Let's Prepare for Our Big Birthday by Taking Charge of Our Destiny

Welcome to 2014. It's going to be quite a year for North Dakota.

On November 2, North Dakota will celebrate its 125th birthday. Back in the desperation era of the 1980s—when our story was economic marginality, rural decline, consolidation, drought, and outmigration—reasonable people wondered if North Dakota had a future. At the time of our centennial "celebration" on November 2, 1989, some wondered if there would even be a bicentennial in 2089—or whether North Dakota would just crumble and blow away like Grassy Butte, Ambrose, Bowbells, or Tuttle. We heard about the "emptied prairie" syndrome until we were sick to death of it. The experts reckoned that some rump of folks would perhaps always remain on the northern Great Plains, because they were born here and somebody had to keep the lights on, but that the great majority of our young people would seek their destiny elsewhere where there were less wind, shorter winters, more and better amenities, and a livelier connection to what is happening in the great world. One of my closest friends—a serious philosopher—wondered out loud whether North Dakota would lose population until it reverted to something like territorial status.

Now, 25 years later, we are a state bursting with money and opportunity. The people of North Dakota now openly express optimism and pride, and a sense that the future is going to be exciting. More people live in North Dakota than ever before—the population tipped over 700,000 at the end of 2013. Who could have predicted that twenty years ago, or even ten? We are likely to top out at well over a million before this boom era ends. We have more money in our state coffers than we know what to do with. Our public institutions are more generously funded than ever before in our history. After many decades of barely getting by, North Dakota suddenly has enough money to fund a wide range of desirable initiatives, with money to spare. A modest amount of the windfall has been set aside by the ND legislature for broadly construed "conservation" purposes, and a monumental amount is being sequestered as a permanent Legacy Fund. That fund already amounts to 1.4 billion dollars. It is likely to reach far beyond $3 billion by 2017, the first year that the legislature is permitted to spend a small percentage of the fund per biennium.

We should take our cues not from Alaska, which likes to divvy up its oil windfall by way of cash payments to Alaska residents, but rather Texas, had the foresight in 1876 to establish an oil-drip Permanent University Fund (now topping $14 billion) to support higher education. Wise use of its immense carbon revenues has enabled Texas to create one of the world's greatest universities, the UT at Austin. And to fund globally significant museums, galleries, event centers, and libraries. To some it may sound elitist (or just crazy) but it is undeniably true: create great universities and great things are going to happen to your state.

I know many North Dakotans are skeptical of higher education at the moment—thanks to years of turbulence, scandals, and out-of-control administrators—but we'd be making a terrible mistake if we pulled away from our historically high commitment to higher education. This is the time to redouble our efforts to create the best-educated citizens of America--in faraway North Dakota, seemingly so distant from MIT, Yale, and Cal Tech. We should do this here in North Dakota because for the first time we can really afford it, and because every study indicates that the twenty-first century is going to belong to the societies that invest deeply in education at every level.

If we invest the windfall wisely, we could become one of the most attractive places to live in America by 2050, and we could overcome the 20th century "problem of North Dakota," that there is not enough within our borders to convince our children to make their lives here, not enough to lure new families who had the misfortune to be born elsewhere.

We are so rich now that we could, if we have vision enough, provide free or virtually free tuition to every young North Dakotan to attend colleges and universities within our boundaries. California did this at one stage of its amazing history, and the result was social and economic miracles that have changed the world. At a time of unprecedented prosperity, there is no justification for letting the high cost of higher education dissuade our young people from attending North Dakota colleges and universities, particularly when the oil fields are luring our young men away from a permanent investment in their futures (higher education) to the carnival of sudden, temporary, often enough anarchic, pocket cash.

As we roll up to November 2, our 125th birthday, we North Dakotans should take some time to step back to assess our history and our heritage, to engage in something like a statewide conversation about what brought us here, who we are, what we value, what we wish to preserve at a time of gigantic change, where we are heading, and where we would like to wind up down the road. The best way to celebrate our birthday would be to create a new North Dakota social contract, a twenty-first century mission statement, so that we can direct the economic miracle that has come to North Dakota rather than be, in the end, merely overwhelmed and damaged by it.

The epicenter of the state birthday celebration will be the amazing new North Dakota Heritage Center. You can see it taking shape on the capitol grounds: bold new galleries, new auditoriums, new exhibits, new storage space for the treasures of North Dakota, carefully conserved old artifacts and breathtaking new electronic bells and whistles. The existing Heritage Center has been the home of the collective memory of the people of North Dakota—a gem on the Northern Plains—but the new Heritage Center (with 39,000 square feet of galleries) is going to be one of the best in America, an expression of a new dance in the North Dakota spirit. It will look forward as well as back. It will be a perfect 125th birthday gift to the people of North Dakota. And if you think this could have been accomplished without the new prosperity of the Bakken Oil Boom, think again.

And yet, as I write these words, North Dakota is burning. A BNSF train hauling crude oil out of North Dakota derailed at Casselton on December 30, igniting a fireball that lit up the New Year to remind us of the immense cost of our sudden, unprepared-for economic success. It can, it has, and it will happen here. The innocent folks of Casselton were urged to evacuate. But the accident at Casselton, while dramatic, is hardly unique. Out west, many hundreds of oil wells are flaring their natural gas instead of capturing it, a profligacy that is literally burning up $100 million of carbon per month in a state that was once a sanctuary for family farmers. That's more than a billion dollars per year.

There was a time in the history of North Dakota when that was all the money in the world.

Casselton is the home of five North Dakota governors. We are going to need some very creative leadership before and after our 125th birthday.