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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
Table of Contents
Ice Manliness Cometh
A Six-Dog-Power Engine
I (Heart) Snowshoeing
Skiing Yellowstone
Welcome Back to the World
Rotten Fish Tales
Big Fun in the Green Zone
Hey Mr. Green
Comfort Zone
Mixed Media
Last Words
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Beauty & the Badlands | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

After I left John Heiser’s ranch, I drove north to the badlands’ only sizable community—Watford City, population 1,500. Watford, which calls itself "the REAL West," is a rarity: a small town almost devoid of chain stores. On its main drag, there is Larsen’s Service Drugs, the City Bar, Bob’s Bar, Tubby’s Auto Sales, Heggen Farm Equipment, and the Four Eyes Motel, whose fluorescent sign bears a drawing of a rather cherubic-looking TR. The soul of the town, though, is just off Main Street in the McKenzie County Bank, where the lobby is appointed with mounted trophies—a moose, a cougar, an elk—and where Vice President Dale Patten can usually be found, fretting.

Patten, a tall, bony man with a balding dome of a forehead, makes his living loaning money to ranchers. He is a commissioner for McKenzie County and he is dead set against the Sierra Club’s call for wilderness on the Grasslands. But he and his allies—the commissioners in nearby Billings, Golden Valley, and Slope Counties—have yet to mobilize against wilderness, focusing instead on the Forest Service’s Grasslands plan. On the morning I visited Patten at seven, he was underlining the legalese in the Forest Service plan. "This could be apocalyptic," he told me, peering up from his desk. "This plan could have a bigger impact on our way of life than anything since the droughts of the thirties."

Patten was a font of statistics. Citing a report commissioned by the Heritage Association of North Dakota, a group he co-chairs, he argued that the state could lose a billion dollars over the next decade—$500 million in ranching revenues and $500 million in oil revenues. These dire figures were based on a draft of the Grasslands plan that’s since been supplanted by a newer, oil- and ranch-friendly version. They were also speculative, and I was not inclined to believe them.

The plan does not enjoin ranchers from grazing cattle—or even driving—in roadless areas. These regions abound with two-track "prairie trails," auto routes too insubstantial to meet the Forest Service’s arcane definition of "road," and ranchers can drive on them. Indeed, nationwide, ranchers (and only ranchers) are allowed to drive into federally designated wilderness. If they fill out the requisite paperwork, they can even drive off the two-tracks in wilderness—to rescue a hurt cow, say, or mend a torn fence. The Forest Service predicts that enacting its Grasslands plan would cause, at most, a 9 percent decrease in grazing and would annually cost the ten counties closest to the Grasslands a total of $2.8 million in lost income. The agency’s literature also suggests that, if grazing and oil are curtailed, more and more hikers and mountain bikers will come to the Grasslands, along with their tourist dollars.

But the word "billion" transfixed Patten and he and I spent half a day driving around in his Ford Explorer, surveying a country that is, he insisted, "placed on the brink of economic peril by the Forest Service." We drove by some oil wells, and Patten told me that McKenzie County gets a million or so dollars a year in royalties from drilling on the Grasslands.

Patten and I also visited a tiny elementary school whose student body had dwindled to four. We talked about what Wal-Marts have done to disintegrate small towns on the plains. After a while, we crossed a dry gulch, Horse Creek, and turned off into a patch of Grasslands the Forest Service proposes to keep roadless. We crunched a few miles down a scoria two-track, passing a deer and a few cows, and then Patten pointed toward something in the far distance: a line of white rocks cleared long ago, to the side of a crop field, by homesteaders. The homesteaders had vanished, probably after a string of dry years that crushed North Dakota 60-odd years ago, and now the rocks were surrounded by a sea of grass. They were a sad sight. Someone had failed here.

The truth is that thousands and thousands of people have failed on the badlands. It is an aptly named place: cold, hot, lonely, steep, and underlain with dusty soil that some years gets no more than five inches of rain. It is a place where the prospect of failure is a somber, everyday reality. The Forest Service plan is, on such a landscape, just another black cloud. The cloud probably carries no hail, but folks in McKenzie County do not even want to find out. "Trying to make a living here is hard enough as it is," Patten said. We drove on.

Over the next couple of days, I drove around some more on the Grasslands. All told, I drove over 800 miles in reporting this story and, as I bought all of my fuel in North Dakota, it’s a fairly safe bet that I burned up a bit of the Grasslands. This realization made me ask some questions: Should I have skipped driving deep into and around the backcountry? Should I have hiked in? Do all of us drive too much? Are there other alternatives?

I can see Theodore Roosevelt rolling his eyes at such queries. It is quite possible that TR, were he alive today, would be the proud owner of a gargantuan SUV with a custom interior made out of ocelot hide. But perhaps not, for he was a visionary, a radical in Brooks Brothers clothing, and if I squint now, I can see him motoring about in a stylish Honda Insight, his brow furrowed as he glides toward the nirvana of 70 miles per gallon.

The Grasslands cannot, in the long run, withstand the drilling that a consumptive America demands of it. Short of sacrificing the land so loved by Roosevelt, or reverting to horseback as a way to get around, is it possible to devise an energy policy—one that emphasizes higher gas mileage for cars, better transportation systems, and more energy-efficient buildings and appliances? What would a far-sighted president like TR propose?

One can only speculate, and I was doing just that—gnawing on a make-believe historical bone—when I decided, at last, to end my stay in the badlands with a hike. I walked—first over the Buckhorn Trail in the national park and then off this trail and through a broad, grassy plain scattered with juniper and on up the bare brown slope of a butte. It was hot and the sun glared, but the dried mud was soft like pine needles under my feet. I kept going and the hillside got steeper and rocky and a couple of times I had to throw my hands out in front of me and grab at a crag. I pulled my way onto the top, finally, and then stood there in the strong wind and felt my shirt flap at my ribs and the sweat cool and dry on my skin.

Beneath me, there were no people, no sounds, no signs of civilization. Only a gray rock, a cluster of cottonwoods, a green hillside, a sandstone cliff that was yellow and bright in the sun. The land seemed endless, and endowed with a pattern that surpassed logic. I wanted it to stay that way forever.

Bill Donahue writes for Outside, Mother Jones, and the Atlantic Monthly. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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