel Management Plan, another U.S. Forest System policy (the square peg) for the National Grasslands (the round hole).
Under the proposed plan, which the Forest Service is now taking public comment on, upwards to 800 miles of roads on the Little Missouri National Grasslands would be closed. That means that the general public would no longer have access to much of the more than one million acres of public land for hunting and recreation, ranchers would have their access to pastures severely restricted, and energy companies would no longer be able to develop the federal, state and private minerals that they have leased.
The National Grasslands were never meant to be a roadless area. Roads are what breathes life into the National Grasslands. Without roads, the grasslands would be nothing more than a million-acre patch of ground that would be off limits to the vast majority of the public.
Unlike the bulk of U.S. Forest Service lands, which have always been owned by the government, the Little Missouri National Grasslands were all once either owned by private individuals or the State of North Dakota. And because of this non-federal government ownership pattern, when the U.S. government acquired the lands that now make up the National Grasslands, the State of North Dakota, counties like McKenzie County and private landowners retained certain rights, such as roads and minerals.
So when the U.S. Forest Service says “The roads that will be closed include all roads that are not legally owned by the Forest Service, roads that are redundant, roads that are bordered by private land, unsafe roads and roads where it is undetermined if they are Forest Service or private property, and that they are being closed due to a national Forest Service mandate,” there are plenty of people in McKenzie County who take exception. It’s just another example of the Forest Service’s management style of trying to force a square peg into a round hole when it comes to the National Grasslands.
So what is the U.S. Forest Service proposing to take away from the citizens of McKenzie County and the public as a whole by closing these roads?
There are literally hundreds of miles of roads owned and maintained by McKenzie County across the Little Missouri Grasslands that in theory, the Forest Service wants to erase off the map. There is state and privately owned land surrounded by the grasslands that could no longer be accessible if the roads to them are closed or if roads could not be built to them to provide for development on non-federally owned property. Plus McKenzie County is entitled to 6¼ percent mineral royalties under many acres of the grasslands and if the minerals under these lands cannot be accessed, the county will lose those revenues. And finally, the Forest Service is thumbing its nose at North Dakota’s Section Line Law, which states that all sections lines in the state are open for public access.
While it would seem logical that the U.S. Forest Service would have researched the ownership of the roads and rights of others before categorically closing them in the Travel Management Plan, that is not the case. Instead they are saying that once they close the roads, it is the responsibility of the owner of the roads to come forward and challenge the Forest Service’s decision.
Once again, it is the Forest Service attempting to try to force the square peg into a round hole and make the National Grasslands fit into the same management plan that it uses on national forests.
North Dakotans who value their ability to travel and use the Little Missouri Grasslands as they have in the past for hunting and recreation need to be heard on this issue.