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A landscape of opportunities

Posted 6/21/16 (Tue)

A landscape of opportunities

By Jack Dura
Farmer Staff Writer

Under an empty, bright blue sky Friday afternoon, Dan McLaughlin looked over the empty CCC Campground south of Watford City, wondering aloud if it sees many people.
He was there to ride his motorbike along county roads and river trails, something his coworkers suggested.
“There’s a lot of pretty stuff up here,” he said, sitting on his bike as the campground’s grass gently waved despite the wind’s absence. “You wouldn’t really realize it.”
Situated on the Little Missouri National Grassland across the river from the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the CCC Campground is a base of sorts for travelers on the Maah Daah Hey Trail, campers on the grassland and other recreators using the public land.
“There’s a lot of opportunities that are available on the grasslands,” said Rob Schilling, recreation manager for the Little Missouri National Grassland.
Parcels of prairie comprise over 1,600 square miles of national grassland from Watford City to Amidon, an area of land larger than the state of Rhode Island.
At any time of year, the grassland offers opportunity for activities like hiking, biking, hunting, camping and other outdoor experiences.
Purchasing a map is a good place to start before exploring, Schilling said, as mixed ownership among private, state and federal landowners abounds on the grassland.
“Traveling out there, there’s not a lot of signs about where you’re at on the map,” Schilling said. “We have had incidents of people thinking they’re on Forest Service land when they’re really on private, which leads to some conflicts.”
Ten campgrounds are available on the grassland, from those just off U.S. Highway 85 to others hidden in the badlands.
The Maah Daah Hey Trail is a big draw to the grassland. The 96-mile trail stretches down from the North Unit to near Amidon, open to all non-motorized traffic.
Greg Morel, Dakota Prairie Grasslands trails manager, oversees 250 miles of non-motorized trails in North Dakota. Hikers, bikers, horseback riders, snowshoers and cross country skiiers all use the trails, with the Maah Daah Hey Trail a nationally premier trail for mountain bikers.
Safety is key for the grassland, Schilling and Morel said. The trails manager said water is often overlooked and is a vital item for a grassland adventure.
“A lot of people ask if they can filter the water out there in the creeks or the stock dams, but generally there’s a lot of runoff from the livestock and the really silty soils, and it’s really hard on your filter. Your filter’s not gonna last long,” Morel said.
Mountain lions and rattlesnakes are not as big a concern as staying watered, he added.
Schilling said using the grassland responsibly by keeping motorized vehicles on established trails and packing out trash are key to keep the land pristine for other users.
“You can’t just be going wherever you want,” Schilling said of motorized traffic.
Acting district manager Alex Michalak said offroading leaves tracks on the grassy landscape, offering some photos to evidence the fact.
 Trap shooters have also left behind refuse. “Pack it in, pack it out” is the general rule on public lands.
Summer is a major time for using the grassland, from bikers to family campouts, Schilling said. All 12 months see a fair amount of use though, he added.
Events like 5K and 10K races in Medora and 4x4 activities cover the summer calendar for the grassland too.
For any visitors to the national grassland, a range of activities awaits on the prairie.
“I think it’s a great way for people to go and experience their land,” Morel said. “It’s just as much theirs as anyone else’s.”