I love North Dakota. I was born here, raised here, and my heart has always resided here, even when I lived in really interesting other places. Although I resided in Nevada for 17 years, when people in other places asked me where I was from, I always said North Dakota—boldly and with pride.
Ten years have now passed since I moved back to North Dakota. I drove in on Labor Day 2005 with the last of four big U-Haul rigs. I began writing this column for the Bismarck Tribune four weeks later, and I have appeared in this space on Sundays ever since. I'm fond of special anniversaries (the Lewis & Clark bicentennial, the hundredth year of our National Park System). They offer us the opportunity to look backward and forward, to step out of the iron tyranny of the present for a moment or two and engage in some serious reflection. With your permission, for the next couple of weeks, I'm going to try to make sense of the last decade. I will try to sum up, if I can find a way.
When I arrived home ten years ago, the great North Dakota agony of outmigration, school and farm consolidation, small towns on life support, and general rural decline was in remission. Things were not at all ok west of the Red River Valley, but the worst of the outmigration crisis of the 80s and 90s was over, and a kind of fragile (and nervous) stability had set in. I remember reading a book then entitled The Natural West: Environmental History in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains) in which the brilliant historian Dan Flores argues that the Great Plains are a formidable and forbidding place where humans come for a time (wet times usually) and then are eventually driven out by drought, wind, economic marginality, and geographic isolation. Back in 2005 it seemed that we were perhaps living through one of those macro-historic waves of human withdrawal. Something much bigger than human agency was taking place on the Great Plains (in rural America generally), and all we could do was try to adjust to the changing dynamics.
Officials in my hometown of Dickinson were having emergency meetings then to see if they could find a way to keep the hospital open. A newly arrived hospital CEO told me at dinner at my mother's house that he had been brought to Dickinson "to manage decline." One of my closest friends, also at my mother's dining room table, speculated that the population of North Dakota would continue to spiral down, but perhaps it would find a sustainable plateau at about 500,000.
That was then.
Thanks to God and Harold Hamm, who saw the possibility of applying emerging technologies to the oil-saturated shale that lies beneath northwestern North Dakota and had the gumption to take the pioneering risk, almost every significant problem in North Dakota life has been solved. Thanks to the Bakken oil boom, North Dakota has finally reached a population of more than 700,000, for the first time in its history. The western towns that were ready to dry up and blow away—Grassy Butte, Killdeer, Stanley, Crosby, Epping, etc.—have staged a startling, almost miraculous, at times overwhelming comeback. Houses that couldn't be sold for $35,000 or even given away in 2001 sold overnight for three, five, even ten times that in 2013. New businesses on main street; coffee kiosks and food trucks in whatever vacant lots remain; whole new subdivisions in towns that had thrown away their infrastructure development manuals; full employment—indeed long lists of unfilled jobs. Towns that would have fought against a highway bypass with fierce defiance back in 1995 now begged for traffic and dust relief. And perhaps best of all, many of the young people who left during the desperate years to find jobs and fulfillment in Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, or Spokane, were now returning to spend the rest of their lives where they grew up, among their kin and authentic community.
Meanwhile, the state's coffers are full to bursting. Finally, we are able to pay our K-12 teachers and professors something closer to what they deserve. Centers of excellence have blossomed all over the state, thanks to former Governor John Hoeven. The magnificent new Heritage Center would have been unthinkable before the boom. Property taxes are coming down. The Legacy Fund now exceeds $3 billion. Even at the low oil prices of the last year, when you are pumping 1.2 million barrels per day, the tax revenues pile up like manna from heaven.
When I came home in 2005, the question was how to manage decline. That was the period of the Buffalo Commons, "emptied prairie" trope. Who will be left to turn out the lights?
Now, just ten years later, the challenge for the people of North Dakota is how to come to terms with unprecedented success and prosperity. I know a few philosophers who believe we North Dakotans are masters of perseverance in hard times, of getting by on little or nothing, squeezing a trickle of life blood out the turnip, finding a way to hold things together—somehow--with some gray tape and hand-me-down overalls. But we are not, these sages say, trained to handle prosperity, because the history of North Dakota has largely been the history of hardship and gumption, of grinding a bare subsistence out of the soil in the face of inhospitable conditions: climate, isolation, and colonial predators. How we choose to manage success, how we invest these gargantuan surpluses, how we choose to imagine what North Dakota might be in an era of unprecedented prosperity and confidence, has become the challenge of the twenty-first century. We're going to need some visionary leadership. We do not at the moment, I believe, have visionary leadership.
Perhaps the single richest conversation I've had in my homecoming years occurred five years ago during the pitchfork fondue on the Tjaden Terrace before the Medora Musical. My dinner partner was John Andrist, then a state senator and the emeritus editor of the Crosby Journal. He continues to write a lovely, lively, and insightful column for a number of North Dakota newspapers. I was asking him whether the social and environmental strains of the oil boom should be regarded as "temporary growing pains" or the "unavoidable cost of industrial extraction."
Senator Andrist put down his fork and gave me a look that mingled annoyance and his characteristic wit. "Look," he said, "I've spent the last thirty years watching my hometown Crosby decline—fewer businesses, our kids leaving and not coming back, empty and even abandoned houses, fewer farms. Every couple of years we formed a new civic group to try to attract new businesses to town and new citizens, yet no matter how hard we tried nothing very positive ever seemed to happen. It's agonizing to watch a community you love die."
I could see he was deeply moved, and so was I.
He continued, "So now the oil boom has reversed everything, and suddenly Crosby is back. The town is buzzing with new confidence, new hope, new enterprise, new citizens. And the children who left are starting to return, because they really do want to live in North Dakota. Do I wish it were happening a little more gradually, and with less social disruption? Of course. But it would be insane to prefer decline and death to the strain of sudden growth."
Still, if the oil boom has solved many of our problems, it has created some really challenging new ones. How well we address them will determine what sort of place North Dakota will be for our grandchildren.
But there is no question that the main thing I have observed in the last decade is: renewal.
I was really surprised to learn that Governor Jack Dalrymple has determined not to seek another term. And a little saddened. He has presided over North Dakota at the most prosperous and successful moment of its history. I believe he would have been re-elected effortlessly in 2016. He's popular and extremely well respected, well spoken, calm, unassuming, immune to the superficial trappings of power, without vanity or the slightest hunger for grandstanding or self-praise. When you run into him in the capitol, at the grocery store, or at a restaurant, you would not inevitably conclude he is the Governor of North Dakota. There is none of the Rick Perry huff and puff about him, no stern security detail, no glad-handing, and no inflated self-regard.
When a man of power leaves office before he would have to, two really interesting things happen. First, we suddenly remember that these are actual human beings, not just governors, presidents, or senators. We remember that they have families, interests, hobbies, friends, health concerns, personal goals, travel plans, bucket lists, and a growing pile of books they have neglected during their term of office. Whenever I remember that Barack Obama is a father--of two girls—I like him better. Second, it always makes me feel more hopeful about our system of government to realize that there are people, like Jack Dalrymple, for whom power is not the only measure. Paradoxically, the person who voluntarily relinquishes power restores credibility and dignity to the system.
Renunciation of power is always breathtaking. People ache for power. They calculate and coordinate every element of their existence to achieve it. They avoid glittering temptations and distractions to stay on track. Even when they just want to sit with a beer and watch a ball game on television, or have a quiet evening with their spouse and children, they drag themselves to that precinct dinner in some marginal zip code, because generally speaking you cannot achieve power without making it the central purpose of your life. Bill Clinton openly said that he had wanted to be president of the United States since he was 16 years old.
Think of the two dozen 2015-16 aspirants to the presidency, taking all of those oppressive donor calls, telling every audience as much of what they want to hear as possible, flying at dawn day after day after day to stand at a factory door, do four television interviews with "important" local TV anchors, read a book about whimsical goats to third graders at Lincoln Elementary, address the Rotarians of south Sioux City, then whisk off to Pahrump, Nevada, for a "major speech" about trade policy.
All this to achieve power. In the end, someone—some one—will achieve it. And then, for four or eight years, to have the pundits of the Other Network hammer at you every single day, taking everything you say out of context, gripping like a pit bull anything that could possibly be construed to discredit you, searching incessantly for the slightest crack in your private life, replaying the moment when you tripped off the helicopter like a continuous loop, or the one clip (from 10,000 solemn alternatives) of you smirking through the National Anthem. Look at the before and after photographs of any president. That gray and haggard survivor is who you are going to become.
And yet they line up like lemmings to win the prize.
The Founding Fathers understood the intoxication of power, and its danger to republican values, so they created a mythology of renunciation that they borrowed from ancient Rome. All the Founders read Plutarch's Lives (short biographies about ancient Greek and Roman leaders). Jefferson and Adams read them in the original Greek. Everyone else read them in John Dryden's English translation (1683). The most important of Plutarch's Lives, from this perspective, was his biography of Cincinnatus, a fifth-century Roman aristocrat who lived in great simplicity on a farm, was called to public service during a severe war crisis, served brilliantly, saved Rome, and then immediately retired and returned to his modest agrarian life. All of the Founding Fathers had to pretend they admired the example of Cincinnatus, and a few, like Jefferson, genuinely did.
The great American Cincinnatus was George Washington. As soon as the Revolutionary War was won, Washington resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon. This, one of the greatest moments in the history of America, occurred on December 23, 1783, in Annapolis. There, Washington quietly handed his commission as Commander in Chief to members of the Continental Congress. He had his horse waiting at the door. The next day he left for his farm. There were many things he valued more than power.
If he had been Napoleon or Julius Caesar he would have clung to power at the end of a sword or musket, would have installed himself as dictator for life, and ruled with as much force as necessary until death or a coup d'état. When King George III of England heard that Washington was planning to renounce power and return to private life, he said, "If he does that he will be the greatest man in the world.
I was sorry to hear Barack Obama hint recently that he would like to serve a third term as president, if the law permitted it. Bill Clinton loved being president so much that he is said to have slept hardly at all during his last few weeks in office. In Rudyard Kipling's terms, he wanted to "fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run," or, to invite the inevitable gag, he sought to squeeze every possible joy out of his last moments in the White House. Theodore Roosevelt loved power so fiercely that he was really never fully happy after March 4, 1909, when he left the presidency.
Jack Dalrymple's path has been comparatively smooth. If he is a man of ambition, it doesn't show. Now he has the satisfaction of knowing that he leaves the state of North Dakota better than he found it. And it was already doing well on December 7, 2010, when he became our 32nd Governor.
Dalrymple's voluntary retirement leaves an open seat in 2016. The automatic advantage of incumbency will not be a factor in the next election. We all have a short list of likely candidates, but no matter who winds up running, the governor's withdrawal provides a great opportunity for the people of North Dakota. What we need now is a serious and sustained statewide conversation about the future. Thanks to the governor's decision, and the downturn in world oil prices, we have a unique opportunity to step back, take a deep breath, and assess the revolutionary developments of the last dozen years, to ask ourselves who we have been (1889-2008), who we now are, and who we are becoming; what we value, how we want to manage the future of this amazing state, how we should invest the surpluses and the Legacy Fund; what landscapes and habits of our North Dakota identity we should try to conserve as we move into the second phase of the Bakken Oil era; above all what kind of statewide community we want to sustain or create with all of this unprecedented opportunity and abundance.
Meanwhile, no matter what your politics or party affiliation, I think almost every North Dakotan agrees with Matthew 25:21. "Well done, my good and faithful servant."
Today is North Dakota's 125th birthday. On this day in 1989, at 3:40 EST, President Benjamin Harrison shuffled the statehood papers for North and South Dakota, signed them, and shuffled them again, so that it would be impossible to know whether we were the 39th or 40th state. Today North Dakota is giving itself a fabulous 125th birthday gift. The magnificent $52 million expansion of the North Dakota Heritage Center is celebrating its grand opening today. Our state museum has always been great. Now it is world class.
After a 125-year struggle to forge a viable rural civilization in an exceptionally challenging environment at the heart of North America (Eric Sevareid's "blank rectangle"), about as far from the centers of power, money, culture, and access as it is possible to be, suddenly everything seems possible for North Dakota. Many of the bedeviling historic problems of North Dakota life have suddenly been "solved" or at least addressed in a way we could not have expected back in 1989, when we "celebrated" our state Centennial in a somewhat muted and anxious manner. Those historic challenges--outmigration, rural decline, the slow death of small towns, underfunded public institutions, including K-12 schools and higher education, economic marginality, over-dependence on agriculture and federal aid—all seem less dramatic today.
For most of North Dakota history we have been a quiet agrarian people. As late as 1975 it would not have been inappropriate for us to erected winter-welded signs at the portals leading into North Dakota, saying, "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people." That's Thomas Jefferson speaking, the man who bought North Dakota but never visited it, a man who never had to feed calves at 47 below or shovel out the fermented grain at the bottom of the bin.
As long as food matters—and what matters more in life?—North Dakota will be primarily a farm state. Oil may bring in greater revenues, but I agree with the Jeffersonians, including former ND Governor Arthur A. Link, that the highest and best use of our land is family farms. In fact, I believe a new agrarian movement (even revolution) is taking root in America, and that the number of farms in North Dakota will start to grow, though they will not be the industrial giants of the late twentieth century.
We have never been a glamorous people and the great majority of us could never be accused of being fashionable. For most of our history we have found it possible to live here only through hard work, gumption and grim perseverance, frugality, stoicism, thrift, and extremely modest expectations. Almost every one of us has kin who were cash poor all of their lives, conservative in every purchase and every life decision, dressed usually in patched and hand-me-down clothing, humble to the point of self-effacement, but who managed somehow to put one or more of their children through college, and died in genuine prosperity. I remember watching my grandmother Rhoda pay an old hired man at the end of the wheat harvest. She carefully put a few dollars into his gnarled hands, and then pressed a handful of coins into his palm. She paid him to the penny, and there was no possibility that she would round up his wages to the next dollar. Things were that tight.
That set of dynamics made us who we are. There is something magnificent about it.
It was said of Thomas Jefferson that he could "tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet." For that he is regarded as America's Renaissance man. But the farmers and ranchers of North Dakota, and their sons and daughters, can—even now--strip an engine, cultivate a field, judge a rodeo, weld a chassis, build a barn or fence, wire a house, pull a calf, roof a shed, dig a drain field, drive a school bus, milk a cow, eviscerate an antelope, can cucumbers and tomatoes, back a horse trailer into a crowded space, chair a meeting, or lead a capital campaign to build a new church. This massive, marvelous competence and pragmatism has allowed us to survive in the semi-arid, windswept, and sub-arctic place we call North Dakota. We Dakotans are outstanding at the basics, and—in the end—the basics matter most of all. When the national or world collapse comes, where do you want to be, midtown Manhattan or Mott, Los Angeles or Linton?
We have been through some very tough times in the history of North Dakota. In 1933, for example, the average North Dakotan earned $145 per year, compared to the national average, in that terrible time, of $375. More North Dakotans abandoned farms and left the state during the 1930s than at any other time during our history. Steinbeck could more accurately have written The Grapes of Wrath about North Dakota than Oklahoma and Arkansas. Say what you want about FDR and the New Deal, but his rural stabilization programs saved North Dakota, and rural electrification was one of the most significant things that ever happened on the Great Plains. At one point, in 1935, 175,000 North Dakotans were on direct federal assistance. The federal government has played an essential role in North Dakota's survival.
Historically, we have exported wheat and cattle, coal, and oil, but also topsoil, water, and our young people. Things are changing now, thanks mostly to new technologies. The Bakken boom is convincing many of our children to stay in North Dakota, rather than fulfill their early adult dreams elsewhere, and the new amenities that come with economic success make North Dakota more attractive in cuisine and culture than ever before. Genetic modification has brought us drought-resistant strains of wheat and corn that enable us to harvest abundance much more often than in the first 100 years of North Dakota history. North Dakota was one of the pioneers of no-till agriculture. Soil erosion—one of the most significant problems of North Dakota history—is now largely a forgotten issue.
From an economic point of view (jobs, prosperity, lowered taxes, state budget surpluses, opportunity for new businesses, adequate funding of our basic institutions), this is the very best time in our 125-year history. It seems to me that no rational being, surveying the long, sometimes grim, struggle of North Dakota history, can wish the Bakken boom had never happened or would go away. (Managing it wisely, at a sustainable pace, with the fewest growing pains, is another matter altogether). If we had to choose birthday messages for North Dakota on November 2, 2014, we'd want to quote Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who told the people of Great Britain in 1957, "You've never had it so good."
Life is easier now. There is far less heavy lifting.
My concern is whether the "new North Dakota" will be as successful in shaping human character, resourcefulness, and integrity as the old one that is so undeniably and perhaps inevitably passing into ancient myth. There is no turning back. Most North Dakotans frankly do not wish to go back to or even romanticize that more strenuous, marginal, hardscrabble life. But all of us, I believe, recognize that something that has been essential to our identity as a people is being lost, and that in some important way we will be less even as we are more. That's the paradox of modernity.
I love this place.
Happy birthday North Dakota.
Everywhere I go now the first thing I am asked about is the Bakken Oil Boom. But before I have the chance to stumble out a few uncertain sentences, the people who bring up the Bakken interrupt to tell me everything I need to know.
In Red Cloud, Nebraska, at a literary conference, I met three or four biology professors from Nebraska and Iowa. They didn't ask a single question, but they told me with a degree of righteousness that immediately set my teeth on edge, that fracking is an environmental disaster, that man camps are dens of iniquity, that the water supplies of North Dakota will be poisoned for hundreds of years, that oil extraction is an unsustainable form of economic development, that industry doesn't give a damn about the communities of North Dakota. Etc.
When they stopped raving to catch their breath, I tried to say, "Well, you have to understand that for a very long period of time (1930-2005) North Dakota has been undergoing an agonizing rural outmigration and decline, and the oil boom, however overwhelming it may seem, has stopped the hemorrhaging, given us full employment and…" But they didn't want to hear what I had to say. They didn't even try to listen. They interrupted me before I had even begun to try to explain our situation. "Unsustainable." "Fools gold." "Whatever its temporary benefits, it's definitely not worth it." They were angry at the state of North Dakota, and angry at me because I was apparently some kind of pro-development stooge.
Their arrogance and condescension were enough to make my skin crawl. I wouldn't let myself be as rude as they were, but I wanted to say, "Hey, unlike you I actually live in the state of North Dakota and I love it with all of my heart. I want the best for my homeland, even if it thwarts my personal mythology of the state. Since 2005 I have spent almost endless amounts of time trying to make sense of the boom, struggling to figure out what it will mean for the future of North Dakota and the Great Plains. In fact, I now spend so much time brooding over the fracking boom that is has damaged my life and cut into my pursuit of happiness. As far as I can tell it is a very, very complex phenomenon that does not lend itself to simplistic pronouncements either way. Surely it can only be understood in the context of the strained economic and political history of the Great Plains, which I'm guessing is why you are attending a conference on prairie literature." It was no use. Their minds were closed, not open. It was as if they were condemning a dental root canal as an intrusion on the sanctity of the mouth, without bothering to ask what set of needs or problems it was intended to solve.
Then I went to Omaha. My hosts were bankers and investment councilors. They asked me about the Bakken. But before I could even open my mouth, two or three of them said, "You guys are the luckiest people in America. Jobs, opportunity, budget surpluses. You North Dakotans must be doing something right. If that moron in the White House were not waging his war against carbon, we'd be able to tell them Arabs to shove it." (They used somewhat more colorful terms).
I tried to say that the man in the White House doesn't seem to me particularly anti-carbon, once you look at the facts--that was the end of the conversation for some of my hosts. I started to say that while the Bakken is on the whole a wonderful thing for North Dakota, it was putting some pretty considerable pressures on our communities and our landscape. But I was not permitted to utter two complete sentences. "You'll get over it," one man said. "Every other state should be so lucky, beginning with the People's Republic of California." Another man said, "You know what they say about methane flaring, don't you? Smells like money!"
If they had been willing to listen, I would have said something like. "You should come to take a look for yourselves. The Bakken oil boom has solved many fundamental problems for North Dakota, and the people of the state overwhelmingly support it. We're rich, and thanks to the boom we have opportunities unprecedented in our history. But one of the very best things about North Dakota is the quiet sweep of the landscape, particularly west of the Missouri River. On the whole, humans have, until now, imposed a light footprint on the prairie. There is a subtle beauty in the land that grows on you. It's primordial. It has helped to create the character and the spirit of North Dakota. We have deep agrarian roots. If you want to see what we have valued, just visit the state fair. It's true that the spirit of the buttes and the badlands and the Little Missouri River cannot be measured in dollars and sense, but we all need to remember that the value of a civilization (or a community) comes from intangibles that cannot be measured or put up for sale."
They didn't want to hear any of this and, had I uttered these words, they would have said, "Are you nuts? What have you been smoking?"
In Reno, this morning, I was leading a public discussion of the life and work of John Wesley Powell (1834-1902), the one-armed Civil War hero who floated the Colorado River canyons in 1869, including the Grand Canyon. The conversation almost immediately turned to the Bakken. "What would Powell have to say about it?," a woman asked. "I don't know," I said, "he died before oil was a serious fuel in the industrial world."
But this much I do know. Powell, who addressed the ND Constitutional Convention in 1889, had three core values. First, he was a Jeffersonian who believed that America (including its natural resources) belonged not to corporate interests but to the broadest possible middle class. Like Jefferson he believed that family farming was the highest and best use of land.
Second, Powell was a utilitarian. Every form of development should benefit the broadest number of people possible. All resource questions should be decided for the benefit of the commonwealth, and government should be an absolutely neutral referee. Although he loved the romance of the Colorado River, Powell came to believe that any cubic inch of water that reached the sea without being used for irrigation was being "wasted." Lake Powell is named for him.
Third, Powell believed passionately that humans have the right and the duty to manage their resources in the most enlightened possible way. He believed that every form of economic development can be managed for the benefit of mankind, but if we simply fold our arms and let the Titans of Industry have their way with us and the land, we will all be complicit in the desolation of the American Garden of Eden.
As I left the sweet independent bookstore where the discussion was taking place, I saw a Prius and a Ford F-250 in the parking lot, each with a bumper sticker. Ones said, "There Is No Planet B." And the other said, "If You Can't Farm It, You Have to Mine It."
I leave it to you to determine which vehicle each sticker adorned.
My goal this summer is to visit all the Special Places designated by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and the North Dakota Industrial Commission. Last Saturday I took a couple of delightful badlands greenhorns to the Killdeer Mountains and Little Missouri State Park. We drove from Bismarck to Dickinson the easy way as quickly as possible. Then the adventure began. We turned north.
North Dakota highway 22 between Dickinson and the New Town turnoff used to be one of the greatest roads of the Great Plains. Now it is not much more than an industrial corridor, one of the two north-south transportation trunkways in the Bakken Oil Industrial Park. The other is US85. When I was growing up in the 1960s, ND22 was one of those wonderful "barely paved" roads, narrow, serpentine, a little dangerous in places, a slender ribbon of asphalt that looked as if it might just blow away in the next big drought. You felt like you were on a vision quest when you drove it, especially north of Killdeer. During the last oil boom, in the 70s and 80s, it was widened and straightened and given proper shoulders. That made it safer and less interesting. And now it has been transformed into an ugly industrial corridor. You cannot believe how long it takes you these days to get out of Dickinson's corrugation-and-Quonset shadow. The north-suburb stoplights stretch up to where Manning is supposed to be!
We stopped at what's left of Lost Bridge 20 miles north of Killdeer. The funky old steel girder bridge, built during the Clutch Plague, has been gone since 1994, when a typically bland and efficient DOT concrete slab replaced it. It used to be one of the most delightful moments in North Dakota wandering, to crest the bluff where the rolling plains break down and suddenly you are cast right down into the heart of the badlands, and way, way down there where a cottonwood river runs through the scene there was the uncanny little steel arch of Lost Bridge. Somehow that lonely bridge made a magical landscape even more magical. It reminded you of both the poverty and the audacity of North Dakota in 1930, tucked up in almost complete isolation at the top of America along the Canadian border, a profoundly rural and simple land of barely mechanized farms and traditional horseback cattle ranches. The bridge had been built in anticipation of a serious north-south road, a paved road, but the funds just weren't there in those desperate years when a third of the people of North Dakota were on direct federal assistance, and the outmigration was appalling, so the bridge, impressive for its time, just sat there all alone, gleaming for no good reason in the middle of nowhere, with a two track dirt road snaking off in either direction.
Lost Bridge was part of the romance of North Dakota. That romance is being erased now at a furious pace because that vast sweet western landscape is being refitted as rapidly as possible as an industrial platform for the mere extraction of oil and gas. Our gods are now Efficiency and Profit and Economic Development and Production. Nothing is sacred to such gods. The Bakken carbon zone is merely a problem to be solved—how to turn that entire landscape into an interlocking extraction machine as efficiently as possible. There is no room for romance in such a paradigm, or the kind of quaint country heritage that you find in those old thick county history books, Slope Saga, Pioneer Tales, and Echoing Trails. There is no longer any respect for the sacred places of North Dakota, because to grant that anything is sacred the extractors would have to acknowledge that western North Dakota is something more than an industrial platform, and that would force them to do some tiptoeing, which would violate the gods of Efficiency and Profit. To such an Extraction Engine the Lost Bridges of the West are just a nuisance and the badlands are just a slightly more challenging development platform than the smooth plains all around them.
One small section of the old girder bridge has been embedded into a roadside turnoff on the south side of the Little Missouri River. A number of years ago a superb outsized metal historical marker was attached to the last span, with an incised image of old Lost Bridge and information about how it came to be lost. The sign is gone now. Where did it go? It was too big to be stolen, so it must have been demoted.
The Republican Party platform, adopted a week ago in Minot, opposed the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife, and Parks Fund Constitutional Measure by declaring proudly that North Dakota has "balanced development needs of the industry with the stewardship of our state's natural, historical, and environmental resources."
Here's an example. Precisely where ND 22 sweeps up to the lip of the Lost Bridge badlands, precisely where the rolling plains yield to the magnificent chasm of the Little Missouri River, in what has to be regarded by any breathing being as one of the four or five most beautiful places in North Dakota (or for that matter, on the Great Plains), a Salt Water Disposal plant has been erected. There it is, right on the rim, right at the entrance to Little Missouri State Park, a dozen large brown cylindrical storage tanks, and an array of dumping stations that looks like a gigantic covered truck stop. A line of huge mud-splattered oil trucks idles nearby, waiting their turns, their diesel gurglings replacing the quietude of the last great stretch of the Little Missouri with industrial noise.
All I can say is that you have to go see it to believe that such a facility could be built in such a place, when it could just as easily have been built just about anywhere in the neighborhood, and at the very least a couple of miles back from the South Rim of the Little Missouri gorge. If you didn't know better, if you were a visitor from Jupiter, you'd have to conclude that it was put there for the express purpose of destroying the view and the serenity and the grandeur and the poetry of the place. But you do know better. It wasn't erected in one of the most sublime places in North Dakota out of malice. It was thrown up there out of indifference.
At the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, in May 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt said, "Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it." Well, this is our Grand Canyon, and oh my have we marred it. Who's responsible for this travesty? We are. Industry is indifferent. Dunn County didn't stop it. The state of North Dakota permitted it. We the people were apparently asleep and, voila, one morning it was there.
I urge you with the deepest sincerity to go see it right away. And ask yourself, is this ok? Is this "balanced development" that exhibits "stewardship of our state's natural, historical, and environmental resources."
A few weeks ago I wrote here that I regarded the Special Places initiative as perhaps the most important moment of North Dakota history in my lifetime. This last week the ND Industrial Commission voted unanimously to "approve" Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's proposal—but so stripped of its original intent as to be essentially pointless and meaningless. The original proposal (December 2013) would have designated a number of Special Places in western North Dakota and required oil companies to tiptoe around them as they extracted carbon from under both public and private land in their immediate vicinity. In its second generation (February 2014) the Initiative went from a proposed rule to a proposed process, thus seriously reducing its capacity to really protect anything. And now it has been stripped, at the Governor's insistence, of any application to private land and private minerals.
I am by nature an optimist. But for the moment I am really deeply saddened to see the Industrial Commission throw its immense weight (as usual) behind the dynamics of wholesale development—drill, baby, drill—rather than take measured risks on behalf of the commonwealth values of North Dakota. The Industrial Commission has a constitutionally-mandated responsibility to create broad policy protocols for economic activity in North Dakota. In other words, the state government of North Dakota has the right and responsibility to set the terms of industrial engagement as we strip our countryside of its immense oil shale reserves. If Governor Dalrymple and Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring had voted to adopt Attorney General Stenehjem's proposal as he originally presented it, the oil industry and "landowner groups" would have howled, but they would have soon found a way to work with the new protocols, which would have affected only a tiny fraction of the oil properties in North Dakota. Even in its original form, the Initiative would not have prevented a single barrel of oil from being extracted from beneath our soil.
So what's left after last week's vote? A list of special places—still a very good thing, in my opinion, because the State of North Dakota has now gone on record as believing that there really are some extraordinary places worthy of special care. James Madison resisted the Bill of Rights at first (1787) because he thought it would be a mere "parchment guarantee." He was wrong. The Bill of Rights has become a fundamental baseline American text around which we the people can rally when our natural rights are jeopardized. Think of the power of "invoking the fifth," or demanding respect for "my first amendment rights" (or second). The Special Places List of 2014 gives the people who love the landscape of western North Dakota official permission to rally around more than a dozen extraordinarily beautiful and fragile places that need and deserve advocates.
The effective collapse of the Special Places initiative points to a deep problem of North Dakota life. If the Special Places were Mount Rushmore, the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone Falls, Monument Valley, Devils Tower, Half Dome, Mount Rainier, or Lake Tahoe, I believe even a pro-development Industrial Commission would find ways to protect their sanctity by setting special conditions for industrial activity on adjacent private properties. If our Special Places were as obviously spectacular as the ones listed above, the people of North Dakota (and throughout the United States) would be their champions and clamor for their protection. The simple truth is that most North Dakotans have never seen the Killdeer Mountains or Pretty Butte or even Little Missouri State Park. Most North Dakotans live well east of Bismarck (the 100th Meridian), and the closer you get to the Red River Valley, where the bulk of our population lives, the more North Dakotans lean into Minnesota. They look east not west. Their idea of a special place is Detroit Lakes.
North Dakota's Special Places are not sublime in the Grand Teton sense of the term. Probably only a few dozen North Dakotans have been to all 18 of them. Most North Dakotans will acknowledge that the badlands are pretty, but when they say "badlands," most North Dakotans are referencing what you see from the Painted Canyon overlook off Interstate 94, what you see from the Burning Hills Amphitheater, or (a couple of times in a lifetime) along the loop road in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Most North Dakotans have never been to Bullion Butte and only a few thousand have ever climbed it. White Butte, the highest point in North Dakota, at 3,506 feet, is hard to pinpoint as you hurtle along US 85 between Belfield and Bowman. It's not even as impressive as its more traditional cousin Black Butte (on the other side of the highway), and it generally gets talked about by way of a flatlander's smirk.
We North Dakotans undervalue the beauty of our landscapes, including our public lands. We compare our landscapes unfavorably with those of Colorado, Utah, and Montana, or the woods and lake country of Minnesota. For most of North Dakota's policy makers, by which I mean the Industrial Commissioners, the state's regulatory bureaucrats, and most members of the state legislature, the lands in question are something of an abstraction. The attitude of most North Dakotans is that there is not much special here, that the country west of the Missouri River is a vast and largely bleak empty quarter that should be damned grateful that it now finally has found a way to attract economic development. Matthew 6:1: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
I sincerely wonder how many of the Special Places our three Industrial Commissioners have visited. I don't mean by flying over them in a plane or helicopter or driving past them en route to somewhere else in suit and tie. I mean get out of the car and spend some time in hiking boots. I know that Wayne Stenehjem ventured quietly to Bullion Butte when it became an issue before the Industrial Commission a year or so ago. That seems to me to be exemplary leadership. I wish the three commissioners would take a weeklong Special Places vacation, with no media and no neckties, camp out on the ground (no RVs) at Pretty Butte north of Marmarth, and climb White Butte on a hot July afternoon, to watch the thunderheads gather and rumble in from the west. I'd want them to have a picnic of baguettes and cheese within the perimeter of Theodore Roosevelt's cabin site at the Elkhorn Ranch. Month after month the Industrial Commission sits in judgment of the future of North Dakota and yet they have been making profound decisions about places they know mostly from maps.
I hope everyone who is reading these words will go visit the Special Places between Easter and first snowfall. If you contact me (see below) I will give you tips about how to sequence your visit, and which ones you can legally climb. We need to build a broad protective constituency for the subtle magnificence of western North Dakota. Until you have been to the Elkhorn Ranch (no climbing required), you cannot, in my opinion, quite realize how much is at stake as we frack North Dakota.
As far as I'm concerned, winter's over. I'll bet we have had the same experience sometime in the last ten days or so.
Last weekend I was in Florida, and I arrived home late last Sunday night. After puttering around the house for a while I slipped into bed (clean sheets!) with a book about the English explorer and courtier Sir Walter Raleigh. There is nothing quite so enjoyable as cheating sleep for an extra hour because the book you are reading is that good. It happens seldom and it is always a thrill. My eyes were drooping with road weariness and fatigue, and literally trying to close, but I was so engrossed in an account of Raleigh's 13-year imprisonment in the Tower of London (1603-1616) that I was unwilling to give in to the mere carnality of sleep. One of Raleigh's themes—because he was the epitome of the Renaissance man—is that the soul is divine and immortal, or at least in search of the divine, while the body is a base vessel, and therefore it is our duty in life to give our best energy to the work of the soul. So I read until well after 1 a.m., just to the point where you get that little sick feeling that you have cut a big hole into the next day's alertness and productivity.
These days when I go to sleep I silently summarize what I have learned today, silently out loud, if that makes any sense, not only because it is a way of retaining at least a little of several hundred pages of information from several books on several subjects, but because it invariably puts me to sleep faster than Sominex. My internal monologue had reached, "Queen Elizabeth had four principal favorites in the course of her 45-year reign: the Earl of Leicester, Christopher Hatton, the Earl of Essex, and Walter Raleigh," when at last I fell asleep.
Well, now you know why I live all alone!
The next thing I knew I was sitting up in my bed blinking off sleep and stretching, startled by all the bright daylight streaming into my bedroom. My immediate assumption was that I had slept late—another victim of the Tower of London—and that my whole day was going to be scrambly. You know how when the day starts out in a "time hole" things usually never quite calm down. But when I glanced over at the clock it was only 7:30 a.m. And then I said out loud, "The light has returned, the light has returned."
We may get some brutal weather between now and mid-April, but as far as I'm concerned, winter is essentially over the day you realize that the light has returned to the northern plains. That moment just happens, suddenly, when you least expect it, like the morning you wake up and feel the sudden urgent need to get a haircut. In the instant when you realize that the Light has triumphed over the Darkness once again (Genesis 1:3)—a primordial human experience that goes back to the inarticulate dawn of humanity, to henge structures or beaver totems—you actually find yourself lifting your head from the ground and looking around at the great plains with a renewed sense of life, and wonder. We spend the winter cast down.
The relativity of time is one of the great mysteries of life. A watched pot really doesn't boil. If you agree to have one more drink in a bar at 10:30 p.m. the next thing you remember is the bartender telling you and the other dregs to clear out. If you have an important project due at the end of the week the time hurtles by to punish you, but if you are waiting for your daughter to arrive home for the Christmas holidays the time creeps along, as Shakespeare puts it, like a "whining school-boy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school." You think you don't have time for a daily walk or a run, but if you carve out that hour the day expands mystically with the free gift of time. And of course you live longer, too. I read once, in a book on yoga, "He who stands on his head three hours a day will conquer time." At some cost to your romantic life, I'd say. If you are sitting in a coffee shop writing to deadline, complete strangers will sidle up to chat, and your closest friends will sit down to tell you about the Bobcat skid-steer they received as a Christmas present. Thus torturing you twice. It's the iron law of deadlines.
Last night I began to gather my garden seeds, and to make plans to bring in an astounding crop of tomatoes. The snow is receding from my yard, a little more each sunny day, evaporating rather than melting, and the black earth in one quarter of my garden has been exposed. It won't be long before I will be able to see where I abandoned my hoses when the snow blew in for the first time last fall.
In my neighborhood, most folks have stopped shoveling their driveways. "The heck with it, may as well just wait it out now," seems to be the weary refrain. It won't be long before my near neighbor fires up his lawnmower "just for fun" in his driveway. The day is coming, sometime in the next month, when it's 57 degrees and the streets are running like cricks, and every sap in the subdivision is out washing his car by hand, wearing shorts that should be banned even where men are tanned.
Back to Walter Raleigh (1552-1618). He named Virginia after Elizabeth the Virgin Queen. But he never set foot in Virginia, or the Outer Banks of North Carolina, for that matter, where his lost colony at Roanoke was planted. Between his epic voyages in search of El Dorado (on the east coast of South America), Raleigh was a prisoner in the Tower of London. But he cannot be said to have wasted his time. In the Tower Raleigh wrote The History of the World, more than a million words in approximately 1,400 folio pages. That book has been called "the greatest work of art ever produced in a prison cell." It is one of the supreme achievements of the Renaissance, written in the same exquisite English prose as the King James Bible. It was James who threw Raleigh in prison on trumped up treason charges. The History of the World is one of the greatest no-longer-read books in the English language.
Last year I held a folio copy of the first edition of The History of the World (1614) in my hands in a museum in the Outer Banks. I caressed it in silence with the lightest possible touch, like a sacred relic. For me, that moment was as satisfying as fondling a gold ingot or plunging my hands into a barrel of Bakken crude.
I mean to read the History through, between now and the coming of the first fall snowstorm. Out on my deck in the cool of the evening. Soon.
Just to be clear.
For what little it is worth, I am solidly in favor of the Bakken Oil Boom. I'm just one citizen of 700,000, of course, and I don't regard myself as having any special insight. But I love North Dakota with all my heart and I want this our shared homeland to thrive in every sense of the term. I see prosperity and economic development as great things, but certainly not the only blessings of North Dakota life. Sometimes I think we are so benumbed by gratitude that this great economic miracle has come to us that we forget that we have the opportunity and responsibility to set the rules of engagement, and take special care of values in North Dakota life that are hard to quantify but essential to our long term happiness.
The Bakken Oil Boom is potentially one of the greatest things ever to happen to North Dakota, if we manage it right, and invest the windfall to create the best possible future for our children and grandchildren. If I could snap my fingers and make it go away, I wouldn't do so. If I could snap my fingers and make it slow down a little, I probably would, but not if that would in any way jeopardize the continuation of serious economic development in North Dakota. Actually, at this point, I don't see how it could be slowed down without violating the property rights of private mineral owners who have signed leases with oil companies, and I am certainly not in favor of that.
According to the experts I trust, the most hectic phase of the oil rush is now coming to an end and a more orderly and less frenetic phase is beginning. As the infrastructure starts to catch up with the volume of human and industrial traffic, the level of chaos and congestion should start to come down. As our law enforcement systems (town, county, state, and national) get the personnel, resources, and training they need to master varieties of anti-social behavior previously rare or unknown on the North Dakota prairie, criminal activity should begin to come down to less alarming levels.
I believe that I am like most North Dakotans in that I now spend a lot of time trying to make sense of what is happening to our beloved homeland, and I'm more often filled with ambivalence than pure joy. Some of what I see delights me. Some of what I see troubles me. Some of what I see horrifies me. Frankly, I'd rather not spend my time thinking about the oil boom. I prefer to think and write about the dance of cottonwood trees after the first freeze, the savagery of a great July thunderstorm, the chaffy smell of the wheat harvest, the way pronghorn antelope turn on their afterburners when they really decide to run. Or the fabulous campy joy of waiting for the Burning Hills Singers to rev up at the Medora Musical. You know: North Dakota.
But rather suddenly an Industrial Revolution has come to the northern Great Plains and like it or not we are in the thick of it. It is now impossible to ignore. The sheer oomph of it (the volume, the speed, the seeming recklessness, the glut of men and vehicles and camp followers) forces everyone who loves North Dakota to wrestle with certain questions—what this means for our character and identity as a people, how this boom will change our towns and cities, how it will transform our favorite landscapes, how this thing will affect outdoor recreation and the state's cherished wildlife, how we should spend the vast private and public revenues, how this will affect our spirit of place. You don't have go out of your way to seek these questions. They hurtle into your consciousness, like it or not, sometimes when you least expect it. We would not be good citizens of North Dakota unless we rise to the challenge of trying to manage our future rather than be steamrolled by it.
Most Bakken benefits should bring delight to every North Dakotan Full employment. Amazing budget surpluses. Tax relief. Full funding for our educational systems. Even more important: Rural renewal. An end to a very long era of depopulation, outmigration, rural strain, and rural decline. A new confidence in the step of virtually every North Dakotan. A belief that the Bakken may propel us into a much better future than we could have dreamed of without its gigantic infusion of energy and capital into North Dakota life. These are benefits of such value, and they solve deep systemic and historic problems of North Dakota life so convincingly, that it's hard to see how any rational person could wish the boom to go away.
Troubling things: Train derailments. Accidental oil spills and water spills. Barroom brawls. Respiratory issues among livestock herds. Surface owners disrupted by oil development from which they get few or no benefits. Loss of wildlife habitat. Industrial encroachment on some of the most beautiful landscapes of North Dakota. Rushed and sometimes shoddy development in oil boomtowns. Skyrocketing rents for people on modest or fixed incomes. The loss of a sense of serenity and security among non-oil residents of our communities.
Horrifying things: Deliberate saline water spills. The spike in murder rates in North Dakota. Drug gangs and actual drug wars in the Bakken zone. Sexual assault, prostitution rings, sex trafficking (i.e., the abduction and rape of young women in Asia, Eastern Europe, and America's Indian reservations, and their delivery into the oil fields). The number of traffic fatalities in which longtime North Dakota residents are killed while simply attempting to go about their lives in the suddenly industrialized landscape.
I do firmly believe that the benefits of the Bakken Oil Boom greatly outweigh the costs. But that doesn't mean we should shrug our shoulders and accept the dark side of the boom as inevitable or "the cost of doing business." The answer is not to decry the oil boom or to live in denial of the "costs," but to address these problems with unblinking firmness, with the gumption and good sense that are the hallmarks of North Dakota life, and with a genuine sense of urgency.
We need to give the oil counties and cities absolutely everything they need to keep on top of this thing, no questions asked, no haggling or penny-pinching. We need to have zero tolerance for industrial negligence and stick it to individuals and rogue companies that violate our landscape, our farm fields, and (potentially) our water supplies. We need to bring in however many cops and federal agents it will take to crush the sex trafficking and the drug gangs. We need absolute transparency in our state agencies, no lies, omissions, or sugar coatings. We need more regulators to enforce North Dakota's excellent regulatory laws. We need to do everything we can to diminish the impact on Theodore Roosevelt National Park and a dozen other very special places in our magnificent countryside.
And we need our state leaders to assure us (out loud) that they regard these problems as something deeper than "growing pains."
Ah, yes, the new North Dakota.
A minor oil spill here and a "minor" oil spill there, a barroom brawl tonight and a domestic homicide tomorrow, a wellhead natural gas explosion in Tioga and an oil train derailment and fire in Casselton. Traffic fatalities now so frequent in northwestern North Dakota as to have ceased to be news. A man living in a dumpster and bodies dumped in dumpsters. Prostitution now punctuates the landscape as densely as oil flares, and prostitution-related violence is filling our emergency rooms. Drugs, drug gangs, drug wars. In fact, nearly pandemic drug use among potential workers, according to the oil industry exports themselves, represents the "biggest roadblock" to a more robust development in the Bakken Oil fields.
How do I know these things? I read it all in the Bismarck Tribune. On the night before I wrote these words I went to the Tribune website to look up something entirely unrelated. But the harmless little thing I was looking for was buried under a slurry of horrifying stories about what North Dakota has become in the last decade. Take a look yourself. It's like seeing your nephew for the first time in a couple of years. His parents look on him as the same old Ralphie, but you instantly notice that he is six inches taller than when you last saw him, he has some chin hairs, he wears outsized jeans jammed well down on his hips, his voice cracks when he talks about the Super Bowl, and he catches himself about halfway into the f-word. Compare copies of the Bismarck Tribune (or Dickinson Press, or Williston Herald, or Minot Daily News) from February 16, 2005, and February 16, 2014, and, as Shakespeare puts it, "hark what discord follows." You can say goodbye to the sleepy old family farm homeland we once were.
When I was growing up, if there were three murders in North Dakota a year we regarded it as the coming of Sodom and Gomorrah. We may have been boring, and we all fretted about depopulation and rural decline, but we were an astonishingly peaceful and neighborly place with a very high quality of life that somehow made up for the dearth of social amenities. Back then, if someone in our acquaintance locked his car doors at night we regarded him as a nervous Nellie.
In the past eight years, the quality of life in North Dakota has soared and plummeted at the same time and from the same cause. We are rich (on the whole, though unevenly), but anyone who tells you we have not lost anything worth keeping has apparently drunk the crude.
Here's what I learned in 30 minutes at the Tribune website Tuesday night.
North Dakota highway 23 west of New Town was closed for seven hours last Saturday after a Louisiana oil field worker by the name of Huan Son of New Iberia, Louisiana, collided with two semi-trucks and a pickup. He was attempting to pass a semi on the crest of a hill. He wound up getting himself killed, causing an oil spill, harrowing the lives of the three other drivers (none, apparently, injured) and damaging their property, and tying up traffic on one of the Bakken's key oil arteries for seven full hours. People don't usually pass on hills unless they are filled with reckless testosterone, drunk, or so frustrated by the antlike pace of traffic that they take what at first seems like a calculated risk. None of the four drivers involved in the wreck have been identified as North Dakotans.
Ten years ago this would have merited banner headlines in the state's newspapers and it would have dominated the coffee klatch salons in North Dakota Cenex stations for days. By now it is just a nub in the news. It has gotten to the point that I don't even read through such stories anymore. We just shake our heads and move on.
Meanwhile, a "routine" trailer court homicide investigation in southeast Mandan has proved to be the tip of a criminal underworld iceberg. It all began when a man named Alex Landson was found dead of multiple gunshot wounds on January 27. As the web of felonious activity widened, investigating officers found methamphetamines, psilocybin, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a 9mm handgun, $5,400 in cash, and four cellphones. Hmmm, what cottage industry must this represent? One of the murder suspects and two others were also charged with terrorizing and felonious restraint. They had apparently lured an unnamed woman to one of the defendant's homes, assaulted her, held her against her will, and threatened to kill her and her children. The principal suspect apparently called a friend in search of rolls of plastic with which to wrap her body once they killed her, and bleach and gloves so that they could scrub away the evidence. They actually boarded up a door on the house to prevent the woman from leaving. She says they assaulted her with a stun gun. In spite of all this, she was able to escape the next day.
When you get to the "we'll kill you and dispose of your body with Saran wrap" stage of drug trafficking, you are no longer merely supplementing your income as a night clerk.
In related news, a 67-year-old Missouri man by the name of Marvin Lord has been charged with facilitating prostitution at a north Bismarck motel. Hotel employees called the police after observing Lord meeting strange men in the motel lobby, escorting them to his room, and then waiting in the lobby for them to return. A 41-year-old Chinese woman in his company has been charged with prostitution. As is usual in such cases, she pled not guilty. Lord claims they are married. He told the judge they have been in North Dakota "a little over a week." The Chinese woman has a valid travel visa. She has not been named because it is possible that she is the victim of sex trafficking.
Sex trafficking. In North Dakota. In North Dakota! In NORTH DAKOTA.
Last Sunday, Minot police arrested five men alleged to be operating a prostitution ring in the "Magic City." It need hardly be said that these crimes—brought to light by deliberate sting operations—are merely the tip of the prostitution iceberg. That such activity is one of the "growing pains" of the oil boom goes without saying.
Is all this your idea of North Dakota?
Stories indicating that the state of North Dakota is losing $1 million a month in natural gas (flaring) taxes, that Amtrak trains can hardly pierce through the glut of oil train traffic on our beleaguered railways, that a "Watford City man" has been charged with eight felony counts for gun possession (related to murders and mayhem in Spokane, Idaho), that state game wardens can hardly keep up with the poaching epidemic, or that it is going to take a couple of years to clean up the September 2013 Tioga oil pipeline spill, are now considered too "minor" to hold our collective attention.
Words matter. To call these things "growing pains" is a form of economic and linguistic obscenity.
We have now reached the defining moment of North Dakota life in the 21st century.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has quietly put together a very modest proposal to designate a small number of acreages of western North Dakota as special or extraordinary places, and to require oil companies to treat those few parcels with special care when they extract the oil. The Attorney General has proposed that the North Dakota Industrial Commission, of which he is one of three members, adopt a set of special rules (or processes) for the management of those few acres.
It's that simple. And here's the most important point. If the Industrial Commission votes to accept Stenehjem's proposal, not a single barrel of oil will be put off limits.
The short list of parcels Stenehjem has in mind includes such things as the near perimeter of the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park; North Dakota's most magnificent landform Bullion Butte (south of Medora); the inner channel of the Little Missouri River; historically important sections of the Killdeer Mountains; the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers; the shoreline of Lake Sakakawea; Pretty Butte north of Marmarth. And a few others.
If you ask 100 people to name the most beautiful, fragile, pristine, or sensitive parcels of western North Dakota, almost everyone's list is going to be the same for the first dozen or so places. Everyone understands that the best of the badlands are more valuable to the Idea and Identity of North Dakota than a lovely coulee near Parshall or Crosby. Public lands are inevitably easier to identify with, recreate on, and protect than strictly private properties, however beautiful those may be or special to their private owners. We take our collective identity from those things and places we especially prize (a flag, a veteran's cemetery, a church, a landscape vista), and it is in the interest of a civilized people to make reasonable discriminations about such things as they develop and clarify public policy.
When Stenehjem began to think about this initiative he said, emphatically, that any list he made would need to be shorter rather than longer (a very few very special places, not a unrestrained conservation "wish list"), and that no list would preclude oil development in those parcels. He was adamant that the state of North Dakota has no right to violate the sanctity of contract between private parties or to intrude itself between a willing mineral owner and a willing oil company.
The shortness of Stenehjem's list and his repeated vocal insistence on the sanctity of private property rights has frustrated some members of the environmental or conservationist community in North Dakota. But Stenehjem did not undertake this initiative to please this or that constituency. He has taken the lead because he loves North Dakota, greatly appreciates the landscapes that happen to overlay the Bakken oil shales, and because he understands that reasonable regulatory protocols are as important in the oil fields as they are in all businesses that impact public health and welfare. As a member of the state Industrial Commission, he has a unique public responsibility—to uphold our laws, to promote economic development, to serve the interests of all North Dakotans, and to balance competing interests for the benefit of the broadest number of people possible.
I think Wayne Stenehjem deserves great credit for his leadership in the most critical issue in North Dakota life, the most critical moment (I believe) in my lifetime as a North Dakota citizen. My respect for him was always high, but it has deepened dramatically as this initiative has begun to unfold. The easiest thing would have been to just leave it alone, to stamp the oil permits and get out of the way. To show leadership at a time like this is to invite criticism and backlash from both ends of the spectrum, and to have one's integrity maligned by those (on the one hand) who think that any restraint on the oil industry is tantamount to confiscation and communism, and those (on the other) who believe that the special places initiative is nothing more than a public relations smokescreen behind which the "rape" of North Dakota will continue unabated.
The Attorney General is no wild-eyed liberal. He is not a "radical environmentalist," as some in the oil industry like to characterize those who do not rubber stamp all of their extraction plans. He is not trying to lock up North Dakota to oil development, or even a tiny number of parcels. Above all, he knows and respects the U.S. Constitution, the North Dakota Constitution, and the common law. He knows and condemns what would constitute a Fifth Amendment "taking" of landowners' or mineral owners' property rights, or an unfair burden on private property. He's a brilliant man. He's a Republican. He's a cheerful and serious advocate of the oil boom. He's a man of unimpeachable integrity.
The fate of the Attorney General's initiative is going to tell us who we are and what we value and where we draw the line as the first half of the 21st century unfolds in North Dakota. If his leadership prevails, it will not only help to mitigate the industrial impact on those parcels he has designated (and yet still permit oil development), but it will also reassure the people of North Dakota that the government of the state is directing this great economic boom rather than being passively directed by it, that we are sovereign, that we are in control of our own destiny. His list may seem conservative and modest, but it will make a huge difference to the spirit of North Dakota. We are awash in oil.
If Stenehjem's initiative fails, if neither Governor Dalrymple nor Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring chooses to support the Special Places protocols, it will be an unmistakable sign that nothing is sacred in North Dakota anymore, that everything is for sale, with the least resistance, to the highest bidder. It will be a license to the oil companies that they may have their way with us, because we are insufficiently committed to our own sacred landscape to make reasonable requests about how it should be stripped of its oil reserves.
Oil industry pressure on Governor Dalrymple is going to be gigantic, almost unbearable. Already a "landowners' group" has sprung up, located interestingly enough in Tulsa, Oklahoma, denouncing the Attorney General's initiative, urgently warning mineral owners that, "Nearly a million acres of private land across the Peace Garden State may soon be restricted or even condemned." This is so erroneous that it would appear to be a naked lie, both with respect to the number of acres in question, and the suggestion that lands may be condemned, which is no part of Stenehjem's proposal whatsoever. Furthermore, that "landowners' group" warns that, "Out-of-state interests are pushing their anti-development agenda in Bismarck." This would be hilarious if it were not patently untrue and unfair. The Special Places initiative was wholly the brainchild of Wayne Stenehjem (decidedly in-state!) and nobody else, and his "agenda" is in no way whatsoever "anti-development."
I find such tactics simply appalling. An initiative of this importance deserves a serious public debate. That debate will be passionate, possibly even acrimonious at times. But it ought to be a debate by North Dakotans about the future of North Dakota, and it ought to be conducted with a commitment to honesty and fair play.
In my 58 years, I have never felt more strongly about anything than I feel about this.
For the past five days I have been holed up at a fabulous Spartan resort just inside Idaho west of Missoula, Montana, with a dozen folks from all over America. We gathered in the mountain snow at Lochsa Lodge for the sole purpose of discussing one of the world's great books, Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or Life in the Woods.
Walden has many themes. It is much more than a book about one solitary man's love of nature. It is a surprisingly muscular and argumentative book that wrestles with some of the main issues in American life, then and now. It was published in 1854 at a time of rapid industrialization in the United States, when the railroad boom was transforming the landscape and the social structure of America in an unprecedented manner.
One of our participants was an ideological libertarian. He believes that government exists solely for the purpose of protecting property rights, and that anything else government might do is an intrusion into our liberties. He believes that absolutely everything can be "monetized," and that the free market is the best tool humans have to sort everything out, from the price of a loaf of bread to the delivery of health care.
So, to take an easy example, it's the year 1900 and the timber companies are cutting down every redwood tree they can get their hands on because there is a lucrative market for redwood lumber. Theodore Roosevelt (a big believer in free enterprise) decides that unless government steps in to manage the resource and conserve it for future generations, the short-sighted profiteers of the timber industry will cut down the last redwood to squeeze the last dollar out of the species. Moreover, Roosevelt believes that there is an inherent majesty in a redwood forest and that is in the interests of American civilization to release a few extraordinary things from the tyranny of the market. TR therefore determines that the national government will supervise the timber industry on public lands to insure the sustainability of our forests.
According to our Lochsa libertarian, that was the wrong thing to do: sloppy, sentimental, misguided, unfair, possibly un-American. "If you really think a redwood tree is as valuable standing in the air as it is turned into lumber for redwood decks, then you need to outbid the lumber companies tree by tree or forest by forest. The market works." You don't want a power co-op to put up wind towers just offshore at Martha's Vineyard, outbid them for the resource.
Thoreau was something of a libertarian too. He trumped Jefferson's "that government is best which governs least," to declare, "that government is best which governs not at all." Thoreau was committed to the individual, not the state. But Thoreau believed that individual had a duty to evolve from the brutishness and savagery of his base character into a more enlightened being, that America cannot be a great civilization unless we learn to hearken not just to economic laws but also to what he calls "higher laws." An individual who learns to hear "higher laws" does not believe that the value of everything can be measured in dollars. I think Roosevelt would regard Thoreau as hopelessly naïve. While you wait for the slaughterhouse owners to evolve, you are going to eat a fair quantum of rats, excrement, and tainted pork in your breakfast sausage.
On the third day of the Lochsa retreat I took a long walk through the woods in the hopes that I would encounter a wolf or a mountain lion. As I crunched through the pure white snowpack along the magnificent Lochsa River, I wondered what are the higher laws of North Dakota life in the era of the Bakken Oil Boom.
An oil shale deposit is different from more traditional pool oil because once you perfect the technology, in a fracturing boom you "strike oil" nearly 100% of the time. There is so much shale oil and natural gas in western North Dakota that you can more or less arbitrarily pick your spacing protocols, lay down a drilling grid of 40-60,000 wells, and then systematically work the field over time, until you have created the maximum extraction efficiency. Most of the land in North Dakota is privately owned. Even most of the public lands are open to development. As long as there is money to be made—and the money to be made dwarfs anything North Dakota has ever seen or dreamed about—oil companies are going to come get it. The drilling of any one individual well is a highly-efficient, nearly miraculous example of human technological ingenuity, and the environmental "footprint" of any given well is comparatively light, especially once the fracking process is over. But add all those drilling events together—systematic oil extraction in every direction—and then add in the pipelines, the storage tanks, the transfer facilities, the natural gas processing plants, the new roads and railroad spurs, the bypasses, the giant parking lots for idle trucks and pipe, and the industrial "hospitality" infrastructure, and—voila--you have transformed western North Dakota from a quiet rural countryside into an overwhelming hive of pell-mell industrial activity.
All on the principle of the market. Although the overwhelming majority of the oil wealth of North Dakota leaves the state never to return (such is the history of North Dakota), the amount of money being left behind in the hands of mineral owners, service providers (from water haulers to car dealers and hotdog stands), and in the coffers of the state treasury is so vast that it makes a mockery of my libertarian friend's economic equations. A day care provider in Watford City can barely pay her bills and put tennis shoes on her children's feet (traditional economy). An elderly couple in Dickinson, living on a modest pension and Social Security, is told that their rent will triple on March 1st (traditional economy). The rancher who would rather not see oil development in that special pasture near the river is told by a company representative or his lawyer that he will be getting checks for tens of thousands of dollars per month if he signs in triplicate, here, here, and here (the oil economy). Who can resist?
It's as if there are two types of currency in North Dakota today—the currency of our state's 125-year history, in which we toiled and scrimped and wound up moderately prosperous because of the quality of our character and our work ethic, and the new currency of unbelievable stacks of carbon money, funny money, that staggers the imagination and overwhelms any discussion of "higher laws."
I believe that North Dakotans value many things that cannot be monetized. If there were a precise enough way of polling the people of North Dakota, I believe that the majority would say they do not want western North Dakota to be overwhelmed by industrialization, however grateful we are for the surpluses and the full employment and rural renewal in our beloved state. Our traditional commitment to higher laws—family, neighborliness, community, volunteerism, faith, stewardship, civility, lawfulness, decency--is what has made us such a special people in such a special, improbable place. But this thing that has come upon us is so gigantic and the payoff is so huge that it is eroding things in our heritage and our character of incalculable value, in both senses of the term.
There is a value in a rolling prairie and windswept ridge, but who will be left to measure it?
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.
As my mother and our guest and I sat around my dining room table on Thursday evening, we explained some of what we are thankful for this year. Our lists are long—health, friendship, family, freedom, longevity, and the abundance of American life. But this year I feel especially thankful that Valerie Naylor is the Superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
A few weeks ago, Valerie received the National Parks Conservation Association's prestigious Stephen T. Mather conservation award. She accepted the award at the 36th annual Ranger Rendezvous in St. Louis. It's an amazing achievement, all the more impressive because Valerie did not seek it and, in her characteristically modest and matter of fact manner, she neither expected it nor, for that matter, ever even thought about it. She just did her job with exceptional skill and thoughtfulness, and those who study the future of North Dakota from elsewhere in the nation realized how important her superintendency has become. She won the 2013 Mather Award for her outstanding vigilance in protecting Theodore Roosevelt National Park from the impact of the Bakken Oil Boom, and for her previous management of the complicated and controversial elk reduction project that reduced the elk herd at TRNP from 1200 to about 200 critters.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of America's 58 National Parks. The great documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has called the National Park System "America's best idea." TRNP is North Dakota's only National Park. It is one of North Dakota's best assets and finest treasures, without which we would be a far less interesting place. It is a relatively small national park, at 70,446 acres, and it is subdivided into three units: the North Unit near Watford City, the South Unit just north of Medora, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit (218) acres, midway between.
The three units embrace and protect some of the most beautiful and distinctive terrain on the Great Plains. Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) had a significant presence in all three units of what became the National Park, especially the Elkhorn, where he established one of his two Dakota Territory ranches between 1883 and 1887. All three units are bisected by the magnificent Little Missouri River. Because the three units are separated and fairly widely dispersed, they present a serious management challenge. They have lots of perimeter, and no single unit is sufficiently large for a visitor to escape entirely the nagging claims of the outside world.
Now that the Bakken Oil Boom has overwhelmed the landscapes, the social structure, the economy, and the politics of North Dakota, the National Park is beginning to resemble a beleaguered trio of wild and endangered islands surrounded in every direction by a noisy industrial revolution. The three units of TRNP are more important to North Dakota and the world every day, because they are becoming the last precious remnants of what was once an endless untrammeled wilderness, what Roosevelt described as "a land of vast silent spaces, of lonely rivers, and of plains where the wild game stared at the passing horseman." If that Rooseveltian sentence does not make you ache for our losses, nothing will.
Neutral observers from Jupiter would have to conclude that earth humans must really crave carbon, they are willing to go to such lengths to get their hands on it. For the love of oil, they are willing to put up with Saudi Arabia's state sponsorship of anti-western schools (madrasha), and for that matter Saudi princes' sponsorship of anti-American terrorist groups. (I write this on the 12th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and yet the United States subsequently invaded Iraq, which had nothing to do with the attacks. Hmmm.)
They are willing to tear the living daylights out of east central Alberta to get at tar sands that can be made—at vast expense—to release a not very clean elixir of oil.
We are willing to fight an endless series of resource wars in the Middle East to insure that the oil comes out of the ground and flows towards America. This is formally known as the Carter Doctrine. In his State of the Union Address on January 23, 1980, following the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter said, "An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." It would be impossible to make sense of the unending Gulf Wars without factoring in the existence of the world's single richest concentration of oil in the region. In other words, if there were no more oil under Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia than there is under Minnesota, imagine for a moment what our foreign policy might look like.
We are willing literally to slice the top off of the mountains of West Virginia to get at the coal that lies underneath.
And now, of course, we appear to be willing to transform western North Dakota beyond recognition to get at the shale oil and natural gas that lie 10,000 feet or more beneath the surface of the most beautiful (and formerly quiet) landscapes of the state. The technology is breathtaking, nearly miraculous. First a series of stiff pipes penetrate vertically to a depth of almost two miles. To get a sense of how much energy this involves, try digging a 10-foot hole this afternoon with a fence post digger. Then the stiff pipes are made to turn a corner at a full 90 degrees (try that with steel fence posts!), and snake out another mile into the heart of a narrow oil-permeated shale formation. Then a sand-bearing slurry is forced down and out all that pipe to a series of perforations (little trap doors) in the laterals, where, under almost unbelievable amounts of hydraulic pressure, it fractures the shale and then keeps the fractures open by depositing countless little sand or plastic wedges in the cracks.
At that point, with the help of additional hydraulic manipulation, oil finally begins to pool from a gazillion fractures. By employing more energy to turn a pump jack at the surface, that oil can be made to slurpy up along a pipe that may be three miles long. At which point, using more energy, it can be made to travel to a refinery, either through a steel pipeline, or on giant trucks or rail cars. At the refinery, thanks to yet another large expenditure of energy, the crude can be forced to separate into some of its ingenious carbon expressions: diesel, heating oil, kerosene, liquid petroleum gas, and of course gasoline. Which is then trucked, at considerable expense, to your neighborhood gas station. Where, for $3.85 per gallon . . . .
Think we want this stuff?
It costs somewhere between $10 and $20 million to develop a single frack well in North Dakota. At the moment, North Dakota is producing over 825,000 barrels of oil per day, which makes us the nation's second largest producer of crude oil. Current American oil consumption (not counting oil-based byproducts) is 18.83 million barrels per day. In other words, North Dakota is now producing about 4 percent of America's daily consumption of oil. If America depended solely on North Dakota for oil, we could at the moment supply the insatiable maw with oil for just 17 days per year. What is happening in Killdeer, Watford City, Williston, Dickinson, Parshall, Stanley, Crosby, and the badlands, is happening in a lot of other places on our watery little planet.
If the only known copy of the works of Shakespeare were trapped in shale two miles below the surface of the earth, do you think we'd take the trouble to go fetch it? Would we fracture the earth to recover 3-5 percent of the musical output of Beethoven or Mahler? Would we organize two thousand truck events to recover the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's David?
My point is that we are hopelessly, helplessly, appallingly addicted to carbon. We literally cannot live without it now, and we have to be prepared to do whatever it takes to go get it. If that means an annual US Defense Department budget of $600 billion, we're willing to pay that price. If it means giving the Saudis a pass (not even a slap on the wrist) after 15 Saudi nationals (and the Saudi mastermind Osama bin Laden) perpetrated the gravest attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor, we appear to be willing to "let it be" to make sure that Saudi oil continues to flow our way. If it means turning western North Dakota into an industrial park, we have to be willing to marshal the cement trucks and lay the pipe, because the existing pattern of American energy consumption requires no less.
We could, of course, revolutionize the way we live rather than the communities and badlands of North Dakota, but addiction is addiction, and my Honda hybrid and your Birkenstocks are not going to break it. We could, of course, throw the same amount of money at developing serious alternatives to crude carbon as we now use to extract crude carbon, but the virtually infinite pools of oil and gas newly available thanks to the magic of first-world technology are more likely to deepen our addictions than tip us into greener alternatives. Alas.
When I ran out of gas near Glen Ullin 10 days ago, at 10:38 p.m. on a dark and stormy night, while musing about questions of this sort—about the future of the soul of North Dakota—I had barely stopped cursing myself for blithering idiocy when I was able to smirk at my hypocrisies. Before that little drama ended, I had hiked 4.4 miles out and 4.4 miles back to fetch a single gallon of gasoline, for which I paid $3.79 (not counting soft tissue damage and the various psychological repercussions). By 3 a.m. I would have paid $37.90 for that gallon of gasoline and by 5 a.m. $379.00.
To supply our insatiable carbon needs, there have been a lot of Bakkens elsewhere in the world, and we have been able to ignore them because they have not disturbed our lovely back yard. But now the chickens have come home to roost, and we have a moral duty—no matter what we do about the North Dakota oil rush—to gaze honestly in that mirror.
"Spindle Top, an important oil region near Beaumont, Texas, U.S.A." From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.
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.
Last week I wrote about a whimsical airplane journey I took a couple of weeks ago with a North Dakotan who is a key player in the Bakken Oil Boom. We flew in a small funky yellow two-seat plane from Bismarck to Bullion Butte, then down the Little Missouri River to Watford City, and then overland back to Bismarck by way of Zap and Golden Valley. It was a nine-hour adventure with someone of infinite good humor, who boomed and busted in the oil boom the last time around, in the 1980s, then stuck it out through all the lean years when all the summer soldiers and sunshine patriots sought their windfalls elsewhere. I have the deepest respect for what he represents—a homegrown North Dakotan with persistence and superb instincts that have now finally paid off in a big, big way.
Last week I wrote about our adventure. Today I want to try to make sense of what I saw as we flew over the green grassy plains of North Dakota in a wet June.
In every crisis of life, no matter how big or small, it is essential to try to step back and view things from a broader perspective. It really is true that we cannot see the forest for the trees. That's a cliché, but if you try to look at a big phenomenon from too close to the ground (or ground zero), you see only what is immediately before you, not the larger pattern of things. If, for example, you are a Wall Street Journal reporter or someone from the BBC, and you fly out from New York or London to Denver and then on a tiny plane to Williston, ND, to make sense of the oil boom, you are going to see a city bursting with energy, enterprise, dust, chaos, congestion, noise, construction, and growing pains that make it not a very attractive destination. But Williston is not the oil boom and the oil boom is not Williston. Williston is one of the choke points of the oil boom.
The oil boom is many things that cannot be seen from the air. Full employment. The promise of energy independence for America. A whopping state budget surplus and what is tending towards full funding for a wide range of institutions and enterprises that have been living on thin gruel for most of North Dakota history. Jobs aplenty. New life in small towns. One of my closest friends is a faux-curmudgeonly former newspaper editor from Crosby. We had a long conversation in the heart of the badlands a few weeks ago and he said this. I have lived in Crosby, ND, all of my life. What you have to understand is that for almost all of my life we have been managing decline and depopulation, economic marginality, and loss. Do you know what that is like for a town to go through We have had hundreds of meetings over the years about how to find a way to save and regenerate our little hometown. Nothing really worked. Suddenly, thanks to the Bakken, we are viable again, and growing. There are shops on mainstreet and every house in town is full of families or workers. Heck, we even have a housing boom in Crosby. We wish the growth were a little less and a little slower, a little more organic, of course, but do you think we can really wish this hadn't happened
Towns like Williston, Watford City, Killdeer are just scrambling to survive this tsunami, and keep life livable for both long-term residents and newcomers. They are currently fracked communities as well as fracking communities. But other towns as far away as Bottineau, Harvey, Bowman, Spearfish, Kenmare, (etc.) are experiencing indirect regeneration from the Bakken phenomenon. They may be the biggest winners. A moderate amount of new life and economic activity makes all the difference in a rural community like that. Faraway Grand Forks is reaping benefits thanks to extremely intelligent strategic planning, and Bismarck is a becoming a new place. Just walk around downtown for a couple of hours and remember what that experience was like even as few as six years ago. Last week I told a visiting capitalist from Chicago that Bismarck is going to be the Tulsa of the Bakken Oil Boom. He laughed hard and said dream higher. Which means that he doesn't understand the history of the Great Plains at all.
Here's what you see if you spend ample time flying over the western half of North Dakota merely trying to drink in what you can observe from a couple of thousand feet. First, there is an awful lot of North Dakota. Even now, in the midst of this industrial juggernaut that is plunking down oil wells at the rate of approximately 2000 per year, there are, as a famous writer put it, more places where nothing is than something is. North Dakota (and the larger Great Plains of which it is a small rectangle) is still a vast and open landscape that is, after 150 years of white settlement and economic activity, largely empty in every direction.
Second, the development is only initially gross and transgressive. But once the pump jacks are installed and the pipelines are buried and the water and fracking trucks move on, the landscape gets pretty calm again. From the air it is not ugly. To my mind the boom does violate one of the things I most love about western North Dakota—its essential primordialness—but from a couple of thousand feet the footprint is not nearly as overpowering as it seems from the junction of US 85 and US 2. Or from a bench in the city park in Alexander, the home of one of my heroes Arthur A. Link, the man who reminded us that there are values in the North Dakota character greater than money-making. The choke points are really choked.
Third, the badlands are indeed punctuated in every direction with oil activity. I find that disheartening, as does my oil-soaked pilot-friend, but the badlands are still the badlands and they are astonishingly beautiful and largely untouched, even with a buff-colored tank array here and a drilling rig there. If we adopt some special protocols and restraints for badlands development, especially on federal and state lands, we can probably make the oil boom respect this sacred corridor carved by wind and the Little Missouri River, and at least minimize (ok, moderate) the impact somewhat. I do worry what will happen when all those 10-year development leases start to come due, but there is still time to save a few of the finest parcels. In fact, there is still time to create the modest Prairie Legacy Wilderness of about 65,000 acres, to set aside a wee little sliver of the few remaining pristine acreages. We should save these parcels for seed.
No matter what happens, there is still going to be a vast amount of North Dakota that wears, and will always wear, an exceedingly light industrial footprint. We are going to have to discover parts and places of North Dakota outside of the prime recreation zone. We are going to have to take our spirit recreations in landscapes we have hitherto largely ignored. We are going to have to come to terms with loss.
And we the people are going to have to fight to chasten this thing in some important ways. Because our leadership is so far not doing much chastening.
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 many 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.