ND Section Line and Quiet Title Roads lawsuit in the Grasslands

brocksw

Well-known member
Joined
Jan 5, 2018
Messages
441
Figured I'd try and spice up the North Dakota section a bit and provide a place to talk about the Section Line and Quiet title roads lawsuit that started in 2012. It looks like there is a potential end to this wild goose chase now in sight.

To give you some history on this issue:

There were essentially 2 parts to said lawsuit. 1 part was over section line rights of way in the National Grasslands, and the other, a quiet title case over specific roads in McKenzie county.

The section line law in ND is a essentially a rights of way law where a public access easement exists on each side of every section line outside of a municipality. They aren't always roaded or two tracked, but even if both sides of the section line are posted, the public can still walk in a 66 foot buffer (33 ft on each side) along the section line. This has greatly reduced landlocked public lands. There are instances where this section line can be gated off but it's pretty rare.

Back to the issue at hand. The lawsuit the state of ND filed regarding the section lines, was claiming state ownership over each section line within the Little Missouri National Grasslands. They wanted that control so they could build roads on those sections, specifically inside of Roadless and non-motorized areas.

In 2017 Judge Daniel Hovland dismissed the section line rights of way portion of the lawsuit because of a statute of limitations.

Last October (2020), McKenzie county was awarded 3 of 6 roads subject to the quiet title portion of the lawsuit. An important clarification is that these aren't "Roads", they're 2 track trails immediately south of the North Unit of the TR National Park. These roads don't lead to a bridge, they don't lead to the river, they don't lead to another main road. 1 takes you to the park boundary, the other sort of peters out in the bottom of a draw, and off the top of my head I forget where the 3rd goes (in my notes which are not on me). If I remember correctly it stops at the top of a butte and is less than a mile long.

Now all three of those roads are located in the Long X Roadless Complex. This area is also a non-motorized area and is also categorized as "Suitable for Wilderness". However, the lessee still maintains a permit to use said two tracks to do his thing with his cattle. That "permit" or grazing right, whatever you'd like to call it, would be grandfathered in if it were to ever become an actual capital W wilderness. So no "rights" would be lost in that scenario.

These non-motorized areas are about restricting vehicular access to the public...non-motorized traffic only. There are just over 130k acres of non-motorized areas out of the 1.1 million acre Little Missouri National Grasslands. out of that 130k acres, about 39,000 acres qualify as "Suitable for Wilderness". The Long X complex represents about 11k acre chunk of that.

The impact of the quiet title decision, as it sits now....and I'm speculating a bit here so keep that in mind. Can lead to a 5k acre chunk being severed off from the Long X area. One of those "trails" in the quiet title suit, will basically serve as a dividing line that splits that chunk off.

The concern is that the 5k acre chunk will no longer be considered non-motorized and will also get left out of the "Suitable for Wilderness" category when the next Land and Resource Plan revision happens. My guess is the Dakota Prairie Grasslands office will conduct the Roadless Analysis and this chunk will no longer meet the qualifications. I'm thinking the plan revision will begin in the next 5 years or so now that there is a new Supervisor at the helm.

Now, I don't want to go down a slippery slope argument here but, there is a possibility that the next step for the county may be pursuing legal action to use the quiet title victory to improve those 3 trails, even though road improvements are not allowed in a Roadless Area. Remember, the Long X area is in a Roadless Area as well. IRA's do not allow new road construction or road improvements. An improvement from a two track to a full fledged gravel road, if it were to happen, would be the issue then. That improvement would drastically change that area considering it is now "Suitable for Wilderness". Imagine an area where you could go 2 or 3 miles away from the nearest road, and then showing up one fall and having 3 brand new gravel roads sitting there in all their glory.

Why is this a big deal? Well around 80% of the Grasslands is "roaded". Meaning in most areas vehicular access is plentiful and in many areas, its pretty difficult to get up on a high spot and not see a road within a half mile or so. So you could say there's a variety of access and a variety of environments for the hunters. There's areas with great road access, areas where you're never to far from the road, areas that don't have a special designation but you can still get a little further from the roads, maybe a mile max, and also areas where you can get a ways in there and not be bothered. The quiet title portion of the suit shrinks that number of acres where you can get away from the roads and traffic. The Section line portion, which was dismissed, threatens to destroy those areas completely.

One point of interest that happened recently...just to give you a little taste of how politicians behave. Even though the federal court threw that section line portion of the case out. ND Senator John Hoeven decided to take matters into his own hands and he drafted language to circumvent Judge Hovland's 2017 decision. He he added that language to the end of year omnibus spending package in December of 2020. That language would've handed over all section lines in the Grasslands. Thankfully, that text was removed. Nothing quite like federal courts reaching a ruling on the law of the land, only to have a politician not like the ruling and then draft sneaky language to go around said ruling.

The overall desire is to obtain that rights of way on every section in the grasslands. Since, they are already open to public foot travel and in some cases already have roads/trails....there is only one reason they want the right of way. To build more roads. That's what all this is about. These roads might be for general travel or oil and gas infrastructure. But those section lines wouldn't stop at non-motorized or "Suitable for Wilderness" boundaries. Meaning, the state/counties could then build roads wherever they want at their discretion.

To save a little on an already lengthy post, we can connect the dots as to whats going to happen. It won't be less roads. It won't be more wild places. The wildest places in the Badlands (Roadless area, non-motorized areas, suitable for wilderness), will be subject to road building. Meaning the loss of all those designations. A majority of the only places in ND where you can actually have a backcountry experience will essentially be given a death sentence.

Its amazing how far we've come. In the 70s, there were 500,000 acres that qualified as Suitable for Wilderness in what is now the Little Missouri National Grasslands. Today, we are near the end of a court decision to potentially decide the fate of the last 39,000 acres.
 
Last edited:

Nick28

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Joined
Jan 16, 2019
Messages
114
Location
North Dakota
Not good for the grasslands for sure. Already enough roads out there.

I know this post wasn't about the section line law in North Dakota but that is one thing I would love to see changed. In my opinion it is a strange law that if both sides are posted, even if its the same land owner you can "walk" down it. I understand that this opens up some public ground, and I know North Dakota doesn't have a lot to start with. However, I just see a lot of questions when it comes to this law and people are not the best at following the rules. I see a lot of people driving them with a 4 wheeler or pickup when there is nothing more than a trail that the local farmer uses to check his cows, and it is technically not an established trail.

I could go on and on about how against this I am but I do see the side that this opens up more public land. But we have to think about that we are able to hunt nonposted land. Which a lot of states don't have that going for the DIY hunter. Obviously that is another heated topic in North Dakota but I would really like to see a change to the section line law since we are able to hunt on non posted land which basically means it is open for public hunting.
 

Nick28

Active member
Joined
Jan 16, 2019
Messages
114
Location
North Dakota
I didn't mean to go off on a tangent there but just don't like that law. Haha Didn't mean to change the subject, I agree that we have to do something about whats happening in the grasslands. I love going down there for some bow hunting and it seems like every year its harder and harder to find an area where a road isnt within a mile or 2 of you. This can't happen, would destroy the limited backcountry hunting we have left in the BEAUTIFUL state of North Dakota.
 

wllm1313

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Joined
Dec 9, 2015
Messages
11,485
Location
Manetheren
Figured I'd try and spice up the North Dakota section a bit and provide a place to talk about the Section Line and Quiet title roads lawsuit that started in 2012. It looks like there is a potential end to this wild goose chase now in sight.

To give you some history on this issue:

There were essentially 2 parts to said lawsuit. 1 part was over section line rights of way in the National Grasslands, and the other, a quiet title case over specific roads in McKenzie county.

The section line law in ND is a essentially a rights of way law where a public access easement exists on each side of every section line outside of a municipality. They aren't always roaded or two tracked, but even if both sides of the section line are posted, the public can still walk in a 66 foot buffer (33 ft on each side) along the section line. This has greatly reduced landlocked public lands. There are instances where this section line can be gated off but it's pretty rare.

Back to the issue at hand. The lawsuit the state of ND filed regarding the section lines, was claiming state ownership over each section line within the Little Missouri National Grasslands. They wanted that control so they could build roads on those sections, specifically inside of Roadless and non-motorized areas.

In 2017 Judge Daniel Hovland dismissed the section line rights of way portion of the lawsuit because of a statute of limitations.

Last October (2020), McKenzie county was awarded 3 of 6 roads subject to the quiet title portion of the lawsuit. An important clarification is that these aren't "Roads", they're 2 track trails immediately south of the North Unit of the TR National Park. These roads don't lead to a bridge, they don't lead to the river, they don't lead to another main road. 1 takes you to the park boundary, the other sort of peters out in the bottom of a draw, and off the top of my head I forget where the 3rd goes (in my notes which are not on me). If I remember correctly it stops at the top of a butte and is less than a mile long.

Now all three of those roads are located in the Long X Roadless Complex. This area is also a non-motorized area and is also categorized as "Suitable for Wilderness". However, the lessee still maintains a permit to use said two tracks to do his thing with his cattle. That "permit" or grazing right, whatever you'd like to call it, would be grandfathered in if it were to ever become an actual capital W wilderness. So no "rights" would be lost in that scenario.

These non-motorized areas are about restricting vehicular access to the public...non-motorized traffic only. There are just over 130k acres of non-motorized areas out of the 1.1 million acre Little Missouri National Grasslands. out of that 130k acres, about 39,000 acres qualify as "Suitable for Wilderness". The Long X complex represents about 11k acre chunk of that.

The impact of the quiet title decision, as it sits now....and I'm speculating a bit here so keep that in mind. Can lead to a 5k acre chunk being severed off from the Long X area. One of those "trails" in the quiet title suit, will basically serve as a dividing line that splits that chunk off.

The concern is that the 5k acre chunk will no longer be considered non-motorized and will also get left out of the "Suitable for Wilderness" category when the next Land and Resource Plan revision happens. My guess is the Dakota Prairie Grasslands office will conduct the Roadless Analysis and this chunk will no longer meet the qualifications. I'm thinking the plan revision will begin in the next 5 years or so now that there is a new Supervisor at the helm.

Now, I don't want to go down a slippery slope argument here but, there is a possibility that the next step for the county may be pursuing legal action to use the quiet title victory to improve those 3 trails, even though road improvements are not allowed in a Roadless Area. Remember, the Long X area is in a Roadless Area as well. IRA's do not allow new road construction or road improvements. An improvement from a two track to a full fledged gravel road, if it were to happen, would be the issue then. That improvement would drastically change that area considering it is now "Suitable for Wilderness". Imagine an area where you could go 2 or 3 miles away from the nearest road, and then showing up one fall and having 3 brand new gravel roads sitting there in all their glory.

Why is this a big deal? Well around 80% of the Grasslands is "roaded". Meaning in most areas vehicular access is plentiful and in many areas, its pretty difficult to get up on a high spot and not see a road within a half mile or so. So you could say there's a variety of access and a variety of environments for the hunters. There's areas with great road access, areas where you're never to far from the road, areas that don't have a special designation but you can still get a little further from the roads, maybe a mile max, and also areas where you can get a ways in there and not be bothered. The quiet title portion of the suit shrinks that number of acres where you can get away from the roads and traffic. The Section line portion, which was dismissed, threatens to destroy those areas completely.

One point of interest that happened recently...just to give you a little taste of how politicians behave. Even though the federal court threw that section line portion of the case out. ND Senator John Hoeven decided to take matters into his own hands and he drafted language to circumvent Judge Hovland's 2017 decision. He he added that language to the end of year omnibus spending package in December of 2020. That language would've handed over all section lines in the Grasslands. Thankfully, that text was removed. Nothing quite like federal courts reaching a ruling on the law of the land, only to have a politician not like the ruling and then draft sneaky language to go around said ruling.

The overall desire is to obtain that rights of way on every section in the grasslands. Since, they are already open to public foot travel and in some cases already have roads/trails....there is only one reason they want the right of way. To build more roads. That's what all this is about. These roads might be for general travel or oil and gas infrastructure. But those section lines wouldn't stop at non-motorized or "Suitable for Wilderness" boundaries. Meaning, the state/counties could then build roads wherever they want at their discretion.

To save a little on an already lengthy post, we can connect the dots as to whats going to happen. It won't be less roads. It won't be more wild places. The wildest places in the Badlands (Roadless area, non-motorized areas, suitable for wilderness), will be subject to road building. Meaning the loss of all those designations. A majority of the only places in ND where you can actually have a backcountry experience will essentially be given a death sentence.

Its amazing how far we've come. In the 70s, there were 500,000 acres that qualified as Suitable for Wilderness in what is now the Little Missouri National Grasslands. Today, we are near the end of a court decision to potentially decide the fate of the last 39,000 acres.
Thank you for distilling the issue for everyone.
 

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