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Mike McEnroe, left, of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation, and Jan Swenson of the Badlands Conservation Alliance present Thursday in Bismarck a film that aims to preserve the North Dakota Badlands. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

Conservation groups urge public to engage to preserve Badlands

BISMARCK—Conservationists warned Thursday, Feb. 1, that North Dakota's Badlands are threatened by oil and gas development unless the public and state leaders take action.

The Badlands Conservation Alliance and the North Dakota Wildlife Federation released a short film called "Keeping All the Pieces" aimed at trying to minimize impacts of energy development on the state's natural resources.

"The threat is real and it's up to us to act," Jan Swenson, executive director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance, says in the 15-minute film. "Either we do this now, or we lose it all."

The organizations showed the film Thursday at the Bismarck Public Library and planned to deliver a copy to Gov. Doug Burgum, who leads the North Dakota Industrial Commission that regulates oil development.

Mike McEnroe, past president of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation, said the aim is to spur a public conversation about a long-term plan for oil development.

"We have 14,000 wells now. We're on our way to 50,000 or 60,000 wells with the Bakken and we've got other formations," McEnroe said during a news conference. "What do we want out of this 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now? Let's start the conversation now."

The groups said they'd like to see landscape-level planning for oil development to minimize impact to wildlife habitat and lessen the footprint on the land. They also called for increased opportunities for the public to participate in decisions about oil development and more collaboration from state agencies, such as the Tourism and the Game and Fish departments.

Many of their recommendations are similar to those put forward in May by the Badlands Advisory Group, a stakeholder group that conducted an assessment about oil development in the Badlands.

The advisory group recommends a state-driven, long-term strategic plan for development of the state's natural resources, a wildlife habitat improvement program and a pilot project involving oil companies to test some of the recommendations.

The group also recommended the governor establish a task force or other agencies to coordinate efforts.

Consultant Rod Backman said the advisory group presented the recommendations to Burgum before Christmas, and Burgum said he would review the information.

"We're just waiting to see if the state has an interest," Backman said Thursday.

Burgum was not available for an interview on Thursday afternoon, said spokesman Mike Nowatzki.

The film is critical of the Areas of Interest policy adopted by the Industrial Commission in 2014, which allows a 10-day public comment period on wells proposed on public lands in designated areas, such as 2 miles from the boundary of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and a half-mile from Lake Sakakawea.

"The comments that are received from the public on public lands can be ignored, and largely have been," McEnroe said.

Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the Oil and Gas Division, said Thursday the agency does consider the comments. She said some comments have led to stipulations added to drilling permits such as perimeter berms, spill contingency plans and liners under rigs or facilities.

Ritter, who watched the film Thursday, said the agency has promoted development of energy corridors through an order approved in 2010. The state also encourages drilling multiple wells on one pad to minimize the impact to the land, she said.

The film includes a quote from Director of Mineral Resources Lynn Helms talking about plans to drill every square mile of the Bakken. Ritter clarified that he was talking about oil development below the surface, with wells that can be spaced 2 to 4 miles from one another.

Other members of the Industrial Commission, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, were unavailable for comment Thursday.

"The public needs to take responsibility for what they want their state to be," Al Sapa, a retired wildlife biologist, says in the film. "If we don't do that, then we're going to have to settle for what somebody else gives us. And we may not like that."

The film is available at