Subscriptions click here for 20% off! E-Mail:

Git Home!



©Glenn Stenehjem, Glenn's Photography

Threatening Winds

Dakota Prairie Grasslands
families fear for their future.
With the help of the Sierra Club,
the U.S. Forest Service has
produced a horrendous and
unscientific “management plan”
that could devastate rural
families. By Merle Jost

The Schaper family (from left: Hailey, Julie with Cody, Tim with Leighton, and Nathan) fears the new FS plan will put them out of the ranching business on North Dakota’s Grasslands. “This is my home,” Julie Schaper says, “it’s where I want to live, and how I want to raise my kids." (Photo by Glenn Stenehjem, Glenn's Photography.)

For Tim and Julie Schaper, life on Maverick Flats has never been easy–but then, they never expected it to be. The Badlands that surround their Grassy Butte, North Dakota ranch are ruggedly beautiful, but a hard place to run cattle and make a living. Weather is capricious, with hot dry summers and a short growing season. Minus 30 degree temperatures with 30-mph winds are common in winter. “Often North Dakota is clear and still,” says a local rancher with a grin. “Clear up to your butt and still snowing.”

But it’s not just Mother Nature that makes ranching on Maverick Flats so hard. It is their “landlord”–the U.S. Forest Service (FS)–which has spent the last three years and $3 million devising a new management plan for the 1.1 million acres that make up the Dakota Prairie Grasslands.

This brainchild of the FS appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to eventually remove livestock producers from the land. The plan has the support of the Sierra Club, whose North Dakota Chapter has been waging an all-out campaign to sway public sympathy away from the cattlemen. The FS cannot entirely eliminate livestock on the Grasslands because they must allow the historical use of the land to remain, but to what extent appears to be the question. The proposed plan will likely put more than half of the Grasslands ranchers out of business–ranchers like the Schapers–who fear for their future.

Tim Schaper purchased his 120-head ranch, which is an average size ranch in the Grasslands, in 1979. “When I bought this place those government rights were a part of the purchase agreement. If this plan goes through, we will lose those rights, but we will still be paying for them. Those rights are part of this ranch.”

The right to run cattle in the Grasslands has an intrinsic value, recognized by the IRS for tax purposes, and though not tangible property, banks do write loans with a dollar value placed on these cattle rights.

“This land was set up to be ranches. How can they make this radical change? They don’t change the purpose of Yellowstone Park.” Tim is referring to the government buy-out of this once private land back in the hard years of the 1930s. Homesteaders found they could not survive on their 160-acre tracts of land in the Badlands as their cousins could on the fertile land in the east. They lost their land for non-payment of taxes and delinquent mortgages. The government bailed them out by buying up the forfeited land with a promise to lease the land back to them for grazing. The intent was to create a demonstration agricultural project and to stabilize the economy of the area, and it worked well. But how much are promises by the federal government worth 60 years later?

The Schaper ranch is just one of some 450 ranches that was promised the right to graze cattle on these lands. Tim’s cattle run in a common pasture shared with seven other permittees on state school land and federal land intermingled with private land. The new FS plan is a worry for anyone with land surrounded by or even adjoining federal land. Ranchers have come to realize the fears of owning private land in the midst of the “green” land on the Forest Service map.

Nightmarish stories of how private property rights have been totally ignored or squashed by the federal government have found their way to the Grasslands ranchers. What the government has done in other areas is frightening. People are no longer in control of their land. Private land owners have been forced to manage their property according to the plan of the government with total disregard for private property rights.

Tim’s hands show the 20 years of hard work he has put into his operation. Ranching these days, while feeding a family and paying off a mortgage, is not easy. It is a struggle for Tim and Julie, but this ranch is their lifeblood and they are willing to do what it takes to survive. Not only for them, but also for their four children, Nathan 9, Hailey 7, Leighton 4, and Cody 2. Tim and Julie will tell you there is no better place to raise a family than on the range. There is no time for boredom, no lack of excitement; the world begins at their back door.

To supplement their income, Julie works as a registered nurse in Dickinson, some 70 miles one way, and Tim works part-time in the local oilfields. Julie will spend nights in town when her shifts run too close together to make the long drive home worthwhile. In her absence, Tim takes the reins of household duties while playing Mr. Mom and doing the ranch work, too.

As is the way of ranch life–the kids work side by side with Tim and Julie, riding, tending livestock and doing their share of the chores. The kids have been riding the range since they could walk. And they like it that way. You can tell by looking at them–how they walk, how they smile, how they dress. Are they the last of this ranching tradition? They will be if the Forest Service and Sierra Club have their way.

The FS has shown very little empathy toward the ranchers and their way of life. Since the release of the new 1,622-page plan, what used to be a trusting working relationship between the managing agencies and the grazing associations has deteriorated almost to the point of becoming a sparring match. The faith the ranchers once placed in the agency they have leased from for 62 years has eroded as steadily as a clay butte in a downpour.

FS personnel have indicated that the ranchers’ lives are not what matters. “Managing the resource,” the phrase they use, is what matters. They acknowledge a certain percentage of ranchers will go under, and that local jobs and communities will be lessened. They say they have studied it. But when asked for documentation of their study they have failed to produce any.

This massive and complicated plan is currently in the comment stage, but according to Medora District Ranger Scott Fitzwilliams, the outcome is certain: “We are going with alternative #3 because if we don’t the environmental groups will sue us and will win. The grazing associations can sue us for the right to run cattle, but they will lose.” It is obvious which special interest groups have the most influence on this federal agency.

But the locals have a study of their own underway. Heritage Alliance of North Dakota (HAND) has emerged as the grassroots organization to gather facts to combat this monstrosity. Range scientists, economists, bankers, county officials–everyone has become involved.

A report compiled by North Dakota State University ag economics experts, will reveal a more realistic picture of the economic impact this plan will have on the area. It appears the FS planners have not done their homework thoroughly. As one scientist commented, “A scary thing about this plan is the lack of science within it.”

What is “managing for preservation?” Highly regarded range biologists say that after 60 years of managing by the grazing associations, the Grasslands are in better shape now than they ever have been. The FS refuses to acknowledge the recommendations of respected range conservationists and biologists from the North Dakota State University System. The FS and Sierra Club claim the new plan will increase recreation and public use, even though it places new restrictions on all users of the Grasslands. Hunters, hikers, mountain bikers, off-roaders, sightseers, birdwatchers–essentially everyone who uses the Grasslands–will likely find the present “multiple-use” (availability for all) concept better described as “limited use” if this plan is adopted.

The Schapers’ range–located in Pasture 7 of the McKenzie County Grazing Association–contains one of the Forest Service’s visions: the proposed Cottonwood Research Natural Area. RNA’s (according to Appendix E of the plan) serve as reference areas to allow managers to assess the consequences of management on other similar areas. Trying to decipher the text of the plan is at best confusing. But it does specify that “the intent of RNA management is to minimize human impacts that will affect the ecosystem....”

The management policies of the RNAs are to be established by the Forest Service after the formation of the RNAs–and by the managing federal agency. It appears to be an absolute free hand for FS personnel to do anything they want.

The Forest Service’s “let burn” policy is cause for deep concern to the Schapers, and for good reason; the research area is a scant quarter mile from their house. “If that area catches on fire and we can’t go out and fight it because of the FS ‘let burn’ policy, there is no way to stop it when it hits my private land,” Tim says. “I’ll be burned out.”

The oil and gas industry has bailed out many a ranch family either with royalties or, as in Tim’s case, a second job and stands to lose a tremendous number of drilling opportunities. The financial impact will be staggering to North Dakota, which relies heavily on oil revenue for school funding. North Dakota already struggles to provide adequate funding for its public school system. With one of the best school systems in the nation, it has been unable to get teachers’ salaries out of the cellar.

Wayde Schafer of the North Dakota Chapter of the Sierra Club is quick to point out that this new plan will bring in more tourist dollars to the area but it is hard to dispute the facts: Billings County, one of the most targeted tourist areas in the state, receives 84 percent of its income from oil revenue and a mere 4.5 percent from tourism. If this new plan goes into effect and the oil industry leaves and the cattlemen go belly up, the economy of western North Dakota will disappear right along with them.

The plan calls for designation of 225,000 acres of defacto wilderness, and 26,000 additional acres of newly designated wilderness. Although Congress must approve a wilderness designation, the FS has the authority to manage the land as a wilderness before Congress acts on the request. The agency has the power to create wilderness on its own authority.

Large areas are targeted for special plant and wildlife management areas. Bighorn sheep, non-native to the area but near and dear to the heart of North Dakota’s Game & Fish Department, are to be allotted up to 90,000 acres. The sheep will take preference over all else. The plan specifically states that recreation is to be “discouraged” as needed to protect sheep concentration areas...and grazing is to be limited, based on the bighorn sheep needs. The plan includes, “Do not permit domestic sheep allotments in or adjoining this management area.” How long will it take the FS to make it illegal for private landowners to run sheep on their own adjoining land?

The FS also has a goal of eventually expanding the prairie dog population from the current 2,500 acres to a sprawling 37,000 acres. This is equivalent to a strip of land one half mile wide by 120 miles long! Their goal is to establish adequate habitat to allow for reintroduction by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service of the black footed ferret. It is against the law to introduce ferrets into declared Bubonic Plague areas–which western North Dakota is. Hunters will no longer be able to freely shoot these prairie dogs. The dog towns will be “protected from March through July each year. The FS may require an area use permit for the remaining months of the year.”

In some areas the plan calls for restricting land use to “three people at one time” per square mile. “If we want to ride on our cattle in this restricted area,” Tim says, “we will have to split into two groups and take up two square miles to be in compliance.”

The Sierra Club haughtily insists the Grasslands have been consistently overgrazed and that wildlife has suffered because of it. What they seem to want is the return of unmanaged bison, which couldn’t possibly protect the land as the local ranchers have. According to the 1998 Monitoring and Evaluation Report approved by Larry Dawson, Dakota Prairie Grasslands Supervisor, on June 9, 1999: “...82 percent of the grass dominated lands are 76 to 100 percent of their potential production.” This is the highest classification used by the FS. Only a miniscule one percent of this land falls below 50 percent of potential production.

As for the “suffering” of wildlife, they may suffer, but not because of overgrazing. Brutal North Dakota winters are more apt to be the culprit. Wildlife numbers are strong, but they depend on the handouts of local ranchers for survival when sustained subzero temperatures with wind-driven snow makes foraging difficult for even the hardiest.

“When things get tough in the winter, the deer, turkeys, and all the other wildlife come to the ranches for food,” Tim says.

“If there are no ranchers to feed them, they will starve.”

The nine-inch stack of rules and regulations in the plan is confusing. Careful reading is necessary to decipher all the “hidden cuts, restrictions, changes, and regulations.”

When the plan was initially released the FS repeatedly claimed that grazing would be reduced by an average of 10 percent. Ranchers were skeptical. Ten percent of what? The question was always evaded.

A significant change was discovered in the way the FS defines an Animal Unit Month (AUM), which is the system used to determine the stocking rate of cattle. The standard definition is an AUM is the equivalent to one month’s forage consumed by a 1,000-lb. cow and her calf of less than six months of age.

The new plan changes this calculation. An AUM will be equivalent to the 1,000-lb. cow. But add another third of an AUM to compensate for the calf she is nurturing. The Forest Service will no longer consider a cow/calf pair as one AUM, but rather 1.32 AUM. This is important stuff to a cattleman and sheds light on the creative accounting and misguided statement by the FS that the cattlemen have increased cattle numbers. It didn’t make sense because the number of cattle has remained the same or even decreased.

Now recall the stated 10 percent cut the FS announced. Compare the figures taken from the plan: cattle numbers will be reduced from 653,000 AUMs to a range of 413,930 to 338,670 AUMs. Is this a 10 percent cut? Simple arithmetic would say that is a 37 percent to 48 percent reduction.

It may have surprised the FS that the ranchers did not roll over and play dead when the new plan was released. Instead the ranchers came in droves to FS-sponsored public forums held around the state. Perhaps the FS did not realize the erosion of trust that had already been occurring between them and the cattlemen but they must have suspected, because the FS had law enforcement on hand at the open house in Watford City. It wasn’t necessary. And FS representatives continually evaded answering specific questions about how this plan would affect the ranchers.

The FS spent three years formulating this complex plan with significant input from wildlife and environmental organizations. They totally disregarded comments and recommendations offered by locals and expected the public to review their complicated and massive draft of the Environmental Impact Statement and respond within 90 days! Nearly every rancher requested a full copy of the plan, which was released in early July. The FS was not prepared for the large number of requests and could not get a copy in the hands of many individuals for 45 days or longer.

The slow delivery was eating heavily into the comment period. After repeated requests, and with the help of state and federal elected officials, the FS eventually agreed to extend the comment period a mere 45 days. With pressure from North Dakota congressmen who demanded more time to review and formulate educated comments on a plan that carries the potential for devastation to local economies, the FS has extended the deadline again, to January 12, 2000.

The ranchers are worried. “The Forest Service is trying to starve us out so they can get our land, too,” Julie Schaper says. “I won’t go. This is my home; it’s where I want to live, and how I want to raise my kids. We will find some way to survive. We don’t expect to get rich. We have to work out to support our family and the ranch. I’m happy to be able to do that. We want to stay here.”

Julie’s sentiments reflect that of nearly every family living on the range. Ranching is in their blood. It was bred into them. Only these Badlands ranchers can know how the range works its way into their very souls. It is their home, their livelihood, their life, and they feel dangerously threatened by an agency of the United States government. The sad part is, the Forest Service doesn’t care.

Merle Jost runs a ranch on the Little Missouri Grasslands in North Dakota. He loves his country and is the third generation to work on the same outfit. He is a director in the McKenzie County Grazing Association and says, “I think I feed more wildlife than cattle.”


Here’s what can you do to help, but hurry, the deadline is soon!

The comment period for this plan is open until January 12, 2000 and the Forest Service says it will make a final decision on this management plan with consideration given to public input.

The proposed management plan will impose restrictions on every single user of the Grasslands. Ranchers, hunters, sightseers, birdwatchers, hikers, mountain bikers, trail riders, campers, and more use these lands. The Grasslands are known as the “Land of Many Uses.” Your comments can help ensure they remain that way. The Forest Service needs to hear from YOU!

Send your written comments to: Northern Great Plains Planning Team, USDA Forest Service, 125 North Main St., Chadron, NE 69337. Please ask the Forest Service to maintain the traditional and long standing multiple-use program of the Dakota Prairie Grasslands. Implementing the proposed new plan will be detrimental to the local economies of Western North Dakota.

Individual letters carry much more weight than a “rubber stamped” comment card. Please write to your state and congressional delegates, as well as the FS, on behalf of the people of the Dakota Grasslands! They need to know that you all care about public land use and private property rights.
Financial support for the Heritage Alliance of North Dakota (HAND), the grassroots organization setting up the groundwork to combat this USFS plan, would be greatly appreciated. Please send your donations to: HAND, P.O. Box 704, Watford City, ND 58854.–MJ


Table of Contents | Git Home!

To Subscribe: Please click here for subscription or call 1-800-RANGE-4-U for a special web price

Copyright © 1998-2005 RANGE magazine
For problems or questions regarding this site, please contact Dolphin Enterprises.

last page update: 04.03.05