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."