#1335 The Mustard Seed

#1335 The Mustard Seed

"You feel the wonderment of nature at its finest … it's a deep, deep, deep cultural memory of the miracle of the seed."

— Clay S. Jenkinson

We answer listener mail about John Wesley Powell, David Thompson, Daniel Flores, Jefferson’s theft of upland rice while he was in Italy, and suggestions for educating young people.

#1324 Lochsa

#1324 Lochsa

"nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free."

— Thomas Jefferson, 1821

Clay Jenkinson returns from his cultural retreat held at Lochsa Lodge in Idaho last week and reports in on this year's meetings. Also, perhaps prompted by the 50th anniversary of the famous Beatles "rooftop concert," we wander into a short conversation about pop music, and discuss the recent extreme cold weather along with how Jefferson is co-opted by many of us without paying enough attention to the historical record.

A Quarter, a Library & Animadversions

A Quarter, a Library & Animadversions

Listen in as Clay & David discuss their summers, the commemorative quarter for Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and new projects — including the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and a new book about conservation. Animadversions on this episode broach subjects such as food, recording quality and bibliophilic materialism.

One Glorious Stolen Day Before the Snow Flies

Knowing that winter cannot be far off, I stole a whole day out of my life last week and ventured to Sitting Bull's cabin on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Sitting Bull (1831-1890) was more or less just minding his own business at a lonely homesite a long way from Fort Yates when Standing Rock Indian agent James McLaughlin decided to have him arrested in mid-December 1890. McLaughlin regarded Sitting Bull as a thorn in his side, an impediment to assimilation, an aging hero of the Resistance whose very existence might inspire other Hunkpapa Lakota to hold out against the conquest of their lands and way of life.

McLaughlin authorized Sitting Bull's arrest by a squad of "metal breasts," i.e., a large force of Indian policemen backed up (at a distance) by white soldiers in case things go out of hand. The dawn arrest was bungled, the inevitable skirmish ensued, and the great Lakota seer was shot in the back of the head at point blank range. Thus died ignominiously and entirely unnecessarily one of the great figures in Dakota (and North Dakota) history. His role in life, forced upon him by iron historical circumstance, was to defend his people and his homeland from those who came to take it away for their own purposes. Among other things, he was one of the masterminds of the stunning Lakota and Cheyenne victory at the Little Big Horn in June 1876. By the time Agent McLaughlin decided to eliminate him fourteen years later, Sitting Bull was really not much more than a harmless old man trying to live out his last years as far away from white people as possible.

Last year I learned the hard way that it is impossible to reach the cabin site after the snow flies. So I drove first to McLaughlin, South Dakota, and then on back roads to the turnoff, after which you bounce and jolt along to the cabin site through roads so rutted that your head caroms off the roof of the car with some regularity. It's precisely the kind of road that should lead to Sitting Bull's cabin: not for the faint of heart, not for all seasons, rugged enough to make you remember it's a pilgrimage not a casual jaunt.

I've been to the cabin site maybe five times, all in the last few years. It's one of the most beautiful places on the Great Plains, on the north bank of the Grand River, across from some rugged river hills, nestled in a broad grass valley inhabited only by cattle (and ghosts). You have to want to go there. The quiet at the site is so complete that for a few minutes you almost cannot believe that such a place can still exist in our bustling noisy world. As I sat where the cabin once stood, I heard a lone late-season meadowlark sing its perfect little song. Unfortunately, I do not speak its language, so I could not learn what it had to teach.

The cabin is long gone. What remains are a small fenced enclosure with a marker (for others killed in the skirmish), a big metal SD historical sign, and such reverence objects as pilgrims choose to leave at the site. There are always a few medicine bundles of bright cloth tied to the fence, which encloses a twenty by thirty foot patch of sacred ground. The medicine bundles usually contain small quantities of tobacco. Once I found a beaten up copy of the Bible there. Often there are small pieces of animal bone, or metal rings, or beads.

The historical sign was written long ago by South Dakota white historians, before the American Indian Movement (AIM), before the Indian cultural renaissance of the 1970s. The phraseology of the sign has a somewhat condescending feel to it (it is usually the victors who write history), so a few "rasp and file revisionists" have done some careful editing of the raised metal text. Where the white historians described Sitting Bull as a "clever prophet," the Lakota (or pro-Lakota) "editors" have filed away the arguably belittling adjective "clever." The original writer summed things up by calling Sitting Bull "misguided." That word has been more or less obliterated by those who do not share that view.

Vandalism or not, I am filled with admiration for what the revisionists have done at the site. They could have torn down the sign altogether. They could have shot it full of holes, or thrown paint or blood on it, or spray-painted expletives across the full text. Instead, with considerable care and precision they have filed off the most Eurocentric phrases on the sign, but left the bulk of the historical inscription in place. You can still make out the words they have removed—probably that was purposeful—but at the same time you have been made aware that the dominant culture's interpretation of this important historical moment is no longer acceptable, at least to the individuals who spent several hours working the revision with hand tools. It is clear that they had strong feelings about what was offensive in the original language, but they have engaged in an act of historic dialogue rather than mere outrage. That's precisely what we most need as we think about North Dakota history in a new, holistic, fully contextualized, and nuanced way.

If I were teaching a course on the history of the American West, I would ask my students to find out what they could about who wrote the original text for the sign, where, and especially when, and then to think hard about the revisions—especially how they simultaneously preserve and yet re-write the original text. Then I'd have them find other historic markers on the Great Plains, particularly those concerned with cultural conflicts, and think about ways in which they might be re-read and re-written in light of what we now know about the complexities of our history.

The Grand River meanders along just south of the cabin site. Like the Heart River or the Little Missouri, it is a grasslands river, here and there graced with stands of cottonwood trees. About a quarter mile downstream on my side of the river I saw what I thought was the perfect cottonwood, tall and very old, standing a little apart from the rest, with a triangular array of golden yellow leaves high up, shimmering in the fall sun, golden, yellow, slightly orange, some still green, all brilliant and the whole effect simply magnificent. I ventured over to the base of the great tree. It almost certainly was not there in 1890, but it sprang up within living memory of those dark and bloody days on the northern plains.

As I lay on my back on the grass, hands cupped behind my head, deep in the grass, almost buried in the grass, listening to the breeze dance in the brittle cottonwood choir above me, soaking up the last squibs of the summer sun, I thought about the coming of winter to the northern plains. It is coming, like it or not. The trees will soon be bare. Many of the dirt trails that I love most in North Dakota will soon be closed for the winter.

But for the moment I was just a lazing creature in the tall grass, toasting in the afternoon sun, in one of the least industrialized places of America, on a carpe diem journey into the middle of nowhere.

This is what we must conserve.

Well Done, Our Good and Faithful Public Servant

Valerie Naylor has been the superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park since 2003. Now she is retiring. I'm glad for Valerie, who is one of my closest friends, but sad for North Dakota. We need her brand of quiet but unapologetically firm leadership now more than ever, as the fracking industrial revolution encircles the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP).

Valerie has been an amazingly effective public servant during her 11-year tenure. She has borne the responsibility of protecting the national park through a period of unprecedented challenges: a pesky south unit inholding whose private owner tried to transform into an outsized pile of cash; repeated efforts to force a bridge across the sacred Little Missouri River in the vicinity of Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch; the long and divisive campaign to protect the Eberts Ranch (in the prime Elkhorn Ranch viewshed) by permitting its private owners to sell it either to the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service (in the end, it was the latter); the great elk-reduction controversy of 2010-2011, which even Valerie's loud and sometimes abusive critics eventually praised as a "classical textbook case of wise and thoughtful management"; and now the impact of the oil boom.

How do you honor private property rights and cooperate with reasonable development and at the same time protect North Dakota's only national park, which consists of three relatively small and separated units that sit right in the heart of oil country?

If the Bakken oil boom were on the perimeter of Yellowstone National Park there would be two very important differences. First, there would be an extremely robust local, regional, and national debate about responsible development in the vicinity of the park. Unfortunately, Theodore Roosevelt National Park and its crown jewel the Elkhorn Ranch are not sufficiently well known across America to generate the kind of national conversation they deserve. With most other national parks—Rainier, Arches, Yosemite, and perhaps especially Yellowstone—it is immediately and automatically understood that they belong to the whole people of the United States, that it is in the entire nation's interest to cherish and protect them, and that the local communities are not always the best custodians of their integrity.

Second, Yellowstone is so much larger than TRNP that perimeter distractions have less visual and audio impact on the heart of the park. Yellowstone National Park embraces 2.219 million acres, Theodore Roosevelt merely 70,000 acres, the largest parcel of which (the south unit) contains only 46,158 acres. From most places in Yellowstone or Glacier, you cannot see outside the park. You feel that the park goes on forever in every direction. There is almost no place in TRNP where you cannot observe what happens on the other side of the perimeter fence. From the highest point in the south unit, Buck Hill, you can see well more than a dozen oil sites, some of them of course flaring their untapped gasses. National park perimeters matter all over America, but they matter more in small parks than in the large ones.

Valerie has worked hand in hand with oil companies to limit their impact on the park experience. We go to national parks for many reasons, but somewhere near the center of their mission is a determination to provide us all a sanctuary from the everyday hustle and clutter of our advanced industrial civilization. We go to the national parks to enjoy a simplified, more basic experience in a place that is kept as far as is possible in its natural state. The national parks are remnants—perhaps "islands" is a better term--of the vast untrammeled wilderness that America once was. We go to them to find relief from the bustle, the humdrum, the consumerism, and the over-domestication of modern life. Theodore Roosevelt said we go to them so that we don't get too soft and comfortable.

Valerie has been a lover of Theodore Roosevelt National Park since she first visited the badlands in her childhood. She has worked in a number of other national parks and monuments in the course of her career, but this was the assignment she most wanted. She fully understands that a national park supervisor must address whatever challenges come her way, but I think it is fair to say that her life's dream was not to spend the heart of her career in weekly, sometimes daily, negotiations with oil company executives, striving to win little half-satisfying victories about where to place the rig, and what color to paint the storage tanks to blend in with park terrain. The amazing people who are drawn to careers in the National Park System have souls that are drawn to the bison snorting on the banks of the river in the morning fog, or the restoration of native grasses in a landscape that has been compromised by leafy spurge, or that exceedingly rare glimpse of a mountain lion slipping over the ridge. They want to do positive work to enrich the properties they manage, not fight rearguard skirmishes at tedious indoor public hearings.

I have had the good fortune to observe most of Valerie's tenure at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. She has done superb work along the lines of her park service job description, often in the face of criticism, but always in a way that makes her critics or opponents respect and genuinely like her. There is nothing brash or assertive or self-aggrandizing in her management style. She has such obvious integrity and character, and is so unfull of herself, so quietly dedicated to process and rational decision making, so unwilling to take the bait in the sometimes bombastic public debates, that she has won over two types of skeptical people: know-it-alls who believe they could manage the park better than any trained professional; and the large body of people who have an instinctive distaste for federal authority, federal supervision of the public domain, and federal employees (the feds!).

Valerie is not one of those temporary federal officials who appear on the horizon to take up a job, do it well, fraternize to a certain degree with the local folks, and then move on to the next assignment without much fanfare. She has become a friend to Medora, the badlands, and the people of North Dakota. In some cases, she has become family.

Now Valerie has purchased a beautiful modest conversion van RV. She plans to travel extensively throughout America—and beyond. She has more wanderlust than almost anyone I have ever known. I imagine her exploring America in that lovely rig, meandering from national park to national park and to wild places throughout the continent that most of us have never heard of. She has friends all over the country. She has an insane desire to step foot in every county of the United States.

I feel a little grumpy about her plan. My most persistent dream—since I was 18 years old—has been to buy a brand new, cat-free conversion van RV and travel the country for a year or two with books (now miniaturized on iPad!), cameras (no darkroom now required), and a typewriter (no postage now required). How I will envy Valerie as she wakes up in that rig, somewhere in America, on our public lands, with nowhere particular to be and a moose nosing about in the clearing.

Reconnecting with History and the American Dream—On the Public Lands

I missed my deadline this last week—with permission—by a couple of hours. When noon Wednesday came, I normally would have been pushing "send" from Bismarck or somewhere, but in fact I was gamboling in the Judith River in north central Montana. The Judith enters the Missouri River from the south near today's Judith Landing, after a 124-mile journey from its source in the Little Belt Mountains. It is one of the most beautiful tributaries of the Missouri.

A few of us have been sloshing around in the Judith to avoid having to end our three-day canoe trip. Each year I lead a cultural tour of Jefferson and Lewis and Clark lovers through the pristine White Cliffs section of the Missouri (three days) and then along the remote Nez Perce Trail west of Missoula, Montana (four days). There was a good lunch of tuna salad and fresh fruit waiting at the take-out point, but we few lingered in the last stretch of the Judith. I get this adventure just once a year and I have to squeeze all the spiritual regeneration possible out of a few key moments in the heart of the American West.

The Missouri is a big, powerful river. When 17 canoes spread out on its broad surface in the morning, and move down the river at different paces, they tend to get swallowed up by the sheer size of the river, and by the magnificent and dramatic valley through which it flows. For the last couple of years, my canoe partner Becky and I have kept our eyes sharp for the somewhat hidden mouth of the Judith, turn abruptly right, and then churn our canoe a few hundred yards up against its surprisingly powerful current. Then we park the canoe on a gravel bar and just play for an hour in the warm, brisk, whimsical Judith, where the scale is small enough for you to feel you are flowing like a river. There were six of us this year, including a young geologist who was clearly an otter in her previous life.

The Judith was named by Lieutenant William Clark. Meriwether Lewis had proposed the name "Bighorn," but on May 20, 1805, William Clark, thinking of his future back in civilization, renamed it for a young woman he fancied, one Julia Hancock, of Fincastle, Virginia. Clark married his "Judith" on January 5, 1808. (How could she do otherwise after having a noble Montana river named just for her? Clark made her immortal.)

We slogged up the Judith for about a quarter of a mile in our river shoes, then slipped in and just let the stream bob us slowly towards its confluence with the Missouri. It is shallow enough to stand up in, and you bump a fair number of bottom rocks if you don't line yourself up just right. But after about ninety seconds of wincing and "yow"-ing, you reach a point where the channel is deep enough to lift you up and carry you like a pine log through its sweeping curves. That is one of the happiest moments of my year. That little interlude of free floating is, among other things, a sacrament to several magical friendships.

A river feels like a living being with its ripples and eddies and rills and gurglings. It is possible to speak meaningfully about the "souls of rivers." When you finally allow yourself to relax completely—just surrender to the grace of the river come what may—it feels as if you are now truly one with the river, not some independent self-important biped with a unique identity (ego) and a looming deadline. It's heavenly. Toward the end of the ride, a tree has fallen across the channel. If you lurch up just at the right moment, you can grab a bald skeletal branch and hang on for a few minutes while the river tries to pull you away to the Gulf of Mexico.

Now the members of the tour group have checked into the Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton, chosen between the halibut-with-risotto and peppered bison entrees for dinner, and each of them is taking approximately three consecutive showers to get the Missouri River grit out of their bones. I'm still river ratty. We will meet for hors d'oeuvres and live local music on the hotel patio in a couple of hours, and then dinner in a private dining room, during which I will encourage each person to debrief (out loud) on the Missouri River phase of the journey everyone slips off to sleep in a real bed. Tomorrow we depart early for the Bitterroot Mountains, which proved to be the severest challenge to the Corps of North Western Discovery in both directions (September 1805 and May-June 1806).

Like most other people I love America, and thank God I was born here of all the possible places where one might have been born. No one gets to choose. I feel proudest to be an American on three occasions per year. First, on Thanksgiving—that uniquely American holiday when we gather in small groups to celebrate the abundance we enjoy as Americans. We have been blessed with natural resources and economic opportunities unprecedented in the history of the world. Second, on the Fourth of July (often enough at the Medora Musical), when you suddenly find yourself surging up into a full-throttle Lee Greenwood, giant flag, and fireworks mode. It's great to let go with all the patriotism that is in you from time to time. There is something about the idea of America that remains so stirring in our hearts that you actually find yourself overcome with tears of pride and happiness. And you dream that we will somehow find a way to recover.

Third, when I am out on the public lands we have set aside not for the rich and the well born (as Alexander Hamilton had it), but for all Americans to enjoy. Thank goodness much of the American West is arid or inhospitable or magnificent enough that enlightened presidents and legislators have set many parcels aside to remind us of what a fabulous continent we inhabit, so that all Americans—forever—can follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark or explore the Custer battlefield, or sit around a camp fire in Yellowstone National Park talking about the end of the world, or hike side by side in the badlands of western North Dakota without unnecessary industrial intrusion.

Where else on earth could you find such a glorious array of public lands that will never be handed over to the most privileged Americans to be fenced and posted to satisfy purely private vanity? Glacier National Park, Yosemite, Canyon de Chelly, Devils Tower, Mount Rainier, Canyonlands, Arches, the Great Sand Dunes. And on and on. Imagine if we Americans had not all been blessed by the conservation passions of Theodore Roosevelt, who learned how much was at stake in the West right here in Dakota (1883-87). Imagine North Dakota without Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and our 61 US Wildlife Refugees (the most number in America), and Fort Union and Knife River National Historic Sites?

Tomorrow we head west to a lovely mountain lodge (Lochsa). The day after that I will endeavor for the eighth time to survive the Wendover Death March (nine miles more or less straight up). If you never hear from me again, it will be because I left a lung or two in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, in one of the most beautiful places in America.

On the public lands.

When the Thunder Comes, Summer Cannot Be Far Behind

On Monday, March 5, I heard my first thunder of 2014. It was the 125th day of the year, one of the first shirtsleeve days of 2014. I'd been in Dickinson for an early evening meeting. My soul is ragged these days. I'd promised myself I'd bend down in prayer before a crocus (pasqueflower) before the day was out, and I have learned to measure my mental health in reverse proportion to the number of days since I was last in the badlands. So on a whim I drove to Medora, into Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and then into Cottonwood Campground. I'm keeping what I call "last minute camping equipment" in my vehicle through the summer.

Given the rapid industrialization of western North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park has emerged as the one last pure sanctuary where, as long as you are facing inward from its boundaries, you can climb up over a ridge and be sure you will not see a fracking rig or an array of storage tanks on the other side. There is something deeply, even profoundly, comforting in knowing that the National Park will always be able to deliver that spiritual solace—a quiet landscape left alone by man's hustlings—no matter what happens beyond the park perimeters.

There were just five occupied campsites in Cottonwood campground. Three of them had large RVs, and there was one other tent a few hundred yards away. RV and fifth wheel folks tend to spend their time inside their portable houses, which begs some questions, but makes them ideal campsite neighbors.

Part of what makes tent and backpack camping so enjoyable is the way it forces simplification on our lives. If you have to carry it on your back, you are not going to take much, and much that you think you need you soon find that you don't.

It was a "short notice camping trip," so all I had was a blue and off-white tent, a lightweight air mattress, a sleeping bag, water, an exquisitely elegant and miniature gas cooking burner, two miniature pans, a plastic knife and spoon, a small salt and pepper shaker in one reversible cylinder, a Swiss Army Knife, a butane lighter, one food packet, two small bars of chocolate, a miner's lamp that you attach to your forehead with its elastic headband, and a book. I had a backpack, too, but this was car camping, so I barely needed it. This whole ensemble weighed less than twenty pounds. There is something purely delightful in assembling all this miniature high-tech gear. I was roughing it, but roughing it at the top of a very ingenious industrial pyramid.

Nor is such gear cheap. Making any important thing lightweight is an expensive challenge. I just made an itemized list of the gear described above, and the retail price—if you were starting tomorrow—comes to $1,385.40. The backpack ($450), tent ($250), and sleeping bag ($250) are the big ticket items, but once you have them they will last for twenty years or more, if you aren't infected with a raging itch for newer, lighter, more ingenious gear. I can hear my father saying, $1400 would buy a lot of hotel rooms, and they throw in the shower and toilet.

As soon as I had picked my campsite (a very complex enterprise in an organized campground, fraught with second-guessing, backtracking, and lingering misgivings), I walked down to the sacred Little Missouri River. It was up, but not greatly up, and flowing as calmly as it ever gets. I reckoned I could walk through it without wetting my chin, but it was now just an hour before sunset and I didn't want to have to start a fire at my campsite. I never light fires when I am alone. It feels self-indulgent and, though I know it is silly, I don't like the feeling of being exposed alone in the firelight with darkness all around me. I put up the tent (four minutes), and threw my sleeping bag over a bush to air out. The air mattress is one of those self-inflating units.

In honor of the 17-day hike I took on the Little Missouri River a few years ago, and in pursuit of simplicity, I decided to cook a freeze-dried meal from a plastic pouch. You can buy them now at any good outdoor recreation store. They are surprisingly tasty. I chose Chicken & Rice, but if I remember correctly the Lasagna and the Kung Pao Chicken are the best of the lot. All you do is tear open the top of the package, pour in 14 ounces of boiling water, seal up the packet (it has a double ziplock), and let it stand for about ten minutes. Voila: a hot camp meal that occupies a space somewhere between "not bad" and "surprisingly good." I wouldn't recommend it for a date, but on the whole I wouldn't recommend camping with anyone who isn't as eager to do it as you are. The 6 a.m. sullen, sleep-deprived, "I cannot believe you talked me into this," "this is going to be a very bad hair day," look is priceless, but you do wind up paying a price down the line.

After supper, I folded and tucked all the miniature gear back into the appropriate satchels. This is an important part of the ritual, for it reminds us of how little we really need in life, how easily our basic needs can be met, and how much more graspable and manageable life is when we reduce it to lowest terms.

For a while I read my book—a novel by Dickens—at the picnic table, using my nerd headlamp. For a while I stood silently in the juniper trees listening to the concert of a half a dozen species of birds bedding down for the night. And listening to the strange comings and goings of the breeze—a long period of complete calm followed by a little flow-through of purposeful air, and then two more soughings through my campsite, a longer one and a shorter, at long intervals, but never rising to the strength of wind. I remembered John 3:8: "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit."

It is a little eerie standing there all alone on the banks of the Little Missouri River, ears on special alert, trying to drink in the spirit of place of the Great Plains, trying to identify the sounds of quiet (crickets, frogs, owls, bats, small rustling mammals in the dry grass), and puzzling over the way the unhurried breeze now visits, kissing the tops of the trees, and then slips away like a living presence.

An hour later, cocooned in my down bag, I heard the first rumble of 2014 thunder off to the west. As I dozed in and out of sleep the little starter storm crept in to my tentsite, and gave me two outstanding "just over your head" ka-booms, no interval between the flash of lightning and the thunder retort.

It was just scary enough to be perfect. It was the sound of a much-anticipated summer in North Dakota.

The Ages Have Been at Work and Man Can Only Mar It

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."

Industrial Commission: North Dakota Will Be an Energy Sacrifice Zone

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.

Praise for Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's Special Places Initiative

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.