The slowdown in North Dakota's Oil Patch continues. Many drilling rigs lay idle, and production sags as low oil prices linger. The end of the boom is not wholly bad, though. It has allowed local governments among others to play catch-up in providing infrastructure and services. In fact, the pause in the boom provides a strategic opportunity to improve the sometimes haphazard industrial footprint of oil development, much of it occurring in the scenic and ecologically sensitive Little Missouri Badlands. Oil development means building well pads, pipelines, holding tanks-a welter of infrastructure connected by a network of roads, all of which mar the landscape and diminish wildlife habitat.

We can and must do a better job. What's lacking is a more coordinated and comprehensive approach, one that takes into account the interplay of nearby developments, with an effort to minimize impacts. That's not just the view of hardline environmentalists. It's the guiding spirit of an effort that has brought together more than 70 North Dakotans in a study searching for better ways to coordinate oil development. Most agreed more should be done to preserve the land while developing resources, a balancing act taking into account the varied needs of ranching, wildlife conservation and energy stakeholders. Most who were interviewed or surveyed were not critical of the oil development in the Badlands, but also believed development was too rapid, sometimes resulting in duplicated infrastructure, such as parallel roads to service nearby wells.

The initiative, coordinated in its initial stage by Covenant Consulting Group of Bismarck and paid for by the World Wildlife Fund, is trying to get beyond the rigid positions that all too often get in the way of reaching compromise between oil and gas, landowners and conservationists. To do that, organizers have intentionally sought guidance not from industry or conservation groups, but from individuals who live in the areas affected.

Breaking through the hardened positions will "require a leap of faith," in the words of Rod Backman, hired as a consultant to launch the effort. To succeed, people must be willing to try new approaches to stubborn problems. A small group, drawn from the pool of interviewees, is being formed and is charged with drafting recommendations to be ready around the start of next year.

A new governor will be in place by then, and hopefully will take the group's recommendations into consideration. As one of three members of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which oversees oil and gas development, the governor has an active role in energy development. As those who were interviewed made clear, nobody wants to interfere with oil development-but they want it done as lightly as possible, balancing other needs including ranching and conservation.

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