Partners for Grasslands Stewardship

Posted: Apr 1, 2005
Written by: 
Joshua Zaffos

The Dakota Prairie Grasslands, 1.26 million acres administered by the U.S. Forest Service and intermingled with private lands. The grasslands provide forage for 63,000 cattle annually, making it the Forest Service's largest livestock-grazing program. These lands are actually four separate units of national grasslands in North Dakota and a small portion of South Dakota; most of the Partners for Grassland Stewardship’s efforts focus on the Little Missouri National Grasslands in western North Dakota.

Objective: To create a collaborative framework for grasslands management, build consensus on grasslands public policy issues, and provide resources to stakeholders for innovative grasslands stewardship.

Participants: US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota Fish & Game Department, North Dakota Farm Bureau, Little Missouri Grazing Association, The Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, Cass County Wildlife Club, Natural Resource Trust, National Audubon Society, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, West River Regional Tourism Council, Amerada Hess Corporation, and local ranchers.

History: Despite an extremely low population density, North Dakotans have a bad habit of stepping on each other's toes when it comes to grasslands management. The hullabaloo over the Dakota Prairie Grasslands management plan was no exception. Community meetings launched by the Forest Service in 1995 triggered a contentious tug-of-war between two traditional adversaries – environmentalists and public-lands ranchers – over wildlife management, livestock grazing allotments, recreation, oil and gas leasing and economic impacts on surrounding communities.

Instead of waiting for courtroom wrangling, public lands ranchers from the Little Missouri Grazing Association pushed for a change. In 1999, they enlisted the help of the Consensus Council, Inc., a non-profit conflict resolution group based in Bismarck. The Consensus Council brought together diverse stakeholders, including grazing associations, environmental groups, sporting and recreation-related organizations, government agencies, and other concerned interests to talk through their differences - and discover their common values.

The group traveled to Lander, Wyoming, to see how a similar coalition of rivals was solving problems through a consensus-based approach. When the North Dakota delegation returned from their fact-finding trip, they formed the Grasslands Stewardship Initiative and identified 45 stakeholders whom they felt should be engaged in discussions over management of the Dakota Prairie Grasslands. Among others, the roster included members of the Medora and McKenzie grazing associations, who feared the collaboration could lead to the destruction of the ranching economy. Reaching consensus proved to be difficult, and in the end it was a smaller group of committed stakeholders (not including the ranchers from Medora and McKenzie) that forged ahead as Partners for Grasslands Stewardship (PGS) in 2002.

In 2006, Dickinson State University (DSU) became the administrative and fiscal “home” for PGS. DSU's Department of Agriculture and Technical Studies provides facilities and funding to assist PGS in promoting grasslands as a resource for rural community survival. In return, PGS provides DSU students with opportunities to participate in projects on grassland health, grazing, and land management.

Accomplishments: "I've seen quite a few consensus groups along the way and none of them lasted a year," says John Brown, a former board member of the Little Missouri Grazing Association and a past president of the North Dakota Grazing Association. PGS, however, is "evolving and people are talking… We discovered we had a lot of the same goals."

Believing that public-lands ranchers can demonstrate their stewardship of the grasslands by conducting science-based assessments and addressing any concerns that may arise, the group used grasslands monitoring to help build trust among the partners. PGS also received federal funding to combat the spread of noxious weeds.

PGS’s greatest achievement has been in encouraging coordinated resource management (CRM). Typically, the Forest Service unilaterally develops 10-year allotment management plans nested within their comprehensive management plan for the grasslands, a process that often results in conflicts and appeals. In contrast, the CRM process involves all stakeholders from the outset in the design of the plans. Capitalizing on its experience in developing its own collaborative framework, PGS stimulated the creation of CRM processes on an allotment of the Little Missouri and another in southeastern North Dakota on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. CRM means "less time and money spent in court," says John Brown, "and more time working on the resource."

 The Eberts Ranch on the banks of the Little Missouri
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service
Challenges/constraints: Trust is a fragile thing – difficult to create and easy to destroy. Through PGS’s early work and the related CRM efforts, some common ground was being found among ranchers, conservation groups, and the Forest Service, but then a series of events external to the PGS process revived many old suspicions and antagonisms.

In 2006, the federal government acquired the Elkhorn Ranchlands (locally known as the Eberts Ranch), on which Theodore Roosevelt ran cattle in the mid-1880s. The purchase of the Ranchlands and their addition to the Dakota Prairie Grasslands was widely supported by historical interests and wildlife and environmental organizations who felt “the birthplace or cradle of conservation,” as the Boone and Crockett Club called it, needed to be protected from future development.

The “base” property of the Elkhorn Ranchlands consisted of 5,200 deeded acres. In addition, thousands of acres of public lands administered by the Medora Grazing Association had long been allotted by the Association to the ranch and were generally considered to be among its most significant assets. The congressional legislation that Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) crafted for the purchase of the property reflected that, directing that as of January 1, 2010, “[f]ederal land grazing use of the Elkhorn Ranch shall be managed through the grazing agreement between the Medora Grazing Association and the Forest Service. The Animal Unit Months (AUMs) for both Federal and private lands encompassing the Elkhorn Ranch shall become part of the grazing agreement held by Medora Grazing Association to be reallocated to its members in accordance with their rules.” The legislation also provided that “the multiple uses of the acquired Elkhorn Ranch shall continue.”

As part of its assessment of the newly acquired lands, the Forest Service held a series of “open houses” to discuss their future management. Common themes identified in the public input received were: using the land as a grassbank, restoring native vegetation, protecting the viewshed, limiting development impacts, and providing primitive recreation opportunities.

In November, 2007, David Pieper, the Forest Service supervisor of the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, presented a proposal he called An Opportunity for Flexibility: Elkhorn Ranchlands. Regarding the congressionally-mandated “multiple use” of the property, Pieper envisioned energy companies developing the “minerals estate,” while educational institutions, conservation groups, and other agencies would conduct research and fund wildlife habitat improvement and ecosystem restoration projects. The National Park Service would share in managing the viewshed from Roosevelt’s former cabin (which looks out on the Ranchlands from its location on adjoining NPS-owned property), and the Medora Grazing Association would “cooperate” in the management of the rangelands and livestock. “No one use would be dominant,” he stressed. And then he lofted an idea guaranteed to generate controversy in the ranching community.

Pieper proposed that the newly acquired “base” lands and their associated allotments be used as a forage reserve, or grassbank, to be available to all Medora Grazing Association members (not to a single allotee), as needed, during certain circumstances.

[The] question is who will graze, when, and for what purpose. A key question will be: Should the allotments be
reallocated to one or a few members, or be made available for use by all members in time of drought, fire, or needed rest or restoration of their own allotments?


He also suggested that a collaborative process be used to resolve conflicting public desires and expectations for future multiple use management of the area.

The public acquisition of the Elkhorn Ranchlands provides the opportunity for flexibility not only for the grazing program within the boundaries of the grazing association, but for a number of natural resource programs on the Little Missouri National Grassland.

The [Ranchlands acquisition] could provide multiple opportunities to an array of stakeholders – public and private. Rather than resolving the future management of the area through political or legislative fixes, or protracted legal battles, I would rather use a collaborative environmental conflict resolution model to find a solution.

In October, 2008, the Forest Service issued a scoping letter and notice of intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement on a proposed plan to manage the Elkhorn Ranchlands. “A key part of the proposal includes designating over 21,000 acres as a forage reserve or what some also call a “grassbank”, which is basically defined as “forage exchanged for conservation benefits”. Within days, the Associated Press reported that U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan “says a Forest Service official appears to be violating an agreement on how [the Elkhorn Ranchlands] should be managed….Dorgan says the agreement when the ranch was purchased was for the [Medora Grazing] association to allocate leases as it has traditionally done. He says the grass bank would violate that agreement.”

On November 12, 2008, Dorgan made an announcement that seemed to put paid to the grassbank.

Reaching an agreement to accomplish the sale of the ranch where Teddy Roosevelt’s cabin once stood was very difficult….The Governor, the Congressional Delegation and the ranchers all reached an agreement. And I spelled that agreement out in the law that authorized the purchase. I have been concerned that the Forest Service has been trying to find a way around that law. I have now been assured by the Chief of the Forest Service that the agreement will be honored as written, and the efforts of the Bismarck office of the Forest Service to change it will cease.

It is in this atmosphere – fraught with sensitive social, political, and economic issues – that PGS, with DSU’s assistance, is planning to host a grasslands symposium in the Fall of 2009. It’s a follow-up to the 2001 Great Plains Population Symposium that explored population losses in the Great Plains, and will focus on grasslands as a resource for rural community survival. The goal is to encourage more community involvement in addressing relevant issues, including grassbanking and grassland multiple use. The planners are mindful of the volatility of some of the issues, particularly as they relate to the management of public grasslands. “Part of my job is [helping PGS figure out] how do we incorporate [everyone’s] valid concerns into the program for public discussion,” says DSU’s Dr. Chip Poland, Chair of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Studies, who works closely with PGS.

Another challenge for PGS is that grazing association representation has fallen sharply over the last few years. By mid-2009 only one participant from the associations remained involved in the PGS. Poland wonders if one reason might have been that participants who belonged to the associations were comfortable speaking for themselves, but uncomfortable being perceived as representing and speaking for grazing permitees as a whole. In addition, ranchers have many other demands on their time, and the PGS effort, like most collaborative processes, requires significant investments of time and patience. Everyone in PGS is learning that collaboration doesn't come easy. Rangeland management is a "constant give-and-take. It is really adaptive management," says the Forest Service's Pieper. "It's that same give-and-take once you get [everybody] in the same room."

Perhaps, if the upcoming symposium stimulates new interest in PGS’s work, the group will revisit the issue of ensuring adequate representation of all concerned stakeholder interests in its deliberations. It is a problem which challenges many collaborative groups, and PGS’s experiences can provide valuable “lessons learned” for others.

For more information see:

Dakota Prairie Grasslands

The Nature Conservancy North Dakota Chapter

An Opportunity for Flexibility, Dave Pieper, USFS,
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