Patrick Springer, Published October 15 2010
Private North Dakota campground loses grassland access
But a few weeks later, without explanation, a gate across from the campground was abruptly padlocked – the first of three nearby access points to trails in the grassland to be closed.
“This is public land,” said Ron Hansen, who owns the Sheyenne Oaks campground with his wife, Jodi. The couple don’t understand why horseback riders and hikers suddenly find themselves barred from gates that were unlocked for years.
U.S. Forest Service officials say the closures are because the grasslands area adjoining the Sheyenne Oaks campground, notable for its rolling oak savannas, was declared off-limits to motor vehicles nine years ago.
The gates were padlocked after traffic in the area increased as visitors flocked to the Hansens’ campground, which hugs the northeast corner of the grasslands, said Bryan Stotts, the ranger who supervises Sheyenne National Grasslands in southeast North Dakota.
The Hansens, who now own almost 300 acres bordering the grasslands, bought their first parcel of land in 2008 and decided to develop it into a campground for visitors who seek the beauty and serenity of the grasslands.
As it happens, the Forest Service, the steward of the national grasslands, already had plans of its own for a possible campground, including a loop for horse campers, located in a hollow near the Hansens’ property.
The Forest Service’s proposed Jorgen’s Hollow Campground, now open to public comments, would be located very near the Hansens’ Sheyenne Oaks campground.
After the Hansens complained about reduced access to the grasslands, with one route requiring their guests to ride horseback or hike along more than a mile of a busy gravel road, Stotts approved a new gate.
That gate, in hilly terrain, opens to a trail that runs past the proposed Forest Service campground site.
But the Hansens, noting the fine, sandy soil in the area, find the new gate’s location confusing in light of the Forest Service’s concerns about damage to fragile soils, a reason given for closing other gates.
“There was no study at all,” Jodi Hansen said of the decision. “It was all his opinion.”
“He makes up rules as he goes to fit his agenda,” Ron Hansen said. “That is the most bothersome.”
Stotts said he approved the new gate, despite his concerns about fragile soils, to allow improved access to and from the Hansens’ campground to the grassland trail system.
“We’ve tried to make some accommodation to Mr. Hansen,” he said. “It’s a very fragile landscape. Our responsibility is to take care of it for everybody.”
The new gate allows guests of the Sheyenne Oaks campground access to a trailhead in the grasslands without riding or walking along the busy gravel road.
“We’re thankful for that gate,” Jodi Hansen said. “We really are.”
Noting that the proposed Jorgen’s Hollow Campground is close to their campground, the Hansens wonder why the Forest Service couldn’t find a more central location for a campground.
In the Hansens’ view, using tax dollars to build a campground so close to their Sheyenne Oaks campground would be a waste of federal funds.
Stotts said the Jorgen’s Hollow site has been under study since 2002 or 2003, long before the Hansens even thought of building their campground.
“We have a lot of support for that campground,” he added, referring to Jorgen’s Hollow.
The long-term solution is to “harden” trails by adding gravel, making them resistant to erosion, Stotts said. But that’s a costly solution, with a price tag of $10,000 to $15,000 a mile.
“We’d like to have a lot more hardened trails,” he said. “It’s a special area.”
As the Sheyenne National Grasslands becomes more popular, more disputes will arise among competing users, including recreational and grazing interests, Stotts said.
The challenge, he said, is to strike the right balance, while adding infrastructure to handle increasing numbers of visitors.
As for Jorgen’s Hollow Campground and trails associated with it, the Forest Service might decide to proceed with all or part of the project, depending on support for the project and funding support.
“It’s public land, and the public will tell us what to do with it, ultimately,” Stotts said.
As for the Hansens, they will keep promoting their campground, which draws visitors from all over the country – an influx they say benefits other businesses in the area.
“It’s a win-win for the public,” Jodi Hansen said. “But we’re just getting shut off.”
Public comments on the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed Jorgen’s Hollow Campground in the Sheyenne National Grasslands can be mailed to P.O. Box 946, Lisbon, ND 58504, and must be postmarked by Oct. 19.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522