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Published May 13 2013

Forum editorial: List alone won’t be enough

If the North Dakota Industrial Commission is serious, more of the state’s “culturally important” places might be off limits to oil, gas and other potentially damaging development. The commission, at the behest of member Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, intends to visit specific places this summer with the goal of putting them on a list that might afford the sites some degree of protection.

The state Game and Fish Department already has a directory of sites identified for restrictions or conditions for development. The Industrial Commission list will complement the Game and Fish effort.

It’s all good news, specifically because the commission has regulatory and siting authority that Game and Fish does not. Made up of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner, the commission can exercise its power to block inappropriate development or impose requirements on projects in order to protect sensitive habitat, cultural values, water and landscapes.

Two recent dustups highlight the threat to lands and values in the oil-development west. The first came when an oil company staked out a potential drilling site near the Elkhorn Ranch, which is part of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The commission was not involved in that snafu, but the move by an oil company engineer sparked howls of outrage.

The other situation developed in the Killdeer Mountains, a location held sacred by American Indians and historically important in North Dakota history. Nevertheless, the commission allowed horizontal drilling to allegedly avoid sensitive areas, but nearby ranchers and American Indian interests still object to the development.

At this point, North Dakotans and others who cherish the badlands/grassland country of the Oil Patch can only wait and see. That is, compiling lists is one thing; taking substantive action to protect and preserve sensitive locations is quite another. The ethic that should motivate the commission and others charged with regulation is this: Once the beauty, habitat and cultural values of the region are gone, that’s it. No one can protect what’s been compromised or destroyed. So don’t wait until it’s too late.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.