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Published September 07, 2009, 10:00 PM

THEIR OPINION: Ranches or ranchettes in the Badlands?

The carving of big ranches into ranchettes has begun, so the rich and famous or those who want to be can have their piece of the Badlands. The differences are real, identifiable and concrete. -- The Bismarck Tribune

With a sense of trepidation, regret and inevitability, many North Dakotans are watching the face of the Badlands change.

During the past several decades, a dense network of roads serving oil development spread across the sandstone, clay and scoria buttes and ravines that set this part of the world apart from the prairie. Producing wells thump away into the Badlands quiet. Pipelines snake across the rough terrain, fording beneath the sandy bottom of the Little Missouri River.

And working ranches owned, run and operated by men and women with a history in the Little Missouri River Valley are giving way to out-of-state and absentee ownership that's sometimes more interested in hunting, conservation and recreation than cows. The carving of big ranches into ranchettes has begun, so the rich and famous or those who want to be can have their piece of the Badlands.

The differences are real, identifiable and concrete.

They are playing out in an atmosphere heavily flavored by the public's embrace of the Badlands on one side and private property rights expressed by a self-reliant and often anti-government ranching community. Because the ranch lands are mixed in with the Little Missouri National Grasslands' 1,028,000 acres, every U.S. citizen has an enhanced stake at the table via the reach of the U.S. Forest Service and membership in conservation and environmental groups. Just as ranch owners, who have paid good money for their property, so too has the public paid tax dollars for the lands that ranchers lease to make their operations big enough to succeed.

In the Badlands, like elsewhere, private property rights are sacrosanct. They do not, however, operate in a vacuum. The public has rights and regulations that also affect what happens in the Little Missouri River Valley - hunting, grazing, access, public safety and clean air and water rights. What's important, at the end of the day, is how these interests and rights all play out against each other.

A week ago, a front-page story in the Bismarck Tribune described the coming auction sale of the 4,665-acre Myers Southern Cross Ranch, which straddles Golden Valley and McKenzie counties, and the Little Missouri River, in the heart of the Badands.

The ranch will be auctioned off in 19 parcels or in whole. The parcels range from about 120 acres to nearly 1,000 acres. Myers Southern Cross could become 19 ranchettes. It's worrisome.

Southern Cross owner Dean Myers has done a good job with the ranch. From all accounts, it's well-maintained and cared for. And Myers is on record wanting that kind of ownership to continue. He said, in colorful Badlandese, "Very few people would take care of it the way I would. And then I would be pissed off, and I don't want to be pissed off."

All of the parcels are interesting in their own right, but parcels 16-19 front the Little Missouri River. They range from 120 acres at the confluence of Beaver Creek and the Little Missouri to a 444.9-acre parcel east of the river with one mile of river front, bottoms and uplands. It's to die for.

There was a similar auction this summer, adjacent to the Logging Camp Ranch south of Medora, N.D., but there one buyer trumped parcel bidders to buy the land intact. But the Southern Cross property is huge by comparison, and the price tag for the works will run into the millions.

Change in the Badlands isn't something any one or two individuals can control. It's pushed and tugged by too many factors - economics, history, inclination, family, desire and dreams.

Private property owners have to do what they think is best for their interests - they have that right and obligation. The Forest Service and other state and federal agencies need to carry out the law in its letter and spirit. And people, because of the involvement of public lands, have the right to be a part of the process and have their interests protected as well.

The best solution would be one that keeps Myers' Southern Cross Ranch in one piece.

-- The Bismarck Tribune