Railroad through grasslands is a stab to the heart


If the legal appeals don't work, two of the nation's three largest grasslands will become home to the biggest railroad project since Abraham Lincoln was president. Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad plans to build a 260-mile line through Buffalo Gap National Grassland in South Dakota and Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming. The line would connect to the railroad's existing track to create a 900-mile network designed to haul low-sulfur coal out of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.

I wish I could do something to protect these grasslands, to help people understand they are treasures more scarce here than forests or mountains. But how do you save a grassland? What do you say to help people understand it needs to be preserved? A grassland doesn't help. It doesn't do itself any favors by what it is. A grassland is subtle; not like the Grand Canyon that threatens to devour you if you fail to give it the honor it is due. Nor is it like Devil's Tower, which suddenly erupts out of the prairie and then mesmerizes you as you draw close to it. It's nothing like the boiling mud pots, geysers and mineral terraces of Yellowstone that make you wonder what planet you accidentally landed on.

Think of this grassland as open. To some, that means the same as empty or void, characteristics which imply a need for corrective measures: That which is empty should be filled. Perhaps that is why some are all too obliging to fill that void with what they call progress or development. A grassland is vast. It creates the feeling that it is abundant. It's sheer volume suggests that there is plenty. Certainly it wouldn't hurt to use just a little. At the same time its expanse frustrates. It is too big to take in, to get a grasp of its meaning. It sprawls before the eyes incomprehensible. It surrounds, cutting off hope of escape. A grassland is unsettling. One does not know what to make of all that space. It lies there untamed, uncommercial, uncivilized. If man has not mastered it, it might unleash some unseen danger. In its blank state, it may reflect the one who looks. It may stir a sudden awareness of one's discontent, of the pressure man exerts on the natural order, of the distance one regularly keeps between oneself and something greater, be it nature or God. And as one becomes aware of this even at some subconscious level, the grassland inspires flight, the need to get away from a possible life-altering awakening. That is, unless one lingers to experience what is not obvious, letting in this great expanse that we don't manipulate or control.

Three of the five cooperating agencies that have authority over the land and water that lie in the path of the project realized the problems that the railroad would create. The Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation all recommended that it not be built. Nonetheless, in its final environmental impact statement, the Surface Transportation Board approved the route through the grasslands. As part of its approval the board required the railroad to meet 147 conditions designed to "mitigate its impact."

I never heard the word mitigate before I started following this project two years ago. Initially, I thought it meant to resolve issues or concerns that individuals or groups raised. But the word's definition acknowledges that the intended action will create a situation that cannot be resolved. It means to cause to become "less harsh or hostile," to make "less severe or painful." Building the railroad causes problems. Mitigation doesn't make them go away. It only lessens them.

So why build the railroad? Simply put, the rationale goes like this: Electric companies need coal, people need electricity, therefore the railroad must be built. For the sake of providing electricity to populated areas hundreds of miles away, one fourth of the National Grasslands' 4 million acres will be transformed into just another avenue to get the goods to market. The change will sacrifice the subtle wonder of these rare treasures. And isn't it ironic: These semi-arid lands have returned to their fragile balance after misguided pre-Dust Bowl attempts to convert them to croplands.

They've recovered from the last bad idea. They don't need another.

Ken Steinken is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colo. (hcn.org). He teaches English and journalism at Stevens High School in Rapid City, S.D., and is working on a book about the railroad's expansion through the grasslands.


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