When We Start to Lock Our Doors, Are We Still North Dakota?

Last Friday I had meetings in Dickinson and Medora. I lingered over dinner with one of my friends at the Rough Riders Hotel, and then turned my Honda towards Bismarck and put it on autopilot. It was a lovely evening. The countryside, somehow, was still green in the last days of August. My mind was pre-occupied with the topic that now never goes away: How does the spirit of North Dakota survive the massive carbon boom that has rolled like a great tidal wave over our land and people? My friend had shown me a map of the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, now essentially encircled by industrial activity. With much more to come, and no end in sight for the rest of our lives.

What will western North Dakota look like in 2015, 2025, 2035, 2050? Nobody knows for sure, but it is hard to believe that it will ever again look like the North Dakota I love so much: mostly empty and windswept, long stretches of ribbony blue highway with little or no traffic in either direction, fierce little towns hanging on against the forces that are depopulating the rural districts of America and the world. Grass landscapes rolling endlessly in every direction, punctuated by ridges and box buttes, with not much more human "improvement" than fences, cattle, a few scattered ranches, and farm to market scoria roads. The sense that the Great Plains just go on forever swallowing up human possibility and serving as a platform for the galloping escapades of pronghorn antelope. And of course the sacred river, the Little Missouri, meandering through the best of all that country in no hurry at all, carrying its six inches of silted water through one of the most beautiful and unusual landscapes in the world.

I love that North Dakota.

That North Dakota is now gone, except in diminishing and endangered patches. I know we have no right to cling to that North Dakota, given what it had come to represent: decline, outmigration, loss of a sense of the future, economic marginality. But that doesn't mean I don't miss it and feel that its rapid evaporation is tragic.

As I drove home with a perfect dusk in my rear view window, I mused about these things, and wondered what the right response to these developments is. Most North Dakotans seem unambiguously joyful about the oil boom, which has brought so much prosperity and renewal to the state. The sense of the state—taken as a whole—seems to be something close to "Drill, baby, drill," or as one of my friends in the industry puts it, "The best is yet to come." Most North Dakotans seem only vaguely—lip-service--concerned about the impact of the boom on such places as Killdeer and Watford City, and as for Williston—well, most North Dakotans seem to agree that Williston has never been the aesthetic capital of the state, or wished to be.

I disagree with most of that, but I am just one puny little voice, and I confess that my ambivalence eats up my anxiety every time. I do not wish the oil boom would go away. That seems irresponsible to me, given the sad history of rural decline in North Dakota, particularly western North Dakota. But I do wish three things, pretty strongly. One: that the boom would slow down, and move forward at a more orderly, sustainable, conservative, and community-friendly pace. Two: that we could hammer out a broad North Dakota consensus about some few parcels we'd like to spare—the Little Missouri River Valley, the concentric perimeter of the three units of the national park, the Killdeer Mountains and Bullion Butte, the remaining roadless areas of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, Native American sacred sites, historic battlefields. Three: that we would have a serious, open-minded, and frank statewide conversation about the oil rush and the future of North Dakota.

These do not seem to me to be radical suggestions, but sane and essential suggestions. The fact that such ideas are now routinely branded as "radical" or "anti-development" or "elitist," tells you how far the energy politics of North Dakota have rocketed to the right. We are now in many respects a one-party state (never a good thing, no matter which party), and we are in danger of becoming a company-state, like Montana in the age of Anaconda Copper. I believe we can be grateful for the oil boom without becoming servile, and we can maintain the sturdy independence of the North Dakota character without jeopardizing the enormous benefits of Bakken shale to the state.

Meanwhile, if I were the state legislature, I'd try to give the communities in the impact zone everything they need to survive this thing. It would not be a blank check, of course, but it would be something quite close to a blank check. These communities are in a free fall, and some of North Dakota's best local leaders are working 80 hours a week under almost unbearably stressful circumstances merely to keep their communities from collapse—water and sewer, streets, daycare, crime, drugs, gangs, basic zoning, DUIs, schools, waste facilities, dust mitigation, traffic, not to mention the sex trade and human trafficking. Why would we as outsiders want to doubt Stanley's or Watford City's assessment of what they need to get through this with something like their quality of life intact? If we doubt the perspective of the people who actually live in those towns, who do we think knows better what they need?

A month or so ago I was part of a conversation with several residents of Williston and Watford City, plus some serious oil boom executives. A lifelong resident of Watford City said, "I've lived in Watford all of my life. It has never been easy, but my wife and children and I have made a very good life for ourselves here. In all of that time, even when we have been on vacation, we have never locked our doors, and we have always just left the keys in the car wherever we stopped. This year, for the first time in more than fifty years, we have started to lock our doors." To which one of the executives replied, "Welcome to the modern world, Bob."

Because I was just listening to the conversation, I said nothing, but I wanted to shout: No No No No No No No! That's NOT an adequate response. It's not that we live in North Dakota because we don't have to lock our doors here, but the fact that until a couple of years ago you could live your entire life in North Dakota and not have to lock your doors is one of the very best things about this place. It's not the end of the world when you start locking up and looking over your shoulder in the parking lot, but it is the end of something so valuable in North Dakota life that its loss is (to me) profoundly disturbing. Along with the steady disappearance of pronghorn antelopes, mule deer, meadowlarks, eagles, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions.

At 10:38 p.m., as I pondered these things I ran out of gas for the first time in 43 years, a few miles out of Glen Ullin. Before that "long day's journey into night" ended, I was aware of the urgent necessity of oil in a whole new way.

"Doorway, 26 Chestnut Street, Salem, Mass." From the New York Public Library.