MINOT, N.D.-A group has formed in North Dakota concerned about the disappearance of state land and waters open to the public.

"Our focus is solely on public lands and conservation of those lands. We are trying to keep wild lands wild," explained Jack Sorum, Minot, a member of the recently formed North Dakota Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

The loss of public lands, which are open for a variety of uses including hunting, camping and hiking, has become an important issue for a growing number of people who have witnessed a sharp decline in land open to the public in recent years, said Sorum.

He said North Dakota once had 2.5-million acres of state land.

"I think now we have 700,000 acres. The rest has been sold off," Sorum said.

"National Grasslands is the biggest chunk of land in North Dakota," added Adam Leitschuh, Minot, chairman of NDBHA. "In the '70s we had half a million acres of land designated as suitable wilderness, not impacted by the hand of man. Since then we are down to 40,000 acres that meet the requirement of wilderness areas."

The state chapter of BHA was officially recognized by the national office of BHA this past April. It has grown rapidly with a current membership approaching 300. Nationally BHA, which is headquartered in Missoula, Mont., has reached 24,000 members. It has become one of the fastest growing land conservation groups in the country. There are 37 states and two Canadian provinces with BHA chapters and more in the works.

Locally, BHA members have already participated in one project that not only has increased attention on the group but has furthered a goal. They offered their assistance to the U.S. Forest Service to replace missing or damaged signs on public lands in western North Dakota.

"We actually helped installing signs at access points in areas that tell about non-motorized areas other than by permit," said Leitschuh. "We installed whole new signs and posts or swapped out signs. We are working on other clean-up projects at campgrounds and such too."

One issue on public lands in North Dakota, and elsewhere, is the creation of roads and trails where only those authorized by special permit, such as ranchers with grazing permits, are allowed to travel. Often trails in areas closed to non-permitted vehicles become used by others which, in turn, scars the land and invites further motorized activity.

"If we take out everything, develop everything out there, it would be a terrible loss for the state," said Sorum. "Public lands are multi-use lands but the Badlands oil industry has almost dominated the Badlands in terms of use. What we are saying is, if we develop every acre for extraction, what have we done to the state? We're not advocating stopping this, we just want to see some balance."

Sorum says outdoor related industry in the United States generates $887 billion a year, making it bigger than any industry in the country in terms of money and jobs.

"Yet our politicians give it almost zero weight. It's insane," said Sorum. "It's a big number. Recreation numbers blow away oil and gas. I think we are starting to bring this to light."

Membership in BHA is set at $25 per year. The group differs from many outdoor organizations in that they do not have any annual banquets or other traditional fundraising events.

"Instead we have nights, call them membership awareness events, where people come and meet other people with common interests," said Leitschuh. "We have membership incentives and such but we're not looking for people to come and buy raffle tickets."

The website for BHA is backcountryhunters.org.