‘Rampant’ Off-roading Damaging Federal Lands

Debris dumped in the McKenzie Ranger District of the Little Missouri National Grasslands is believed to have occurred in spring 2014. Photo courtesy of National Forest Service

WATFORD CITY, N.D. – Vehicles going off-road into the Little Missouri National Grasslands of western North Dakota are doing “deplorable” damage to National Forest Service land, says the McKenzie district ranger.

One recent case involving pickups and road graders that got stuck while mudding in rugged Forest Service land is under federal investigation and could result in criminal charges.

Jay Frederick, McKenzie district ranger, said he’s seen an increase in vehicles driving off roads and trails and damaging the land, as well as vehicles and other garbage being burned and abandoned.

“It’s rampant. It’s very bad,” Frederick said. “It’s getting to be a big problem.”

On June 2, authorities discovered several pickups that had gone mudding in a pasture in McKenzie County and gotten stuck, Frederick said. The individuals then got two road graders to try to pull them out, but the graders also got stuck, he said.

The incident involved seven or eight pickups, Frederick said, with both North Dakota and out-of-state license plates. Authorities were able to identify the drivers, and the incident is under investigation by authorities in McKenzie County and Richland County in Montana, Frederick said.

“Finally, we’ve been able to catch some of this happening,” Frederick said. “We want to try to stem the tide here.”

U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said his office is also assisting with the investigation.

In general, incidents of off-roading that cause damage to federal property can lead to misdemeanor or felony federal criminal charges, Purdon said. The charge becomes a felony when damage to property exceeds $1,000.

Frederick said his office was still doing an assessment of the recent damage.

“This is going to be expensive to fix,” he said.

An archaeologist is expected to survey the site because the Forest Service believes there are cultural resources near that area, Frederick said.

Jan Swenson, a staff member for the Badlands Conservation Alliance, saw photos of the damage last week during a tour with the National Forest Service. The photos aren’t being released to the public yet because of the ongoing investigation.

“I think the general public that cares about our public lands would be highly offended,” Swenson said. “Forest Service lands are meant to be multiple use, but this is not one of them. This is vandalism.”

In a past incident, the Forest Service removed about 950 pounds of steel from a pasture after a cab of a truck and a TV were abandoned and shot to pieces, Frederick said. Other incidents involved vehicles climbing hills that damaged the land.

The Little Missouri National Grasslands encompass more than 1 million acres in western North Dakota.

The National Forest Service has one full-time law enforcement officer who is stationed in Lemmon, S.D.

The Forest Service also has a part-time reserve officer in Watford City, but his primary job is inspection and enforcement of oil and gas infrastructure, which keeps him busy, Frederick said.

“We’re pretty thin,” Frederick said.