For Tim and Julie Schaper, life on Maverick Flats has never been
easybut 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 its not just Mother Nature that makes ranching on Maverick
Flats so hard. It is their landlordthe 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 businessranchers like the Schaperswho fear for
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
This land was set up to be ranches. How can they make this radical
change? They dont 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
The Schaper ranch is just one of some 450 ranches that was promised
the right to graze cattle on these lands. Tims 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.
Tims 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 lifethe 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 themhow
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 dont 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 officialseveryone 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, birdwatchersessentially
everyone who uses the Grasslandswill likely find the present
multiple-use (availability for all) concept better described
as limited use if this plan is adopted.
The Schapers rangelocated in Pasture 7 of the McKenzie County
Grazing Associationcontains one of the Forest Services visions:
the proposed Cottonwood Research Natural Area. RNAs (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 RNAsand by the managing
federal agency. It appears to be an absolute free hand for FS
personnel to do anything they want.
The Forest Services 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 cant 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. Ill be burned out.
The oil and gas industry has bailed out many a ranch family either
with royalties or, as in Tims 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 Dakotas 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 areaswhich 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 couldnt
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 months 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 didnt 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 wasnt 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
The ranchers are worried. The Forest Service is trying to starve
us out so they can get our land, too, Julie Schaper says. I
wont go. This is my home; its where I want to live, and how
I want to raise my kids. We will find some way to survive. We
dont expect to get rich. We have to work out to support our family
and the ranch. Im happy to be able to do that. We want to stay
Julies 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
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.
DAKOTA GRASSLANDS RANCHERS
NEED YOUR HELP!
Heres 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