On Thursday, I wrote about the jerk who runs the Bureau of Land Management and his attack on the public land he “manages,” land he would like to turn over to the energy industry before he leaves office in January.
Today, I want to talk about the other federal agency so important to North Dakota, the U.S. Forest Service, which manages more than a million acres in North Dakota, most of it in our Bad Lands. There’s an attack on those acres on three fronts, and it’s important that you know about them.
First, though, it is important to point out that, unlike the BLM, the Forest Service is managed by someone who actually LIKES forests and public lands, a lady named Vicki Christiansen, and she has gotten generally high marks from public lands advocates. Although she’s the first Forest Service chief in many decades not to have spent her entire career in the agency, she’s a professional forester, having served as director of state forest agencies in Arizona and Washington before joining the Forest Service 10 years ago. In terms of natural resource agency personnel, she’s probably been President Trump’s best appointee.
But like other agency heads, she’s under some pressure to be a little more accommodating to industry groups before next month’s change in administrations. One example is the hurried-up release of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for mineral development on our million-acre Little Missouri National Grasslands, which are managed by the Forest Service. I’m not real good at reading EIS’s (I’m an English Major) but from what I can see, there’s some danger that more of our undeveloped roadless areas could become much less undeveloped.
I think we’ll know in a few months, for example, if the scheme to allow development in an expanded half-mile corridor on the edges of some roadless areas, which would dramatically shrink the acreage protected from “surface occupancy” by oil wells, will take effect. That’s important. It’s something the Forest Service chief will ultimately get to decide.
What I’m wondering is, if her decision might be different under her new boss, Tom Vilsak, who President-elect Biden has tapped to be his Secretary of Agriculture, than under her current boss, Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue. Will she be pressured to write the new rules for our grasslands roadless areas in just a few weeks, or can she take a few weeks longer (it is the holiday season, after all, traditionally family time, not the time to be working overtime to meet arbitrary deadlines)?
It’ll also be interesting to see if she is one of the only (maybe THE only) high-level administrator to remain on the job under the new president. I don’t know all the undertones here, but she certainly seems to be the kind of professional (versus political hack) administrator we don’t see very many places in a Trump administration.
According to a press release put out by the American Society of Foresters, “Her appointment received bipartisan support and her tenure as interim chief has been free of many of the scandals that have plagued her predecessors and other land managers under the Trump administration.”
Well, that’s a low bar, but if her fellow foresters approve of her, it says something good about her.
But it’s the other two threats, by a couple of North Dakotans who have turned out to be real political hacks themselves — Wayne Stenehjem and John Hoeven — that are more troubling. I’ve written about Stenehjem’s attack on our roadless areas before, his lawsuit against the Forest Service to open up the section lines in our federal roadless areas to visiting traffic. Right now, there are about 40,000 acres — less than 4 percent of the million acres of grasslands — that are managed by the Forest Service as “suitable for wilderness,” although they have not — yet — received official wilderness designation. Someday. You can read more about this proposal, called the Prairie Legacy Wilderness, on the Badlands Conservation Alliance’s website.
Stenehjem sued in federal court in 2012 to allow the state of North Dakota to put roads into them. I met with him not long after he filed the suit to plead with him to drop it. He said state sovereignty is important. I told him I didn’t think most North Dakotans give a rat’s ass about state sovereignty. He wasn’t swayed.
It took someone with a little more clout than me to put a stop to his scheme. Federal Judge Daniel Hovland threw his suit out of court. But I don’t think he has exhausted all his appeal possibilities. So far, he’s lost in court every step of the way, but these days, frivolous lawsuits seem to be his stock in trade, so he probably won’t quit trying.
So, where it stands now, the Forest Service, part of the Executive Branch of government, has said “No, Keep Out,” of these protected areas. The federal court, part of the Judicial Branch of government, has also said “No, Keep Out.” Well, that leaves the third branch of government, the Legislative Branch. And sure enough, that’s where we’re going now.
Stenehjem sat down with his buddy, John Hoeven, who used to work across the hall from him in the governor’s office (they were both part of the Republican Class of 2000, coming into office together, and they get along a whole lot better than the current occupant of the governor’s office) and they hatched a scheme to pass a federal law specific to North Dakota’s section lines in the United States Congress.
The bill Hoeven drafted is intended to be attached as a rider to the end-of-year Omnibus Bill, which Congress needs to pass to keep the government operating. It reads:
“A BILL . . . To acknowledge the applicability of the section line law of the State of North Dakota to Federal land in the Dakota Prairie Grasslands in the State of North Dakota …”
“… acknowledges that the State of North Dakota holds a valid existing right in the form of an easement for a public road and the right of the public to travel over all section lines … within Federal land in the Dakota Prairie Grasslands in the State of North Dakota (referred to in this section as the ‘section-line easement’) …”
Seriously. That would be a federal law if it passes. I’m told that the Senate is likely to approve it, but it is likely the House of Representatives could kill it. The thing is, strange things happen in these frantic lame-duck sessions of Congress, when funding bills need to be passed to avoid a government shutdown, and often all kinds of riders like these get attached to them. It’s the worst possible way to make laws.
You could help. You could call Hoeven’s office at (202) 224-2551 and tell him you are opposed to his section line bill, or you could just click here and send him an e-mail. I did that and I even got a response, that said, “Thank you for contacting U.S. Senator John Hoeven. The Senator values your input and will make sure your inquiry is directed to the appropriate person to respond. Thank you for taking the time to write us.”
Yeah, well, the “appropriate person” would be John Hoeven, but I suppose that never happens. Still, if he gets enough calls and e-mails, maybe he’ll think twice about going along with his buddy Stenehjem’s stupid idea. I know that he’s already heard from North Dakota’s conservation community, including Badlands Conservation Alliance, Dakota Resource Council, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the North Dakota Wildlife Federation. You could join them.
All of this that I’ve written about the last two days really is serious. A lot of really bad things can happen when lame ducks are running the country. A lot of bad things have happened already. Here’s a list. Now, more than ever, we need to keep our eyes and ears wide open. These are America’s public lands we’re talking about, OUR lands. We need to do all we can do to protect them. Thanks for helping.
Daniel Roy Rice December 12, 2020 at 11:15 am
Jim, there are some of us out here on the edge of the Red River who have a passion for the preservation of the wonderful public lands in the western part of our state. I am always surprised and disappointed by our friends here in Fargo who have never ventured out to visit the Badlands and the National Grasslands. Thank you for keeping us informed about the frequent and serious threats to these important treasures within out state. And keep up the good work!Reply
John Burke December 12, 2020 at 2:14 pm
The rationale Stenehjem gave you for pursuing this is that “state sovereignty is important.” Early in my education in the law, I learned that when a person says “it’s not the money, it’s the principle.” – – – it’s the money. That is a benchmark that served me very well though 40 years of law practice, forensic accounting, and business negotiation. So I assume that the real interest in opening up these lands is to permit further oil exploration. Is that correct? If not, what is Stenehjem’s real motivation? I don’t think he cares much more than a rat’s ass about state sovereignty either. And, anyway, what has state sovereignty got to do with federal land?Reply