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Published September 28, 2009, 07:31 AM

Grasslands might have more closed roads

U.S. Forest Service officials mapping public roads in the Little Missouri National Grasslands have determined that most oil and gas roads are private, which could mean less public access than first thought. For the past two years, Forest Service staff have used satellite technology to map all the roads on 1 million acres in western North Dakota as part of a nationwide mapping project for national forests and grasslands. Some of the roads actually are little more than paths used by hunters.

By: By Blake Nicholson, The Associated Press , The Jamestown Sun

BISMARCK — U.S. Forest Service officials mapping public roads in the Little Missouri National Grasslands have determined that most oil and gas roads are private, which could mean less public access than first thought.

For the past two years, Forest Service staff have used satellite technology to map all the roads on 1 million acres in western North Dakota as part of a nationwide mapping project for national forests and grasslands. Some of the roads actually are little more than paths used by hunters.

The goal is to have a map ready by the end of the year showing which roads are legally open to the public. Those who travel the grasslands include ranchers, energy developers, hunters and hikers.

The Forest Service last spring proposed cutting the 2,200 miles of roads and trails to 1,440 miles, eliminating from public use 750 miles it said were not maintained, not needed or came too close to sensitive wildlife.

Then in combing through records, agency staff found that most oil and gas roads in the grasslands are, in fact, private. McKenzie District Ranger Ron Hecker said he has no total on how many miles of oil and gas roads are in the grasslands, but the discovery likely will add to the list of closures.

“There is going to be some effect,” he said. “When we scoped this project, we scoped those (oil and gas roads) as being open.”

Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, said the conservation group supports the Forest Service plan with the exception of a handful of open roads it believes encroach on wilderness area.

The Sierra Club believes the fewer the roads in the grasslands, the better, Schafer said.

“Nowhere in the grasslands can you be more than four miles from a road,” he said. “That’s a lot of roads. I don’t think there’s a shortage of roads in the grasslands.”

Others are not so sure.

Bill Helphrey of Bismarck, a spokesman for the North Dakota Bowhunters Association, said some hunters might like to see fewer roads to open up more wilderness to hunting but others would like to keep more roads open for easier access.

“I think there will be hunters who will use the roads, anyhow,” he said. “Even if they close the roads, there are going to be people still driving on them.”

People who violate road rules on Forest Service land can face a fine up to $5,000 and a six-month jail term, according to the Forest Service.

The agency held public meetings earlier this year, and it expects to release an environmental analysis sometime this fall for public comment. The official map then will be drawn up. Hecker said it will not be in effect during this fall’s hunting seasons.

John Hanson of Bowman, who ranches on the grasslands and helps runs a family recreation business that includes hunting and hiking, said the issue is more complex than whether roads should be open or closed.

Closing more roads might benefit ranchers by reducing hassles with the general public — as long as the decision doesn’t lead to more cumbersome restrictions down the line, he said.

“If we give ‘em an inch they’ll take a mile sort of thing,” he said.

Hanson said closing more roads could hurt his recreation business. But he also believes that if it leads to more active, healthier lifestyles, it will bring such benefits lower health care costs in the future.

“There’s a lot at play,” he said. “This isn’t just about roads; it’s about the larger picture.”

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On the Net:

Travel management proposal: http://www.fs.fed .us/r1/dakotaprairie/

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