Travel plan for Little Missouri grasslands warrants closer lookThe proposal to close 703 miles of mapped grasslands roads is the Forest Service’s preferred alternative in a Travel Management Plan the agency is developing to comply with a 2005 federal requirement that each national forest and grassland designate routes open to motor vehicle use.
By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald
It might not be on the radar screen of many sportsmen here in the Red River Valley, but a U.S. Forest Service proposal to close as many as 703 miles of mapped roads in the Little Missouri National Grasslands in western North Dakota deserves a closer look from hunters and hikers and anyone else who uses the federal lands to recreate.
Time is of the essence, because the comment period on the plan closes Friday.
The proposal to close 703 miles of mapped grasslands roads is the Forest Service’s preferred alternative in a Travel Management Plan the agency is developing to comply with a 2005 federal requirement that each national forest and grassland designate routes open to motor vehicle use.
Other alternatives would close 97 miles and 870 miles, respectively, and a fourth option would be no action — in other words, keeping the approximately 1,565 miles of so-called “System Roads” in the grasslands open to the public.
The proposal, which seems harmless enough on the surface, has drawn vocal opposition from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department and conceivably could set the stage for another state-federal clash to rival the debate that surrounded the removal of surplus elk from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
As you may recall, the National Park Service initially refused to consider the idea of using hunters to control the park’s elk herd, as favored by Game and Fish, the state agency charged with managing the state’s fish and wildlife resources. Largely through the efforts of U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the National Park Service eventually agreed to consider using “certified volunteers” — i.e. hunters — to remove the elk, and the Park Service on Thursday announced it had selected 240 potential volunteers to participate.
In the case of the grasslands travel plan, Game and Fish opposes the Forest Service proposal not because the department doesn’t think there should be fewer roads, but because the preferred alternative creates all kinds of access problems.
“Basically, it is going to leave every road out there in place,” said Mike McKenna, conservation and communication chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck. “It’s just that the public can’t drive on a bunch of them. I don’t see anything that’s gained by doing this.”
One problem, McKenna points out — and it’s a significant one — is that some of the roads slated for closure under the Forest Service plan would cut off access to public land that’s surrounded by private property.
Another problem is that while the Forest Service would publish a map showing the roads that are closed — even though they still physically exist — the agency would continue to publish a second map that’s been widely used for the past 30 years.
The potential for problems is obvious.
“Now imagine a public who doesn’t read a map very well,” McKenna said. “The enforceability of this, I think, is impossible.”
Creating access, of course, is a key part of the Game and Fish Department’s mandate. Losing access — especially access to public land — is something that should be of special concern to hunters, even those who live on the other side of the state from the grasslands.
“This would really change the way people recreate out there, and as I said, not for the better,” McKenna said. “We’re the first ones that wanted a transportation plan and something to get rid of the superfluous roads. But the ones getting closed aren’t necessarily extra roads. There seems to be no rhyme or reason.”
In a story by Mike Nowatzki in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Paula Johnston, the Forest Service’s recreation manager for the grasslands, said the agency will make final decisions on the closures this fall and the changes would go into effect Jan. 1.
That’s too soon, McKenna said, adding that Game and Fish would like to see the Forest Service conduct a more thorough assessment of the impacts that will result from closing particular roads. Specifically, he said, the department would like to see the comment period extended to 90 days instead of 30, but as Nowatzki reported, that’s not allowed under federal law.
“The bottom line is, we think if you look at things three-dimensionally and take some time to really do it right, a transportation plan could be a good thing for the public and the Badlands,” McKenna said. “But what they’ve come up with is a terrible thing for the public, and it’s not going to do anything for natural resources, either.”
That begs the question: What’s the point?
The idea of fewer roads is a good one — no one is arguing that point — but the Game and Fish Department makes a strong case for revisiting the travel plan that’s now on the table.
Here’s hoping their concerns and suggestions get taken to heart.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to email@example.com.