The Badlands and the Bakken from the Air

A few days ago I had the opportunity to fly over western North Dakota with one of the most remarkable men I know, a significant player in the oil boom with strong roots in the badlands. We love many of the same places and many of the same people out there, and we're both concerned about what the boom means for the beauty and solemnity of the badlands. For manyh months he's offered to take me flying over the butte country and the sacred Little Missouri River. Things finally lined up for us both and I jumped at the chance.

We flew west of Bismarck along the Heart River to the Rainy Buttes, White Butte, Black Butte, and then to the Logging Camp Ranch northwest of Amidon. There we landed to drink in the beauty of the Teepee Buttes and the mother of all North Dakota buttes: Bullion. It was a perfect June day in Dakota, temperature about 72, a light breeze (on the ground) and a scattering of pillowy cumulous clouds in an otherwise pure blue sky. After that we flew all the way down the valley of the Little Missouri River to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and paused for two hours at Watford City. Finally we flew back to Bismarck in the corridor between Zap and Beulah, and landed at dusk. Give me more such days.

At some point in our journey, as we were chattering through headsets about the beauty and history of western North Dakota, my host—a gracious, funny, intelligent, spontaneous, passionate man, and someone I greatly admire—started whining about the 11.5% oil extraction tax in North Dakota. "Off the top!" he said four times, several times at the top of his lungs. "If they tried to tax those ranches we are flying over at that rate, there would be riots at the state capitol. Eleven point five off the top!" I was afraid he was going to put me through some hair-raising loops and dives just to make sure I understood the gravity of the despotic confiscations being visited upon the industry by the state legislature. Never argue with a rogue pilot. I did the best I could with my thimbleful of perspective—reminding him that the great bulk of that tax money is going right back into the impact counties, to provide a triage of basic services that will help the communities of western North Dakota to survive this thing, and to improve the transportation and shipping infrastructure so that the industry can extract even more shale oil from under our soil. In other words, I suggested that the state government of North Dakota should more properly be seen as a development partner than as an adversary to the oil boom. He laughed his great happy boyish laugh and conceded that my point could not be entirely dismissed. But after a short pause he ended the debate with the apparently definitive rebuttal: "Off the top!"

At that point I said: "If we are going to do much of this, we have to make a pact that I can tease you and you can tease me, and we get to ask each other any questions we choose, no matter how irreverent." To this he gladly assented with a dip of the right wing.

Eventually we landed in Watford City to regroup, put on a bit of fuel, get an ice cream cone, and look around a little. We fired up a company car in a prime spot at the airport and drove into town. It was hopping. The only adequate term to describe the traffic in Watford City is "horrendous." Wreckers and highway patrol cars with lights flashing were attending to a crippled big rig just west of the choke point intersection, and that made things temporarily intolerable. If time is money, vast sums of it are being left along North Dakota's beleaguered highways, along with big plastic Mountain Dew bottles full of… well, not Mountain Dew. We got the ice cream without incident, and some sodas, and then he drove me southeast of town to see the famous indoor RV park.

I don't know quite what I expected, but as we bounced along the pitted gravel road I guess I was anticipating a big open Metrodome with neat rows of RVs parked along bight green Astroturf yards, with a tennis court and a mini-mall clubhouse in the town square. Oh my. What we actually came to looked like an oversized self-storage facility, with an endless line of identical bays, each with one of those buff colored corrugated metal garage doors that can be opened all the way to the top. Outside a few of them were the inevitable gas grill units, and most of them had satellite dishes to pipe in 500 channels of entertainment. You know you are working in a brutal climate when it can be regarded as preferable to spend the winter like a Russian nesting doll inside your RV, inside a narrow storage bay, inside an elongated metal Quonset, at the end of a pitted gravel road, and—on special occasions—the man of the house ventures out into the sub-arctic moonscape to throw a few shrimp or chuck steaks on the barby. It's like being human Spam.

Then we went to gaze at some rigs in which my friend had some financial interests. At some point I realized that his daily cash flow is greater than my lifetime income, that an average North Dakotan like me cannot fathom how big this thing is, how much money is changing hands, how much is at stake in the Bakken, and what it really means in the global oil narrative. In the face of this sheer magnitude of industrial, capitalist, and carbon activity, a phenomenon literally beyond the scale of a regular citizen's imagination, a guy like me who has to decide whether he can afford a pound of pistachio nuts at the grocery store is effectively a nonentity. A non-player.

I took several thousand photographs of western North Dakota. We followed the sinuous trace of the Little Missouri River from the mouth of Little Cannonball Creek north of Marmarth, where Theodore Roosevelt killed his first buffalo in September 1883, to the mouth of Cherry Creek southeast of Watford City, where Roosevelt made a citizen's arrest of three boat thieves in April 1886, and then slogged them overland through the Killdeer Mountains and a sea of spring gumbo to the sheriff in Dickinson. In fact, we flew all the way to the mouth of the Little Missouri River near Twin Buttes. Whenever I wanted more photos, my friend flew circles around the landscape on my behalf. To benefit my photographic agenda, he opened the right door of the plane so that I was literally dangling over the Little Missouri River with nothing between me an ignominious death but the shoulder harness. In the rear seat, unprotected by the windshield, I was buffeted and pummeled within an inch of my life by winds and crosswinds, and quite possibly the jet stream. My eyes were dry as melba toast. I loved every minute of it.

Next week, I'll try to say more about how the Bakken and the badlands look from the air in the summer of 2013. It's an eye-opening enterprise, and I'm compelled to say the news is almost entirely good.