A few of you might remember a big dust-up about five years ago over the State Land Board’s decision to offer, for lease, the right to drill for oil on the west side of one of southwest North Dakota’s major landmarks, Bullion Butte.
The butte and some of the acreage around it are owned by the U.S. Forest Service, and the area has been off-limits to development since about 1977, and to even access by vehicles since 2001, when the Forest Service set it aside as one of five “roadless areas” of the Bad Lands, areas suitable for designation as official Wilderness under the Federal Wilderness Act of 1964.
I’ve written about this many times before, and not much has changed in the ensuing 16 years — 95 percent of the million acres of National Grasslands (we know them better as our Bad Lands) are still open for oil and gas development, but those five areas totaling about 60,000 acres that I think were set aside by President Bill Clinton in a plan written in the final days of his administration remain roadless and “suitable for wilderness” today.
One of the little problems with the way the plan was written was that there are some “inholdings” inside some of these areas, land owned by someone else surrounded by Forest Service land, and one of these inholdings is a section of land on Bullion Butte, owned by the state of North Dakota’s Trust Lands Department.
North Dakota’s trust lands — about 3 million acres — were given to us at statehood to provide income to support our state’s public education system. Most of us know them as “school sections.” One of those school sections, the whole 640 of those acres, just happens to be part of Bullion Butte.
Probably in 1889, at statehood, nobody gave much thought to the idea there might be billions of dollars of oil under them, and someday, somebody might figure out a way to get it out of the ground. And make a whole bunch of money for our state’s schools.
But somewhere along the line, some foresighted state employee or legislator devised a way to make that happen. It happens by the state leasing the mineral rights to those school sections to somebody with an oil drilling rig, letting that somebody bring the oil up and take a percentage of the money from the sale of the oil. I think the state gets one of every six barrels, but I’m not sure — in any case it’s been a lot of money during the Bakken Boom.
The way it works is, somebody with an oil drilling rig goes through the records in county courthouses and when they spot a section of land that might just have oil under it, they “nominate” it for lease at the Trust Land Department’s next quarterly lease sale. The Trust Lands Department puts out a list a few months before the sale so that other people with drilling rigs can take a look at it and decide if they want to bid on it at an auction.
That’s what happened in early 2012. A leasing company on hire by oil giant Chesapeake Energy Corporation nominated Section 24 in Township 137, Range 103, in Billings County, North Dakota, for lease at the next auction. That’s the school section on Bullion Butte, in the middle of the Forest Service’s roadless area, and if Chesapeake had leased it and decided to drill an oil well there, it would have pretty much eliminated the scenic, wildlife and cultural value of Bullion Butte, which has been protected from development since statehood.
Luckily, North Dakota has residents who care about things like this, and one of them, Mike McEnroe, who’s a member of a number of conservation organizations, including the Badlands Conservation Alliance, went looking through the list of sections nominated for lease one day back in 2012 and spotted the Bullion Butte section. McEnroe and Jan Swenson, executive director of BCA, went and talked to the Trust Lands people, and also to the news media, and the end result was, there was so much bad publicity about this happening that Chesapeake ended up withdrawing its nomination and went slinking off into the Bad Lands with its tail between its legs. A victory for BCA. And Bullion Butte. And the Bad Lands.
Well, fast forward five years. I was at a meeting with McEnroe and a few other BCA members the other day, and Jan Swenson said “Guess what, guys. There’s a Trust Lands mineral lease auction at the end of the month, and Section 24 is back on the list — somebody nominated it.”
A short discussion ensued, and I said that since I had written a few blogs about it five years ago, maybe I’d do another one now. So I went home and called my (by now through sheer continuous contact about stuff at his office) friend Drew Combs, who’s head of the Minerals Management Division of the Trust Lands Department and said, “Drew, I was talking with some members of the Badlands Conservation Alliance yesterday and they mentioned that school section on the side of Bullion Butte is up for lease again.”
I could tell by the long pause on the other end of the line (do phones even have “lines” any more?) that this one had slipped by him. We had a brief conversation about what had happened five years ago and he said, “I’ll get back to you.”
That was the morning of Jan. 5. By the end of the day, the president of the company that had nominated the parcel for lease told Drew Combs he’d like to withdraw the nomination. I’m pretty sure Drew told him about the bad publicity Chesapeake had gotten five years ago, and this guy wanted none of that.
Hats off to a great state employee, Drew Combs. And to a great conservation organization, the Badlands Conservation Alliance. Anyone who’s ever climbed Bullion Butte, or just admired it from a distance, or from a canoe as they floated by, know how important these two victories are. Check out BCA’s website. It has a place where you can become a member.