Living in Harmony in a Discourteous Time
Message From the President
I believe in conservation and I try to live in harmony with the land. Living in harmony with the land usually means walking gently and talking softly. But there are times when we are called upon to exit our genteel comfort zones and show up, stand up, and speak out.
I am guessing that if you are reading this, you probably think of yourself as a nature enthusiast, if not a flat-out outdoors freak. I am guessing many of your most precious lifetime memories were made in wild places, far from roads, buildings, and crowds—places that you had to hike to, or kayak to, in order to experience them. Since you are a member of Badlands Conservation Alliance, I’m guessing many of your most beloved wild places are in the Badlands. And, finally, I’m guessing that many of those treasured wild places are on or near the Little Missouri Scenic River.
Today I’m writing to acknowledge and to express my gratitude to all of you who have, over the last decade, fought to preserve one of the most remote, most peaceful, and most beautiful wild places in the North Dakota Badlands. Yes, I am talking about our long battle against the Little Missouri River Crossing project—one of BCA’s hallmark causes for the last 12 years. This was a cause worth the fight. If ever there was one, this was a time to show up, stand up, and speak out. And we did. I am proud that BCA was in this fight from the beginning. Our intrepid BCA director, Jan Swenson, went to the hearings, studied the maps, marshaled the facts, and became an expert in the siting of river crossings. She wrote countless letters and testified at countless meetings and hearings, pointing out the permanent damage the new bridge will cause to habitat, to wildlife, as well as the existential threat to one of the last few wild places in our state. I also wish to thank Jim Fuglie and BCA founder Lillian Crook for their deep research and powerful writing, not only about the potential eradication of scarce scenic property, but also about the colossal waste of money that the “bridge to nowhere” entails.
On July 26, 2018, I personally witnessed one of the most disturbing public hearings in my life. It was a rare departure from the typical polite North Dakota way. The purpose of the hearing was to provide the public with the opportunity to comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) regarding the proposed crossing. Within moments of the start, the meeting descended into pointless aggression, initiated by the Billings County Commission Chair and the Billing County Sheriff. The Commissioner acts like a man who thinks laws do not apply to him. He acts like he is used to getting what he wants by pushing other people around and shouting them down. At least, that is the way he acted on July 26 at the Bismarck Marriot Courtyard.
Jan Swenson had already explained BCA’s position. On many previous occasions, she had documented the reasons why the bridge cannot be justified and she had spoken of the threats to the land and the river. I had some talking points, but I had not really planned to testify. Then a woman sitting near me had the courage to speak in opposition, but she was quickly shouted down: “Don’t shake your head ‘no’ to me!”
It is hard to know what to do in the face of offensive behavior.
My natural inclination is to stay out of a fight. I told myself: “You don’t know all the facts.” But another, more persistent, voice argued: “You will always regret it if you pass up this chance to defend and protect this wild place. This is what BCA stands for!” So, I literally forced myself to stand up. Once on my feet, I had to say something. I fell back on one thing I know—that we have a duty to preserve what Theodore Roosevelt called “these vast and silent spaces.” I spoke on the disappearance of roadless areas in our state’s national grasslands. From over a half-million acres of Little Missouri Grasslands deemed roadless in 1970, we had less than 40,000 acres deemed suitable for wilderness in 2002—and that was before the Bakken Oil Boom.
The public comment period on the Little Missouri River Crossing DEIS is now ended. However, we will have our chance to speak again as the NEPA process continues. We can take comfort that BCA is part of the process and part of the conversation. A big part, actually.
My lesson? You can’t be part of the conversation if you don’t show up in the first place. So let’s show up, stand up, and speak up.