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Patrick Springer, Published October 12 2012

Protecting the wilderness

Fargo - Buel Sonderland’s appreciation of the North Dakota Badlands started when he grew tired of “road hunting” the fields surrounding the farm he grew up on near Petersburg.

Starting in the 1960s, he made periodic treks out west to public lands in the Little Missouri Badlands to hunt for deer, antelope and grouse.

Away from any roads, usually not within sight of other hunters, Sonderland spent long days hiking the rugged terrain with his hunting partners, reveling in the outdoor experience.

He found the hunting more challenging, and more rewarding, than the drive-and-shoot “road hunting” he’d known in eastern North Dakota.

Now semi-retired, working seasonally as a crop adjustor based in Fargo, Sonderland has become an outspoken advocate of a proposal to set aside parcels of roadless land to preserve as wilderness.

“It’s important for future generations to have the opportunity,” Sonderland says. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone and it can never be replaced.”

These days, Sonderland is more likely to grab a camera than a gun when he heads to the Little Missouri National Grasslands, more than

1 million acres set aside for grazing, outdoor recreation and mineral development under a “multiple use” management practice.

For several years, Badlands conservation advocates have been trying to win support for a Prairie Legacy Wilderness proposal, which would protect the few remaining areas of the badlands still eligible for preservation as wilderness.

It proposes protecting the 40,000 acres the U.S. Forest Service now manages as roadless and eligible for wilderness, and another 27,000 of state and school lands.

Those holdings represent just a sliver of the national grasslands in North Dakota, one of the few states with no wilderness areas, Sonderland says.

North Dakotans tend to take their open spaces for granted, but 95 percent of the Little Missouri Badlands are eligible for oil and gas drilling as well as road development, and 84 percent has been leased, according to wilderness supporters.

“It’s just something people of North Dakota need to understand,” Sonderland says.

Growing up on a farm, where he was surrounded by wildlife whetted his interest in nature and the outdoors.

“It really gave me an appreciation for the outdoors and for animals,” he says.

Although he considered a career in wildlife management, Sonderland instead opted for a career in agribusiness, including time as an agriculturalist for a sugar-beet growers cooperative and a fertilizer plant manager in the southern Red River Valley.

But Sonderland never lost his connection to the badlands, where he also has enjoyed horseback riding with his daughter.

Ranching still is permitted in areas designated as wilderness, although there are additional restrictions. Notably, there are no roads, and no motorized or mechanical vehicles – including mountain bikes – are allowed.

In emergencies, such as rescues of livestock, ranchers would get temporary permission to use a motorized vehicle by permit, Sonderland says.

Still, he acknowledges that farmers and ranchers tend to be vehemently opposed to wilderness proposals and the restrictions that go with them.

He believes the answer lies in public education and dialogue. That’s why he’s decided to get involved.

Sonderland was involved in a resolution passed last month by the Cass County Wildlife Club of Casselton supporting the Prairie Legacy Wilderness proposal, which so far lacks any congressional sponsors.

“This modest number of acres is one-tenth of one percent,” he says.

Also, Sonderland has been in touch with other sportsmen’s clubs, offering to address their members about the proposal. The same offer is open to civic and service clubs and college groups, he says.

He can be reached by calling (701)-799-2646 or emailing elk42041@aol.com.

“I just felt it was a wrong,” Sonderland says of the threat of oil development encroaching upon some of North Dakota’s last remaining wild places.

“When you see something that’s not right, you should speak out against it,” he says. “So many people lay back and speak about it at the coffee table. I just really couldn’t stand to sit still.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522