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Continued: Fighting to keep the oil boom out of North Dakota park

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: September 20, 2014 - 5:26 PM

“There’s so many things going on so quickly. It might be a pipeline, power line, oil well, rail loading facility or new road … any number of things,” Naylor said.

Sometimes companies don’t even realize that they’re proposing development near the park boundaries, she and others said.

State officials proposed mandating a public comment period for certain oil and gas drilling plans up to 2 miles surrounding the park and 17 other areas deemed “extraordinary places” in North Dakota this year. Industry groups including the North Dakota Petroleum Council opposed the change, arguing that special interests shouldn’t trump the rights of private landowners. Officials scaled back the idea to allow public comment time for only public land developments in those zones.

The national park boundary abuts some drilling-susceptible public forest service land, which already has more than 600 wells in the western part of the state.

Minneapolis hiker David Kingman said he’s been watching the conservation efforts of Naylor and others with interest as he spends much of his time in North Dakota now, managing a worker housing complex. He treasures the beautiful scenery on the park’s marked trails, as well as on its unmarked bison trails, he said. Fending off development nearby, he said, looks like “swatting flies.”

“They’ve got to just keep working at it,” he said, “but some get through.”

Sounds, scents and light

Naylor and others want to protect not only scenic natural views, but also the park’s solitude: The sound of blowing wind and singing birds, not the hum of traffic. The scent of sagebrush, not the sting of chemicals. The darkness of the night sky, not the glow of gas flares.

Typically, it works best to raise concerns directly with a company, Naylor said. Most are amenable, she said. She uses a diplomatic tone: “We are not opposed to energy development,” she is quick to say, “but we want it done in such a way that the park is preserved.”

New drilling techniques have made it easier for oil companies to comply with their requests, said North Dakota Petroleum Council communications manager Tessa Sandstrom.

“Thanks to the technology of horizontal drilling, you can be a little bit more flexible on where you put that drilling rig and still be able to recover the resources,” she said, adding that companies “always try to keep an open dialogue.”

One company put out a news release after abandoning a development plan, touting its commitment to preservation. Horizon Oilfield Services announced in April that it withdrew a permit application for an injection well near the park’s boundaries. The company highlighted a “desire to preserve the natural beauty and integrity of North Dakota public lands and National Parks,” the release said.

Jan Swenson, executive director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance, targets development in not only the national park, but in all sorts of natural areas in the state.

Often, she and Naylor will appear at the same meetings, Swenson said, though she added that Naylor is probably more of a “realist” in choosing what to oppose.

“Sometimes I wish the park service was even more aggressive,” Swenson said. Still, she said, “we are ever so lucky to have her.”

Tourists unaware

As they drive the winding, scenic roads or march up the trails of the Badlands, most park tourists have no idea what Naylor and other preservationists have fended off. No idea that Naylor won an award for her stewardship from the National Parks Conservation Association.

Deb Hornfeldt and Debbie Virnig carefully maneuvered a 32-foot Forester camper on the scenic drive to Oxbow Overlook. It was their last national park stop on their way back to Lakeland, Minn., from a road trip in the western United States. They sought out parks to find serenity, they said.

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  • Valerie Naylor made her way down one of the many trails at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Wednesday, July 23, 2014 in North Dakota. Naylor has made an effort to keep surrounding large oil companies out of the park. ] (ELIZABETH FLORES/STAR TRIBUNE) ELIZABETH FLORES • eflores@startribune.com

  • An eagle eye: Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor, above, keeps close watch over the park, working hard to make sure the oil boom doesn’t encroach too deeply.

  • ‘A very special place’: Among its many treasures, the landscape includes wildflowers and wildlife. Below, buffalo made their way across one of the roads. North Dakota has more than 11,000 producing oil wells, and the state’s oil and gas division estimates capacity for 60,000 more, with drilling continuing for at least 20 years. At times at some vistas, Naylor said a park visitor could see more than 20 natural gas flares shining in the distance.

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