Events of historic importance are slowly unfolding south of Mandan, North Dakota, near the boundary of another nation state, the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. The Dakota Access Pipeline protest has grown into something much larger and more important for the future of white-Indian relations. As we in the non-Indian community look on, it is essential that we try to shut up and just listen for a change.
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."
The great and powerful G7 nations resolved last week to eliminate their use of fossil fuels by the end of the 21st century. The seven leading industrial nations, including the United States, produce 25% of the world's carbon emissions.
It's hard to imagine quite how this will come to pass. I have great admiration for Germany's green economy—powerful, prosperous, innovative, and a pioneer of environmentally friendlier technologies—and it is fitting that the G7 resolution was shepherded by German chancellor Angela Merkel, who aspires to be the "greenest" world leader of our time. But how exactly do we wean ourselves of carbon dependency?
Life in the modern industrialized world is utterly dependent on instant access to affordable power. It is so readily available to us, woven so deep into our lifestyles, that we literally take it for granted. On the few occasions when we lose power for a couple of hours in the wake of a massive thunderstorm or blizzard, or even when our cable TV or internet systems go down, we walk around like lost souls and we tend to get very grumpy. Our carbon addiction is total.
We know all this, but there are times when we snap (or are snapped) out of our complacency and realize how synonymous modern life and access to carbon-based power really are. Here is my own confessional narrative.
In the last week, I flew to Minneapolis, then Salt Lake City, then Calgary, where I stayed on the 12th floor of a hotel. Had the elevator broken down, it would have been a very long four days. In fact, there were six elevators for a single 18-story hotel. I texted and made phone calls across international lines. I ate sushi. At one restaurant I was assured that the prawns had been harvested in the last 24 hours, flash frozen, and airlifted to my table. $17. Then I flew from Calgary to Minneapolis, and then on to Fargo. From Fargo I drove to Bismarck.
All of these transactions occurred flawlessly and without a single interruption. The North American industrial grid performed its functions to perfection. The biggest disappointment of all of those complex transactions came when a flight attendant announced that she would not be passing out peanuts on one flight because a passenger (we all glared around) had a peanut allergy. Are we spoiled or what?
Once I got home I went into industrial hyper drive. I've been gone a lot and I am going again, so my home time for the moment gets very concentrated. My house was hot and stuffy. I fired up my air conditioner (large use of power to cool things off). I cleaned out my Jacuzzi and refilled it, and watched with satisfaction as the water temperature rose three degrees per hour. Cool down, heat up, make my life comfortable at all times! I watered the entire garden.
I used the microwave. I heated the oven to 400 degrees. I did five loads of laundry. Everything worked flawlessly, except for many human errors of one sort or another.
I fired up my lawnmower and raced around my unkempt yard. I placed heavy tomato cages around my fledgling tomatoes. Imagine what it took to find the ore for those tomato cages, process it, fashion it into a spiral grid work, and then ship it in container modules from China to some giant dockyard in Los Angeles or Seattle?
Then I fired up my weed whacker (two cycle), and whined and whizzed around the garden.
With a little spare time on my hands I drove to the grocery store, purchased some additional flowers, and bought some produce that came from California, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Florida, plus bottled water from Colorado. Just close your eyes for a moment and imagine what it took to deliver all of those peppers, tomatoes, oranges, cherries, and cucumbers to a small grocery store in Bismarck, North Dakota. Fertilizers, pesticides, color and flavor enhancers, plastic shipping cartons, the traction required to till, plant, cultivate, and harvest, and then all the shipping by boat, rail, 18-wheeler, and all the front-end loaders lifting pallets at every major stage of the ride. But when I lift the cantaloupe out of the display case and into my cart, I almost never think about what it took to deliver it from its birth to my mouth. And who stooped in a field to pluck it off its stiff vine.
If you add all of this up, one week of one nameless American individual's life, one of 330 million Americans who take all of this vast industrial network of processes, propulsion, and products for granted, it adds up to a colossal carbon footprint. You can say what you want at the G7 meeting, but I vote with my pocketbook every day, almost every hour of every day, for a carbon extraction universe I sometimes pretend to deplore.
If I had to watch a video of what it took to deliver all of these conveniences to me, it would be quite a sobering experience. Strip mines, Saudi oil drilling, oil and gas fracking, the tar sands in Alberta, mining for silver, lead, copper, bauxite, and uranium. Coal-fired power plants, hydro plants, nuclear reactors. Picture the assembly plants that make the giant front-end loaders, the combines, the bulldozers, the draglines, the cranes, the boxcars, the oil tankers, the anhydrous blimps. Imagine the smelters in China that create the steel, iron, and aluminum.
All this so that I can leave my climate-controlled house and get into my car, and drive with the force of 278 horses, two miles to a grocery story on a whim? If I had to walk to get those flowers and green peppers, I'd pare down my "needs" pretty severely. If I had to haul my bottled water, you can bet I'd learn to drink from my kitchen tap with greater satisfaction.
And don't even mention my clothes. If you had an x-ray machine that showed you precisely how the clothes you are now wearing were produced, by whom, and under what environmental and human rights conditions, you might find it harder to sleep at night. But the genius of industrial capitalism is that it "exports" the costs (human, environmental, political, social) while importing the benefits in packaging that allows us to disown our moral and global responsibilities.
I know there are many enlightened individuals who have a much lighter carbon footprint than I do, and I deeply admire them for their Thoreauvian courage and restraint. I aspire to be more like them.
All of this is why I grow a garden in spite of the odds. If I want to go out and snap a cob of corn off its fabulous green stalk in August, and dig up an onion, I have to kneel down in the earth and put my hands in the soil and caress a seed into fruition. Whatever we kneel for is prayer, and when we kneel in the earth we are reminding ourselves of what is really at stake. It makes life a sacrament. It doesn't absolve me of my complicity and addiction in the global carbon economy, but it gives me pause—for a few minutes a day—to think about how precious the basics of life are, and how many tens of millions of people worldwide would give anything to have a garden to grow food in, and a ready and clean water supply to keep it—and them--alive.
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.
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.
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."
Enough winter already. If you don't like winter you don't really like North Dakota. Still, enough.
I have a well-off friend who whines all through every winter as if some dark cosmic conspiracy existed to chap his lips and make him dread getting out of his car when he gets to the office. He could live anywhere in the free world—Arizona, California, New Mexico, Florida, even Colorado—but he chooses to dwell here. Keep in mind that he lives in a climate-controlled house. He has never had to shovel coal, cut firewood, or even light a pilot light for all I know. He has a thermostat, which means that he doesn't have to stoke the fire when he is cold or back it away when it overheats his house. He has indoor plumbing with designer fixtures, the kind you pay extra for when you buy a house.
In the morning he starts his car from inside his kitchen while reading the paper and making himself cups of designer coffee on his sweet digital coffee dispenser. In the background, his home theater system plays cheerful morning music selected by a cloud brain that monitors his choices over time and suggests new sounds for the royal ear. He does not have to face the outdoor air in order to get into his car, and when he gets in he is greeted by pre-heated seats. The garage door opens automatically to let him out and then closes behind him as he drives off. He has an array of electronic comforts to get him from his garage to the office—XM Satellite Radio, an inborn navigation system, hands free cell phone service (did I mention heated seats?).
So far as I know he has never fed (or pulled) a calf, never fixed fence in a sleet storm, never hauled a bale, never cleared a drain field on Memorial Day, never shoveled his way to the milk barn at 4 a.m. In fact, when it snows here in Dakota, he has a professional crew who spring into action in the night to clear his sidewalks before the sheer inconvenience of it can be noticed.
At any given moment, between October 15 and June 5, he basks in a climate-controlled shirtsleeve interior space, sealed off from the Great Plains. He could just as easily be in Honduras or Hong Kong. He has not had to get up to change the channel for thirty years, and these days he is never more than 10 seconds from a handheld device that would have made Leonardo da Vinci faint with delight. From the top of his flawless palm, he can tell you any fact at any time from a variety of online sources, text his sons in a faraway state without seeking or buying a postage stamp, Facetime with his granddaughters (for free, for ever, anywhere on earth), check his stock profile, buy tickets for a movie, pay his utility bills, make (and edit) a movie of his foot at the end of his Barcalounger, or even pull files through his phone from his work computer across town. And of course check the North Dakota weather using his weather app, and then post a whining lament about our horrible winters on Twitter or Facebook.
Ah, the strenuous life.
The funny thing is that his great-grandparents grew up in a sod house they made by cutting out clouts of prairie earth with shovels and axes. One of his uncles lived in a cave with a wooden front door. The interior of the sod house was 16 feet by nine, and the window (when they finally got one) was a translucent piece of sheepskin. They kept warm in the winter mostly by huddling, all eight of them, the pioneer "group snug," and the whole family slept in just two beds. They burned buffalo chips to cook and what scattered wood they could find in the nearby coulees. Occasionally they lit lamps at night, but for the most part when the night came they all just went to bed. The outhouse was a fetid gash thirty feet from the shanty; in the winter they just used old gallon-sized coffee cans in the corner of the hut and lugged it out in the morning. Someone hauled water into the house every day. When they bathed, two, three, or five members of the family shared the same water in succession. When they wanted to know where Beethoven was buried or how many acre feet there are in the Aral Sea, or what the highest peak in the Andes is, they pulled their battered copy of Funk and Wagnall's one-volume Cyclopedia of World Knowledge out of a trunk, browsed it for half an hour, and decided it was not really necessary to know what the highest peak in the Andes is.
We North Dakotans were once that people. That stock, as we like to say. That was a brutal life, or at least a very basic life, and they really did walk four miles through the snow to school. When they finally got a party line telephone they thought they had died and gone to heaven, but they never made long distant calls unless someone was dead or seriously ill.
We would never go back to lives of such hardship and privation. There is little romance in a world of that much pain and blood and loneliness. If you think I am exaggerating about the conditions of our pioneer forebears, read one of the most astounding Great Plains books, Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains. It's Laura Ingalls Wilder on steroids (or acid or strychnine).
In a sense, the oil field workers who have moved here from Arkansas and Texas and Louisiana are more like our pioneer grandparents than we are. They live for the most part in places of flimsy insulation and walls that rattle in the wind. The heaters in their dwellings make a lot of noise and don't regulate the temperature very evenly. They work outside, and though the gear is better now, they face the full-on brutality of the heart of North Dakota winter day after day. I feel sorry for them in a winter like this. They came for the gold rush opportunity they heard about back home, where there were no good jobs to be had, and they wound up in the most trying climate zone of their lives.
Last week when I took my long evening walk I heard my first meadowlark of the year. He was a loud proud lark on a power pole. He sang at me and to the best of my ability I sang right back to him in the same language: "sure sure, she sure, shuh sheh sheh." I have my seeds sorted. I buy a few more packets every time I go to the grocery store now. I haven't spent an evening out on my deck yet, a guy in a parka and mittens trying to spend an evening out on his deck, but I thought about it as I drove through the blizzard to Dickinson last Monday. And if I concentrated with all my might, I could almost re-call the smell of tomatoes growing in July.
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.
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.