Why My Dad Would Be Thinking Bad Words Today

A month or so ago, in an article I first wrote for Dakota Country magazine, and posted later here on my blog, I talked a bit about my father and his love of North Dakota’s outdoors. If you missed that, you can read it here. I need to share a few more words about my father, and growing up in southwest North Dakota.

Although my dad did enjoy a few years of Soil Bank pheasant hunting, it was nothing near the scale of the millions of acres of government-funded cropland converted to dense nesting cover for pheasants, ducks and deer provided by CRP in my lifetime. And except for pulling an occasional walleye from a Roosevelt-era, government-built dam on the Grand River south of Lemmon, S.D., his fishing was with a fly rod in a prairie creek, a wicker creel basket draped over his shoulder for his sunfish and bluegills.

Not that he enjoyed that any less than we enjoy what we have in the North Dakota outdoors today. On Thursday and Sunday afternoons he ditched that suit and tie he wore to the office daily for 35 years, grabbed some jeans and boots or sneakers, and whichever of his seven kids was handy, and took off down the road with some kind of outdoors toy—usually a rod or gun—for a few hours in the outdoors. He died too young, but left all seven of those kids, including the girls, with a legacy of love for the outdoors. He was no different than tens of thousands of prairie fathers of the 1950s and 60s whose message to their children was “We raised you in North Dakota. Appreciate it, take advantage of it, and take care of it.”

That was then. The world was much less complicated. When you have fought and won World War II, everything else that happens in your life pales. My dad never said those words, but he lived them. He knew he was one of the lucky ones. He came back from that war, to a place he loved, and got to live out his life here. He left a brother over there, named me after him, and tried to raise me the way he thought his brother would have approved. And the same with the six kids that followed.

There was no question we were going to be raised in North Dakota, and nowhere else, even though he had seen much of the world and had traveled to the big city of Chicago to learn the optometric skills that were so badly needed here on the prairie. He loved this place. I am so grateful for that.

I think back to the summer days I got up early, dug some worms in the back yard garden, put my fishing pole over my bike’s handlebars and pedaled down to Mirror Lake to catch sunfish and bluegills and bullheads under a bobber. Mirror Lake was right there at the end of Hettinger’s Main Street (still is) and it was a small, five or six hundred acre reservoir behind an earthen dam on Hiddenwood Creek, built by the railroad in the early days of the 20th century to provide water for the railroad’s steam engines. When the lake silted in, sometime in the 1970s, my dad and his fellow Hettinger Park Board members breached the dam, drained the lake, dug it out, and closed the dam back up, to let Hiddenwood Creek refill it. After a lengthy stocking effort by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, locals still pull nice northern pike from the lake these days.

My dad died in 1984, and while I’m sad he missed so many years of enjoying the North Dakota outdoors with his grown children and grandchildren, I’m glad he’s not here today to see what has happened to his beloved western North Dakota. He first took us kids to the Badlands in August of 1959 (there’s a reason I remember that date) to see the famous Burning Coal Vein. I don’t think he’d much like the fires that are burning there now—those giant gas flares that have stolen the night.

Western North Dakota is experiencing an environmental disaster like no one could ever have imagined. If you need some evidence of that, here it is.

Back in 2013, a Tesoro pipeline in northwest North Dakota burst and spilled 865,000 gallons of oil across the prairie, the worst land-based oil spill in U.S. history. It took quite a long time for the public to find out about that incident, so in response to a public outcry, the North Dakota Health Department created a website to track what they call “oilfield environmental incidents.” Every time there’s a leak or a spill of oil or fracking fluid or poisonous brine from a pipeline or a truck or well site, the company responsible for it is required to report that incident to the Health Department, and the incident is logged on the Department’s website.

A few weeks ago I decided to write about this problem with oil and brine spilling all over western North Dakota, so I took a look at that website to see how the industry is doing. Here’s what I found:

I had to go all the way back to June 28, 2014, to find a day when there was not a spill somewhere in western North Dakota’s oil fields.  That means that every single day for the previous 300 days there was a reported spill of either oil or brine. More than 1,500 spills in that 300 days, in fact. An average of more than five a day.

Because the state lacks inspectors to look at every pipeline and drilling site to make sure the oil companies are doing things safely, we’re spilling highly toxic oil and saltwater all over the western part of the state. When oil comes up out of the ground, toxic saltwater, called brine, comes up with it, and the brine has to be disposed of. Generally, it is pumped back underground into deep wells drilled for that purpose. The problem is getting the brine to those wells. It goes by gathering pipelines and trucks, and no one is inspecting those pipelines and trucks to see if they are safe. The result is spills, and when the brine and oil spills, it kills everything it comes in contact with—plants, animals, fish and birds. And renders the ground sterile.

To try to get some idea of just how bad this is, I added up all the oil and brine spills between April 23, 2014 and April 23, 2015. Here’s what I found.

During that one-year time period, there were 1,995 spills, an average of almost 6 spills per day. The biggest was 3 million gallons of brine spilled into a creek north of Williston. That creek runs into another creek, which then runs into Lake Sakakawea, where most of western North Dakota gets its drinking water, and where a lot of us get walleyes and northern pike.

Worse:

  • During those 12 months, a total of 993,762 gallons of oil spilled onto the ground in western North Dakota. Almost a million gallons. On the ground. Into the ground.
  • During the same time period, a total of 5,468,148 gallons of saltwater brine spilled onto the ground in western North Dakota. Much of it ran into nearby creeks and wetlands.

The three million gallon spill occurred in January of this year. Much of the salt water froze. To get rid of it, the oil company cut the ice into big blocks and hauled them away in trucks to a landfill somewhere. That had to be the darnedest thing to watch. Close your eyes and try to picture big blocks of ice on flatbed trailers heading down the highway. I don’t know where that landfill is, but by now those ice chunks have surely melted, and I don’t know where that water went. I don’t know if I even want to know that.

I tried to figure out how many spills there have been since this boom started. I don’t really know when the boom started, so I went back to January 1, 2005, ten years ago. The number is just a few shy of 10,000, which is an average, since 2005, of 1,000 spills a year. Fewer in the early years, when there were fewer wells. More today. Many, many more. I can’t add up the gallons spilled. I don’t think my calculator goes that high. But even if the average number per year is half of what it was last year, that would be almost 5 million gallons of oil and almost 30 million gallons of salt water spilled onto the ground in western North Dakota in the past ten years. You can look at all of this yourself by going here.

About half of the spills each year occur in McKenzie, Dunn and Billings Counties. Those are the Bad Lands counties. ‘Nuf said.

I would be less upset about all this if the state of North Dakota was doing something about it. But the Governor and the Legislature have consistently refused to provide funds for an adequate number of pipeline inspectors, and the oil companies will just keep on letting this happen, especially now, when they’re really cutting corners, because the price of oil is half of what it used to be, and they’re only getting half as rich as they used to get.

The health department has a few inspectors who leave the office when they are called, after an accident occurs. I think they are on the road most of the time these days. For example, they still pay regular visits to the site of the Tesoro pipeline spill, which happened nearly two years ago now. In their last visit, they reported that the company is still cleaning that mess up, and had removed most of the dirt that was tainted by oil—a total of 276 million pounds of oil soaked dirt. It’s being hauled to a landfill. Good grief, it must be full by now. At the site of the 3 million gallon salt water spill, the Health Department has inspectors attending weekly, sometimes daily, briefing sessions as the cleanup continues. No report yet on how much, if any, salt water reached Lake Sakakawea.

But all this leads me to the final point I want to make. Last year, a group of conservation organizations placed an initiated measure on the North Dakota ballot to set aside some of the billions of dollars in oil tax money being collected by the state, to be used  conservation programs. It was soundly rejected by the voters, including many sportsmen and women. One of the reasons it was rejected is that Governor Jack Dalrymple held a press conference 35 days before the election, and, flanked by supposed Legislative supporters of North Dakota outdoors projects, announced that he was setting aside $50 million in his 2015-2017 biennial budget for conservation projects in the existing Outdoor Heritage Fund. Here are the Governor’s words: “I believe we should increase the funding to $50 million for the upcoming biennium and adjust the formula to ensure it reaches its maximum funding level.”

Well, that was September. BEFORE the election. In December, AFTER the election, the Governor released his budget proposal, and what it said was that he wanted to authorize spending of “up to $50 million.” But, he did not “adjust the formula” to get the funding to that level. He just left that to the Legislature. Which promptly adopted a formula that is going to generate just $22 million in the coming biennium—not even half what the Governor promised.

Worse, the Industrial Commission, chaired  by the very same Governor, has already overspent the fund’s income for the present biennium, so they’ve had to dip into next biennium’s money, which means the reality is that instead of $50 million, the Outdoor Heritage Fund is really only going to have somewhere between $15 and $20 million. Like I said in an earlier post here, we were lied to.

Yes, the Governor can claim that he put a $50 million figure in his budget, but all he really did was put a proposal in his budget to spend “up to $50 million,” without a formula to generate the funds, and threw the budget down the hall to the Legislature, and then never showed up even once to defend that budget. He might as well have said “up to a billion dollars,” because the formula adopted by the Legislature is only going to generate enough to spend $15 to $20 million anyway.

That doesn’t come anywhere close to mitigating the environmental damage being done in the oil fields. But it does build a lot of playgrounds, which is what a whole bunch of the money is being used for. And playgrounds make a lot of young voters with kids happy.

Okay, I got that off my chest. I know, I know, it was a harsh ending to a story with a happy beginning. But I just can’t stop thinking about my dad and his love for western North Dakota, and how ashamed he would be today at what we are letting happen here. He wasn’t a man given to cussing—he had seven kids around and had to watch his tongue. But he’d at least thinking bad words today, I’m pretty sure.

Oh, and the reason I remember when it was he first took me to the Bad Lands is this. My dad was the first president of the Hettinger Fraternal Order of Eagles, and remained active in that organization all his life. Not so long after the Home on the Range for Boys at Sentinel Butte was established, the Eagles helped create the Champions Ride Rodeo, still held the first Saturday of August, in a hot, dusty rodeo arena at the ranch for troubled boys, as a fundraiser for the Home on the Range. Not long after my dad got his brand new 1959 Pontiac station wagon, in the summer of 1959, he loaded my mom and however many kids they had at the time (I think 5) into it and took us to the Champions Ride, as the official representative of the Hettinger Eagles Aerie. On the way, we went to the burning coal vein, located northwest of Amidon, where we kids got to see, feel, and smell the coal burning deep underground through a big crack in the earth. I’ll never forget feeling the heat come from the glowing red coals we could see deep down in the ground, and the smell of sulfur burning. (The fire is out now, but the Forest Service has a campground there and you can still see the place where the fire burned.) From there we went up to old Highway 10 (I-94 wasn’t built yet), and I saw the Bad Lands for the first time. I’ve been hooked ever since, and fiercely protective, which is part of the reason—no, most of the reason—I write on this blog. We went over to Sentinel Butte to see the rodeo, and afterwards, on the way home, we stopped in Medora and had hamburgers in the café at the old Rough Riders Hotel. And I know that had to be in 1959, because we were in our brand new 1959 Pontiac station wagon, my mom fretting we were going to get it all full of dust. She was right.

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15 Minutes Of Fame For Heimdal, Between Harvey And Hamberg

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad train went off the tracks near the small village of Heimdal, North Dakota, just east of Harvey, about 7:30 this morning. That’s not news any more, since the train was pulling 109 tank cars of oil, and when six of them caught on fire, it made  national news pretty quickly, because it’s just the latest in a long string of oil train derailments resulting in big fires.

Since Heimdal is just a hundred miles or so from my house, I decided to go take a look for myself. I mean, I might never get to see an oil train fire close up again, and ever since my newspaper reporter days back in the 1970s, I’ve always chased fire trucks. I’m glad I went.

What I learned was that it was not the spectacular show put on by the derailment at Casselton a year and a half ago, thanks to the fact that the oil was in newer, safer tanker cars. What I saw when I arrived about three hours after the derailment was mostly smoke, sometimes black, sometimes white, as the oil in the six cars that caught fire slowly burned itself out.

What was pretty amazing was the local response by mostly volunteer fire departments and BNSF. By the time I arrived, they had set up road blocks on all roads that would have taken sightseers like me closer than two miles from the fire. I bluffed my way past the fellow guarding the south entrance from Highway 15 into Heimdal by just shouting “News Media” but was still  stopped more than a mile from town, where all the other news media had gathered. That location offered nothing, so I got out my North Dakota atlas and headed out across country.

The officials had done a good job of blocking off gravel roads north and east of Heimdal, with signs that said “No Thru Traffic,” but since I wasn’t planning on “going thru” anywhere, I just drove around them and ended up down at the tracks about half a mile east of the accident. (My years in the news business have taught me you can’t get the story (or the photo) from two miles away. I guess they don’t teach that in journalism school these days. Do they still have journalism schools?) I pulled into an abandoned farmyard and as I got out of my Jeep, I looked up and saw a caravan of vehicles led by flashing lights coming down the road behind me. Uh-oh, I thought. Busted.

But the caravan stopped on top of the hill half a mile away, and then I realized it was a police escort for the news media. Reporters with cameras clambered out of mostly SUV’s and set up tripods on top the hill and began shooting video, over the top of my head, of the fire (more accurately, smoke)  from more than a mile away from the accident. I watched in  anticipation of that police escort coming down to tell me to get out, but after about ten minutes of filming, they all turned around and drove away.

Next came a BNSF pickup with flashing lights. A BNSF employee drove up, parked beside me, and we started to visit. He asked me if I was a neighbor, and I nodded and pointed to my camera–“Just came to take a few pictures.” I asked him what had happened. He said the rail “split” about a quarter of a mile east of Heimdal. I asked how that could happen. He said it is not unusual in places like North Dakota, with extreme climate changes. In the winter, the tracks shrink from the cold. In the spring, they begin to expand again from the warm weather. Splits happen.

As we walked over to the tracks, he showed me the track maintenance that was going on. Between where we were, east of Heimdal, and the accident site, the company had been lifting up the track and putting about 12 inches of new rocks and gravel under it, and then setting the track back down and “shaking” it into place in the new bed of rocks. That process ended about half way down the track,where the old rail bed was still in place. He said down where the accident occurred, they had been doing the same thing. In one of the photos I took a little later, you can see where the new rail bed runs up against the old one.

The fellow I was talking to said he had been among the first on the scene this morning, and he said he had helped get the engine and 80 cars out of there after the accident, leaving 29 cars behind, six of which had caught fire. At least one had spilled its oil into the slough next to the track, Then he said he was going to walk down to the accident site and inspect the tracks along the way.  I asked him if he minded if I walked along, but he said his bosses wouldn’t like that, so I stayed where I was.

I watched him walk slowly down the track, stopping to look down  carefully once in a while,  and to talk to someone on his cell phone. As he neared the site, two other BNSF employees who had come from another direction met him and the three of them  conferred for a few minutes before he headed back. When he got back, he said the tank cars were nearly burned out, but the oil that had leaked about 500 yards out into the slough was burning, and they were just going to let it burn, rather than put it out and try to clean it up later. Made sense to me.

I asked him how long it had been between the previous train coming down these tracks and this one. He said he thought about 20 minutes between trains. “This is a busy track.”  He said they were going to have to get to work as soon as possible cleaning this up and getting the tracks re-opened. “This is a main line.  We can’t leave it shut down very long.”

With that, he turned and headed for his pickup, looking back over his shoulder to say “I’d appreciate it if you would stay off the tracks.”

I’d seen enough. My camera and I got in the car and followed him back to the highway, and headed home. I got here in time to watch the six o’clock news on the two local TV stations. Lame. One got the location wrong, placing it west of Heimdal, instead of just east of the town. The other had obviously sent a rookie reporter who couldn’t manage the sound, and her report was barely audible with the wind blowing in her microphone. Both had the same footage, shot from the top of the hill half a mile behind me.

There’s no doubt this will be a national story, although it appears to have been the least spectacular of the many oil train accidents in the last couple of years. We’ve dodged another bullet. This happened not more than half a mile east of the houses in Heimdal, by my estimation. The Heimdal elevator can be seen clearly not far from the fire in  the photos I shot.

Take a look at those photos. You can see clearly how uneven the tracks are, although they are a little distorted by the telephoto lense I was using. Still, pretty easy to see how a train might run off tracks like that. Maybe we ought to have some state inspectors . . .

 

This photo shows how uneven the tracks are just east of the accident site. BNSF workers have been doing maintenance on the track in the area, raising the track bed by about a foot.

This photo shows how uneven the tracks are just east of the accident site. BNSF workers have been doing maintenance on the track in the area, raising the track bed by about a foot. If you click on the photo, you’ll see a bigger image which shows the unevenness of the track more clearly.

A BNSF maintenance worker stops to talk on his cell phone while inspecting the tracks just east of the accident site. Just ahead of him is the end of the stretch where the track has beeen raised

A BNSF maintenance worker stops to talk on his cell phone while inspecting the tracks just east of the accident site. Just ahead of him is the end of the stretch where the track has beeen raised

The Heimdal elevator is visible just behind the site of today's accident as a BNSF maintenance worker walks toward two other BNSF employees .

The Heimdal elevator is visible just behind the site of today’s accident as a BNSF maintenance worker walks toward two other BNSF employees .

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The Artificiality Of Our Outdoor Experience

These are the three things I enjoy most about North Dakota’s outdoors:

  • Wading across the Little Missouri River with my hiking shoes slung over my shoulder, on my way to a silent day hiking in the Bad Lands wilderness.
  • Watching my dog lean into a patch of brush, just a glimpse of red feathers under her nose, her nostrils flaring so wide you think her lungs must be about to explode.
  • Watching a little red and white bobber disappear down an 8-inch hole in the ice.

The rush of anticipation that accompanies each of those things is sometimes almost more than I can bear. And the outcome is never certain. Even though, in most cases, I have done everything I could do to prepare for what happens next, I’m still not sure, and the joy caused by that uncertainty is the same today as it was the first time it happened—long, long ago.

I am an old man now, by the calendar, and I’ve been lucky enough to live in a time when all three of those things were not only possible, but as readily available as I would want them to be. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. It’s possible we live in the very best place to be an outdoors person right now, but we must do what we can to make that possible for generations to follow us. As generations before us did for us, and as we have done for ourselves.

Because that perch at the end of my bobber on West Lake last winter was not put there by the Big Bang, or by Charles Darwin, or even by Noah. It’s there because of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s fish stocking program.

Likewise, that pheasant under Lizzie’s nose last fall was there because the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid a farmer to take his land out of production and plant grass where pheasants could build their nests, rear their young, and hide from predators. Maybe that rooster wasn’t hatched in a CRP field, but for sure his great granddaddy was.

That wilderness I hiked into last summer was there because the National Park Service set aside a place where no roads can go. My hike was interrupted only by an encounter with a buffalo, and the Golden eagles circled their nests on short hunting excursions at midday, but Lillian and I neither saw nor heard any human for six hours that day, deep inside Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Yes, I am lucky. Because, as I have said all my life, timing is everything. I was taught to hunt and fish and love the outdoors by my dad, but he was not lucky enough to enjoy the last 30 years like I have. He loved to chase roosters down a roadside ditch and set the hook on a walleye and punch holes in the ice as much as I do, but his timing was just not as good as mine. He never experienced CRP pheasants, or the hundreds of perch lakes stocked by what has been, over the years, the best Game and Fish Department in the nation.

His was a more natural North Dakota than mine. But not as natural as HIS father’s. Each generation, the artificiality of our outdoor experiences increases. Each generation, it seems to me, it takes more human intervention to provide the same quality of life that the preceding generation enjoyed. Often, the result is an even better experience. I’m sad it has come to that, but I’m happy we can do it.

My dad was raised on the shore of North Dakota’s largest natural lake, Devils Lake, but it wasn’t a lake then. It was a salt marsh and cattail slough, but it provided him his first hunting experiences: green-headed Mallard ducks. And he never tired of shooting them.

Dad missed many of North Dakota’s prime pheasant years of the 1940s because of a war and college, but when it came time to choose a place to raise a family, in 1950, he chose Hettinger, North Dakota, because of pheasants. Then, as now, Adams County, in the extreme southwest corner of the state, was Pheasant Country. It had everything a pheasant wanted: shelterbelts planted in the Dirty Thirties, 40 and 80 acre corn fields to feed the dairy cows, and weedy roadside ditches for pheasants to nest in.

We lived there because my dad wanted to hunt pheasants, and to teach is kids to do that too, but he also taught us to hunt ducks by jumping over the top of little WPA impoundments, built during the 30s for farmers to water their cows. I could drive you to every one of those Adams County WPA dams today, in the dark, because that’s what we did in the fall, pulling up behind the dam and sneaking over the top to shoot the ducks that were sitting out of the wind. We could bag a couple Mallards and be in school for our 9 o’clock class. That was duck hunting in Adams County in the 1950s and 60s.

As for fishing, Adams and neighboring counties had a number of small CCC-era dams stocked occasionally with panfish by the Game and Fish Department. (Aside: when I was a boy, the Game and Fish Commissioner was from Hettinger—Russell Stuart—and in years there were funds for a stocking program, and fingerlings to stock, I like to think Russ saw that we got an extra scoop or two.)

Dad was mostly a fly fisherman, as a young man, but then . . . but then, in the early 1950s, came Shade Hill Dam, a remnant of the Roosevelt-era make-work mentality, part of the Pick-Sloan project. Shade Hill Dam was located about 30 miles southeast of Hettinger, in northwestern South Dakota, and that dam was the largest thing I had ever seen—more than a quarter mile across, almost 200 feet high, backing up the Grand River (a tributary of the Missouri) into a 5,000 acre sportsman’s paradise. It was awesome, and I made my dad drive over the top of it every time we went there, an unnecessary trip because our favorite fishing spot was on the north side. But he humored me.

I caught my first walleye in that lake, and I also caught my biggest one there—even to this day. We went there on Thursday afternoons and after church on Sunday, because those were Dad’s days off.

In the fall we hunted pheasants, and it was okay, but not great (the limit was two most years and it often took quite a bit of driving section line roads and hopping out of the car when one popped its head up in the ditch to get them). But then . . . but then, in the late 1950s came Soil Bank. In response to post-war crop overproduction and sagging prices, the government paid farmers to convert crop land to conservation acres by planting grass where corn and wheat once grew.

My first year of actual hunting, after tagging along with the men for several years, was 1961, the year I turned 14 and got my first shotgun (all 4 of Dad’s boys got one for their 14th birthday, I think), and also one of the peak years for Soil Bank. There was pheasant habitat everywhere, and there were pheasants everywhere, and we actually got out of the car and walked through heavy cover, and shelter belts and corn fields next to the heavy cover. And we shot pheasants. Man, did we shoot pheasants.

But then by the time I graduated high school, Soil Bank was gone, and we had a lot of lean years, exacerbated by bad weather of the mid-60s. A couple years there was no season. And then someone came up with those three magic letters: C. R. P. Cropland became grassland. Back came the pheasants.

If you go back and look at each of the experiences I have described, you will see that every one of them, to some extent, happened because we as a people, represented by our government, took a role in making them happen. Dam building, fish stocking, Soil Bank planting, CRP—all of those things were possible because we asked our elected leaders to make our lives better by providing the resources to make those things happen.

Unless we, as a people—we, as men and women who cherish our time in the outdoors—unless we step up now and direct our government leaders to keep doing that, we are going to lose a lot of the things that make our enjoyment of the outdoors possible. Including enjoying our Badlands. Especially enjoying our Badlands.  Because right now our Badlands are threatened more than at any time in their ten million year history, by the march of industry toward them. And we don’t seem to be doing much about it.

Yesterday’s Soil Bank is today’s CRP. Yesterday’s Shade Hill Dam is today’s Missouri River system. Yesterday’s WPA dams are today’s National Wildlife Refuges. North Dakota has 63 of them, more than any other state. Only two are natural bodies of water. Sixty-one are man-made reservoirs. Built with federal funds.

But federal funds have a way of coming and going. We already know that the federal commitment to conservation has been cut dramatically. CRP is going away. That program, which once dropped a hundred million dollars a year into North Dakota’s farmers’ pockets to take land out of production and provide habitat for wildlife, is slowly dying, and will be completely gone before I am.

But North Dakota is an oil-rich state now. We have enough money to do more for ourselves, without federal help.  The Legislature has just adjourned, and there’s been a massive failure on their part to help protect and enhance our outdoor experiences.  You’ll remember that last fall, the voters of our state, aided and abetted by a good number of our outdoors men and women, I’m afraid, rejected a measure to put a bunch of money into reinforcing our outdoor resources. I am done whining about that now, but I need to point out that one of the reasons we rejected that measure is that we were told that the state is spending $30 million in the current biennium, which ends this June 30, and $50 in the next biennium, which begins the next day, to do some of the things that supporters of Measure 5 had planned for us.

Well, turns out we were lied to. The money isn’t there. In the end, there is going to somewhere between $15 and $20 million, not $50 million, to spend on outdoors projects in the Outdoor Heritage fund in the coming biennium. Yes, we were lied to. I’m going to write more about that one of these days.

I’m just starting to think my way through this dilemma of how things can be so good and then so bad, and then so good again, and then, potentially, so bad, as my hunting and fishing days near an end. We need to try to figure out how we can mitigate the coming (some would say already ongoing—I’ll write more about that soon too) environmental and ecological disaster in the next ten years or so of North Dakota’s existence. You and I, readers, as people who enjoy North Dakota’s outdoors, are going to have to do this ourselves. No one is going to do it for us.

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We Cleaned Up The Air But We Couldn’t Clean Up The Politicians

Let me start with this. I was sitting in my recliner last Sunday evening watching a rerun of the old Lawrence Welk show from the 1960s. It was one of Lawrence‘s “theme shows” and the theme this week was Los Angeles. As the show neared an end, after renditions of surfer songs and Hollywood movie themes, the band and singers were preparing for the closing song, Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” Some of you might know it. Willie Nelson recorded it a number of years ago. (Blue skies, Smiling at me. Nothing but blue skies. Do I see.) Here’s how Lawrence introduced the song.

“Los Angeles, like many of our big cities, has a problem with air pollution. So blue skies are not as common as they used to be. But we can still enjoy the song with this title.”

That show was recorded in the mid-60s, and it took me back to what I’m pretty sure was my first environmental awareness incident. It was December 1968, and I was flying into Los Angeles International Airport to report to my next U.S. Navy duty station near Los Angeles. As we approached all I could see out the window was a big brown cloud, and then we descended through it into L.A. I had never experienced smog before, but I was about to experience it for the next year or so, and it was pretty awful. Many days the city announced over radio and TV that there was a “smog alert” in effect, and pregnant women, small children and old folks were advised to stay indoors that day. Often for days on end.

As I was just about nearing the end my assignment there, I remember watching on TV on New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, 1970, as President Richard Nixon, just down the road from me at his California office in San Clemente, signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act. America’s 1970 New Year’s Resolution was to care for our environment. Later that year, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and Congress passed the Clean Air Act. A few years later we also had the Clean Water Act. So that was the response to concern shown all during the 1960’s about what we were doing to our environment. (And it’s kind of nice to know that there’s a generation of Americans, probably today’s college students, who grew up without the word SMOG in their vocabulary. I remember in his remarks President Nixon said this was going to take more than a federal government initiative—states were going to have to join in as well.

A couple of years later, when I arrived back in North Dakota, I found out my home state was facing environmental problems of its own. A coal boom had come to North Dakota. We were mining lignite coal and burning it to boil the water, to create the steam, to turn the turbines, to produce electricity, at big electric generating plants. And there were virtually no state environmental regulations to deal with it. My friend Mike Jacobs said in his book “One Time Harvest” that the coal industry had come west looking for three things: cheap coal, cheap water and cheap politicians. In North Dakota they found all three.” The Legislature, dominated by pro-business Republicans, had been caught sleeping at the switch when it came to regulating the energy industry, although, much like today’s oil boom, they didn’t seem to care much about it.

But later that year, in November of 1972, we elected a Governor who did care, Art Link. With his leadership over the next 8 years, we were able to enact the nation’s strictest mined-land reclamation laws, and surface owner protection laws. Those were two major concerns. Prior to Art Link’s time, the coal companies were just stripping off the topsoil, scooping up the coal, and leaving big open pits and big mounds of dirt all over what we called “coal country.” Some of those big dirt piles are still out there today, although now we call them “Wildlife Management Areas.”

I was a reporter for the Dickinson Press in 1974 when a company called Michigan Wisconsin Pipeline Company called a press conference in Dickinson, to announce they were going to build 23 coal gasification plants in western North Dakota, using huge amounts of water and coal to turn lignite into liquid natural gas.  And that’s when North Dakota’s environmental community really formed. Local farmers and ranchers whose operations were threatened by coal mines and gasification plants, spurred on by a bunch of young environmental organizers, formed a group called United Plainsmen to fight back and protect their land, water and air. (Incidentally, that group lives on today, under the name of the Dakota Resource council, and is still the leading environmental voice in North Dakota.) The coal gasification company needed water permits from the state to get the huge amounts of water required for their process. Governor Link chaired the State Water Commission, and he and Agriculture commissioner Myron Just came up with the idea of attaching conditions to those permits to regulate things that state law didn’t cover. Well, that slowed the process down enough to let the Legislature pass some laws, finally, and the end result was that instead of 23 plants, they build one plant, about half the size of what they had proposed originally. Well, it turned out that the gas they produced cost more than it was worth, so it had to be federally subsidized, and no more plants were ever built. Link coined the phrase “cautious, orderly development,” and that’s what we got from the coal industry. It worked. Today, while we still have only that one gasification plant, a total of nine power plants in 5 different locations produce about 4,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to heat and light all the homes in Minnesota and North Dakota. But that happened over a period of about 15 years. And for the first time since the 1930’s, North Dakota gained population in the 1970s.

We went through a minor oil boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it was so short-lived that we never really experienced huge environmental problems. Because this was before the advent of fracking, much of the drilling activity took place in shallower rock formations, so most of the impact was in the Bad Lands, south of the area where most of the drilling is taking place today. They did some damage, leveling buttes and building roads for their drilling rigs, but it could have been worse. Like today, the price of oil dropped drastically in the mid-1980s, and drilling here became unprofitable, and we had a typical boom and bust. The price of oil, which had climbed to over $100 a barrel in 1980, dropped below $30 in 1986. Bust. For many years you could see bumper stickers on pickups in the western part of the state that read “Lord please let there be just one more boom. This time I promise I won’t piss it away.”

Well, we got it. A perfect storm hit 20 years later—a steep increase in price of oil and the development of the new technology called fracking. As the value of a barrel of oil climbed back over $100 in 2007, the expensive fracking process became feasible and the result is the today’s boom—although we’re currently experiencing a mini-bust, with prices hovering right around the $50 mark right now. No one knows what’s going to happen next, but everyone except the oil industry and the politicians knows that severe damage has already been done.

Western North Dakota is experiencing an environmental disaster like no one could ever have imagined. Because, like in the 1970’s coal boom, the industry has come here looking for cheap politicians, and this time they have found them. This time, there is no Art Link. This time, the politicians, led by our Governor, are so desperate for anything that might turn our economy around, they simply turned North Dakota over to the oil industry and went and buried their heads in the sand.

I’m mostly concerned about the environment, so I’m not going to deal with all the social problems that accompanied a boom like no state has ever experienced before. Crime, drugs, prostitution, traffic accidents, housing shortages, skyrocketing prices for everything that only people making oil field wages can afford. The Bismarck Tribune reported this week that the Williston Police Department is averaging 3.6 felony arrests every day right now. Three or four felony arrests every day. Ten years ago they maybe had 3 or 4 a week, if that.

I’m going to deal with two of the environmental issues we’re facing today..    First, trains.

Oil companies like dealing with the railroads when it comes to shipping their oil to refineries. There are some big pipelines, and more are proposed, but trains can go anywhere–pipelines only go in a straight line to one destination. So much of the oil being shipped out of state today goes by train. The problem is, Bakken crude is very volatile, and state regulators refuse to inspect the trains to see what is in those oil tankers, and they refuse to make the oil companies treat the oil to make it less explosive. Just this week, the Legislature killed a proposal to add state inspectors to the Public Service Commission’s staff, because the oil industry doesn’t want them. The result is, hardly a month goes by without a train derailing and exploding into a huge fireball somewhere in North America. The first one was in a small town in Quebec, and it killed 43 people. Since then, most have been in isolated rural areas, so no one has been killed, but the environmental damage has been huge When tanker trains derail, the tanker cars have a tendency to burst, and if they don’t catch on fire,  that oil goes into whatever is beside the tracks—lakes, rivers, wetlands, forests, schoolyards . . .   .

The other issue is spills. Because the state lacks inspectors to look at every gathering pipeline and drilling site to make sure the oil companies are doing things safely, we’re spilling highly toxic oil and saltwater all over the western part of the state. Because when oil comes up out of the ground, toxic saltwater, called brine, comes up with it, and the brine has to be disposed of. Generally, it is pumped back underground into deep wells drilled for that purpose. The problem is getting the brine to those wells. It goes by gathering pipelines and trucks, and no one is inspecting those pipelines and trucks to see if they are safe. The result is spills, and when the brine and oil spills, it kills everything it comes in contact with—plants, animals, fish and birds.

So here’s how our politicians have responded to this problem: Instead of hiring a big field staff to inspect things, they hired a few inspectors who go to the site of each spill AFTER THEY HAPPEN and say “Yep, that’s a spill, clean it up.” And that’s it.  Until a year and a half ago, no one even kept track of how many of these things there were. But after a huge spill up in northwest North Dakota, the public became so enraged that the State Health department built a website that lists every spill that takes place these days.

Well, I took a look at that website this week. I looked at every day for the past year. Here’s what I found. You have to go all the way back to June 28, 2014 to find a day without a spill somewhere in oil patch. That’s 291 consecutive days. And it wasn’t just one spill most days. In that 291 days there were a total of 1605 spills. That’s an average of more than 5 a day. The biggest was 3 million gallons of brine spilled into a creek north of Williston. That creek runs into a river which runs into Lake Sakakawea. That’s an environmental disaster. Because in addition to the damage to the plant and aquatic life, most of western North Dakota gets its drinking water from Lake Sakakawea.

In the 365 days leading up to Tuesday, there were 1,995 spills, an average of almost 6 a day.

Those are spills that, for the most part, could be prevented if the state, which is collecting billions of dollars in oil taxes each year, hired inspectors to make the oil industry clean up its act. But our politicians refuse to do that. Why? Partly because the oil industry has contributed so much money to our elected officials for their campaigns that they virtually own the politicians, from the governor on down. In 2012, the oil industry pumped more than half a million dollars into the governor’s campaign, enough to guarantee themselves that they could keep him in office.

Sadly, there is no Art Link today to step in and put the brakes on this rampant environmental disaster. Like the 1970’s, Art Link would not have stopped the oil industry from succeeding here. He simply would have slowed them down until regulators could catch up and protect our environment.

I want to close this with some words from Art Link. In one of his most famous speeches, given to the annual meeting of the North Dakota Rural Electric Cooperatives in the early days of the coal boom, in 1973, this great Governor said this:

We do not want to halt progress. We do not plan to be selfish and say “North Dakota will not share its energy resources.”

          No . . . we simply want to insure the most efficient and environmentally sound method of utilizing our precious coal and water resources for the benefit of the broadest number of people possible.

          And when we are through with that, and the landscape is quiet again, when the draglines, the blasting rigs, the power shovels and the huge gondolas cease to rip and roar

          And when the last bulldozer has pushed the last spoil pile into place and the last patch of barren earth has been seeded to grass or grain

          Let those who follow and repopulate the land be able to say “Our grandparents did their job well. This land is as good as, and in some cases, better than before.

          Only if they can say this will we be worthy of the rich heritage of our land and its resources.

 

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Well, We Were Warned . . .

Here’s an updated version of a story I wrote here a month or so, and for Dakota Country magazine’s current issue.  

Now we know that there will be no bighorn sheep season in North Dakota this year, for the first time since 1983. Nor will there be one in the foreseeable future.

So, add bighorn sheep to the list that already includes mule deer does and sage grouse.

In addition, like last year, there will be only a limited pronghorn antelope season in just one small area of the southern Bad Lands, with antelope season closed again in the rest of the state, and there will be only a limited mule deer buck season.

Both elk and moose licenses are down significantly in recent years. Elk licenses are down almost 50 per cent since 2010, although some of that can probably be attributed to the elk reduction program in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We’ll see how that plays out over the next few years. Moose licenses are down 25 per cent since 2010.

And whitetail deer licenses are down by more than two-thirds from the peak in 2009.

But back to the bighorns. The Game and Fish Department said in early March that because of the big die-off of bighorn sheep in the past year, they have ended sheep hunting in the state—for now. When—or if—there will ever be a season again is unknown.

What the hell is going on here?

Game and Fish has lots of answers, mostly legitimate, I think, and all different for each species. For bighorns, the latest casualty, the Department says it is pneumonia. The herd has come in contact with a domestic sheep herd and caught pneumonia and is dying off in numbers so serious that the department’s wildlife chief, Jeb Williams, says “it would be irresponsible on the Department’s part to issue once-in-a-lifetime Bighorn licenses without further investigating the status of the population.”

In other words, it wouldn’t be fair to send someone afield who gets drawn for one of those once-in-a-lifetime hunts this year, because the odds are he won’t find anything to shoot. They say they’re not sure about that, but they don’t want to take a chance. Actually, they’re pretty sure, they just don’t want to say so. And I don’t blame them, just in case they are wrong, and there are a bunch of critters hiding out there they just haven’t found. But that’s unlikely. They keep pretty good track of the critters.

Rubber tire disease claimed so many a couple of years ago  that Game and Fish actually had to pick up and move the remainder of what used to be a herd of 43 out of the area along Highway 85 to get them out of danger. I haven’t heard if they’ve lost any more to vehicles since then.

And then, the biologists tell us, the sheep aren’t making babies like they need to be, to sustain a population.

It’s not like we weren’t warned. We were told to expect this in the now infamous 2011 report titled “Potential Impacts of Oil and Gas Development on Select North Dakota Natural Resources.” That report was completed in 2010 and sat on a shelf for almost a year at the direction of someone at a higher pay grade than the Game and Fish Director, until it was leaked to some bloggers and revealed to the public. When it was finally released, we learned that a select team of dedicated Game and Fish Department biologists had done in-depth studies on what was likely to happen, soon, in North Dakota. The very first paragraph of the report says “As the footprint of oil development expands and the cumulative impacts to natural resources such as water supplies and wildlife habitat increase, maintaining the sustainability of our rich natural resources will become increasingly challenging.”

No shit, Sherlock.

It turns out that even that warning was vastly understated. But the biologists knew that. Here’s how they concluded the various chapters in the study:

  • “Interest in hunting bighorn sheep in North Dakota is astounding when compared to other states. For instance, in 2010 there were 11,417 applicants for just five available lottery licenses, more than Wyoming and Idaho combined. It should be incumbent upon all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with a growing O/G industry could come with a very high cost – namely, diminished hunting opportunities through the loss of critical habitat that sustains the wildlife populations so highly valued by the state’s citizens.”
  • “Elk are a valued big game species by the residents of North Dakota. Each year, over 10,000 North Dakotans apply for a once?in?a?lifetime license to hunt elk with a gun. It should be incumbent upon all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with the O/G industry could come with a very high cost, namely, diminished hunting opportunities through the loss of critical habitat that sustains the wildlife populations which are so highly valued by the state’s citizens. A disproportionate amount of oil development occurs on public land and increased development will further degrade habitat quality and reduce quality of outdoor experiences on these lands. The projected level of additional development and associated effects to the habitat makes it is highly unlikely that current population levels could be sustained in the future.” 
  • “There is a great Interest in hunting mule deer in North Dakota. In 2009 10,568 hunters applied for the 2, 886 antlered mule deer licenses that were issued by the department. It should be incumbent upon all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with the O/G industry could come with a cost; namely, diminished hunting and outdoor recreational opportunities through the loss of primary habitat due to direct and indirect effects of O/G development that sustains the wildlife populations that are so highly valued by the state’s citizens.”
  • There are an estimated 110,000 hunters in North Dakota; of these hunters more than 94,000 (85%) hunt deer.  More North Dakotans engage in deer hunting than any other shooting sport. It should be understood by all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with the O/G industry could come with a very high cost to our quality of life; namely, diminished hunting and outdoor recreational opportunities through the loss of habitat due to direct and indirect effects of O/G development. These critical habitat components support many species of wildlife that are highly valued by the state’s citizens.”

As we read through the 120 page report, seven times we read that warning: “It should be understood by all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with the O/G industry could come with a very high cost to our quality of life; namely, diminished hunting and outdoor recreational opportunities through the loss of habitat due to direct and indirect effects of O/G development.”

            Seven times.

Well, here we are, five years after that report was written, four years after it was released, and everything the biologists told us was true. Especially about bighorns. I won’t quote from it extensively—you can get a copy from Game and Fish and read it yourself if you want to, or by simply clicking here—but I’ll share just this one sentence about bighorns, and then a summary.

“North Dakota’s bighorn sheep habitat is considered marginal, as it falls within the eastern edge of bighorn range.”

In spite of that, Game and Fish has done what it could to introduce and protect this magnificent species here. And without oil development, maybe they could have succeeded. But the rest of the section on bighorns can be summarized in one more short sentence:

Bighorns and oil can’t co-exist.

The announcement by Game and Fish in March that there would be no bighorn season laid the blame directly on a die-off of the herd from pneumonia. Mostly likely from exposure to a herd of domestic sheep. Well, that’s the instant cause. But what they weren’t saying is that pneumonia was the straw that broke the camel’s (bighorn’s) back. It was the accumulation of all the things they warned us about in 2011, followed by a pneumonia outbreak, that did the sheep in. At least that’s what I think.

Each section of the 2011 report concluded with a section on “mitigation.” The boom is coming, they said, so here’s what we have to do to mitigate the damage it will cause. Here’s how the section on mitigation for bighorn sheep began:

“Mitigation measures are very limited regarding O/G activities within North Dakota’s bighorn sheep range because bighorn are a wilderness species requiring very specific, irreplaceable habitat characteristics to persist, with lambing habitat being the key component for the sustainability of a population . . .  O/G activities in North Dakota that do not address disturbance near critical lambing areas will undoubtedly have deleterious effects on the state’s bighorn population. Therefore, every effort should be made to reduce disturbance near lambing areas in order prevent a change in bighorn distribution, abandonment of suitable habitat, or alterations in activity patterns.”

Well, nobody listened. The oil boom went on, unchecked, as the biologists sat and wept. Figuratively, if not literally.

I can tell you, the guys at Game and Fish are getting tired of covering up the casualties caused by the Boom though. Last spring, when I was doing a story about sage grouse for Dakota Country magazine, one of the biologists, said “This massive oil and gas development is bad for wildlife, and not just sage grouse. There are other species suffering just as bad. Go ahead and use my name. I’m sick and tired of everyone walking on eggshells.”

But they aren’t giving up. I know that, at the staff level, they are doing as much as  they can to work with the industry, the mineral owners and the landowners, as well as other government agencies, to protect the critters. They have written a much shorter report called “Recommended Management Practices For Reducing Oil and Gas Impacts to Wildlife” which outlines the things that should be done–things they would like to do–to protect wildlife and its habitat. Read it here. It’s just two pages. But it’s another of those documents, I’m afraid, that nobody beyond the staff level is paying any attention to.

Finally, it is worth revisiting the final paragraph of the 2011 report. It came at the end of a detailed and somewhat technical 120 page document, and was mostly overlooked (although, to be fair,the whole report has been generally overlooked), and it contains one of the  scariest warnings I’ve seen issued by a North Dakota government agency since the boom began:

“The impacts of oil and gas development on people utilizing natural resources in North Dakota may not be fully realized for some time.  The diminished enjoyment of our natural resources will not take place overnight, but rather over the course of many years.  North Dakota currently has such high quality natural resources, considerable deterioration could occur before user groups realize the full extent of their loss.  They will have no past reference to measure the quality that will have been lost.”

That’s the very end of the report. The last word.  And it kind of describes one of those “put a frog in a pot of cool water and slowly turn up the heat” scenarios. Looking back at it now, it is remarkably accurate in its warning. A slow, gradual erosion of our outdoor resource experience is going on here. We’re finally starting to notice. But if you’re a hunter, go back and look at the numbers.Compare 2005 and 2015.  We’ve chipped away at everything. Deer. Antelope. Elk. Moose. Pheasants. Sage Grouse. Sharptail Grouse. And Bighorn Sheep.

Y’know, I know I can’t blame all this on the Oil Boom. But there are some days I really just want it to go away.

 

 

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The Farmers Union, Politics, Pigs and Pork

So the North Dakota Farmers Union held a big rally Friday on the Capitol steps to kick off the petition drive to refer North Dakota Senate Bill 2351, which would exempt dairies and hog farms from our anti-corporation farming laws. It’s nice to see the spunk coming from the NDFU. I hope their referral effort is successful.

They’ve got a little experience at this. They’re fresh from a 2014 ballot initiative victory as part of the coalition formed last year to defeat Measure 5, the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment. Their interest in that measure was the fear–completely unfounded–that “big out-of-state conservation organizations” would buy up farmland in competition with farmers. Of course, the anti-corporation farming law they are now about to defend would have prevented that, but it was a line that a lot of people–including many Farmers Union members–bought into, and they carried that fear to the voting booth.

I’d have sworn I heard a reference to that from Farmers Union President Mark Watne yesterday, but I was listening with one ear while someone else was talking in the other (a dangerous thing for someone my age), so this morning I checked with others who were there and I guess I was wrong. So anyone who read this yesterday (Friday) needs to know that. At the bottom of today’s entry, I’ve posted some remarks from former Farmers Union President Robert Carlson, who took exception to some of the things I said in yesterday’s blog post. Robert and I have been friends for many years, and we spoke on the phone this morning,  and this won’t affect our friendship. But his roots go deep in the Farmers Union, much deeper than mine, and his words are to be taken seriously.

In his remarks below, Robert says about Measure 5 “I voted for it because as poorly drafted as it was, it was the only choice to put some needed money into recreation and conservation.” Well, anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I felt exactly the same as Robert, and like him, I held my nose and voted yes. I have faulted the sponsors who drafted such a bad measure almost as much as the lying liars at the Chamber of Commerce and the Petroleum Council for the measure’s overwhelming defeat.

That coalition, which also included the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association and the North Dakota Farm Bureau, ran the most despicable and dishonest campaign ever seen in North Dakota. So in that respect, it’s probably a good thing that none of those organizations was present at Friday’s rally, standing beside Watne and National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson.

But don’t be surprised if those unlikely 2014 coalition partners of the Farmers Union hold a rally of their own—to fight the Farmers Union’s referral attempt, and defeat their one-time ally. Because those groups have been leaders in the effort to get rid of the state’s anti-corporation farming law for years and years. We’ll get an early indication of the opposition if somebody starts a campaign discouraging people from signing the referral petition. That was one of the tactics the group used last year. It wasn’t successful in keeping the measure off the ballot, but it was a way to get the anti’s message out early, and it set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

I think the leaders of the generally-progressive Farmers Union are about to learn a hard lesson: There’s no loyalty among thieves.

So this year it is about big out-of-state corporate dairies and corporate hog farms invading the state.  Well, guess what? They’re already here. Is anybody following the story about the murder of two people at one of those huge hog farms near Bottineau this week? The manager and one of the employees of Turtle Mountain Pork were murdered by a fellow employee on the farm’s premises. And that’s no family farm.

Hog farm(It’s not really a farm at all—just a big building where mama pigs spend their lives standing up in a pen not big enough to turn around in, spitting out babies. I’m guessing they are artificially inseminated, so they don’t even get the pleasure of a visit from a boar a couple times a year. You think your bacon comes from a pigpen on Old MacDonald’s Farm? Guess again.)

Turtle Mountain Pork, where the murders occurred, is owned by AMVC Management Services, LLC, of Aududon, Iowa. That “LLC” in the name stands for Limited Liability Company. Technically, it’ not a corporation, but a rose, or in this case a hog, by any other name . . . I mean, come on, say the words out loud: LIMITED LIABILITY. Isn’t that the whole idea behind corporations—to protect the shareholders from liability?

AMVC has a wide footprint in North Dakota. In addition to their Bottineau operation, they either own or manage similar operations near Langdon in north central North Dakota and Scranton in southwest North Dakota. There might be more. They also have a wide footprint nationally. amvc-mapThey are listed in farm publications as the 9th largest pork producer in the U.S., with operations in Iowa, North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and South Dakota. So anyone who believes our anti-corporation farming laws are keeping big out-of-state operators out of North Dakota can think again. (Incidentally, they also operate dairies in other states. Isn’t that convenient?)

AMVC posted a statement on its website this week, after the murders, from their corporate headquarters in Iowa: “We were devastated and shocked by the tragedy that occurred at Turtle Mountain Pork yesterday morning.  We are cooperating with authorities to ensure the responsible person(s) is brought to justice.”

My guess is the AMC facility is just a taste of what is to come Hog farm exteriorif the referral is unsuccessful and the law passed by this legislature and signed by Jack Dalrymple is allowed to stand. I haven’t seen one of these “farms” but I read a newspaper story that described “a gestation barn roughly the size of two football fields placed end to end.”

But, back to matters at hand. I just hope the Farmers Union knows what it is getting into this year. The organization has been involved in a number of ballot measures over the years, most notably the successful effort to levy a 6.5 per cent tax on oil and gas production in 1980—the famed Measure 6. That year, they were part of another, more traditional coalition, which included the North Dakota AFL-CIO, the North Dakota REC’s and the North Dakota Education Association. Unlike today, those organizations were headed by giants in the North Dakota political arena: Stanley Moore from the Farmers Union, Adrian Dunn from the NDEA, Chub Ulmer from the REC’s and Jim Gerl from the labor groups. And their chief strategist was Deputy Tax commissioner Kent Conrad, whom I have called North Dakota’s best politician ever. If the farm group has half a brain, they will try to put that coalition back together. And bring back Kent.

Today’s Farmers Union is wealthy, the result of successful insurance and other outside business ventures, so it can probably afford to run a campaign. But it lacks political savvy, especially at the top. Its officers and county chairmen actually believed the anti-conservation line they were fed last year by the Chamber, and passed it along to the members. The Chamber needed to suck the state’s largest farm organization into the Measure 5 battle to give itself some credibility beyond the business community. President Watne took the bait, and became a visible part of that dishonest campaign.

All right, I’ve used the word dishonest a few times today, and a number of times in the past. So, prove it, you say. Well, okay then.

I’m not going to rehash the whole campaign, but I want to go back to something I wrote about here a couple months ago, something that influenced the votes of a lot of people who helped defeat the measure. That’s this:

We were told we didn’t need to pass Measure 5 because there was already an Outdoor Heritage Fund which was going to provide $30 million in the current biennium, and, at a key juncture in the campaign, Jack Dalrymple jumped in and promised to add $50 million to that in the next biennium. Turns out, neither of those numbers is true.

There never was $30 million in the kitty for the current biennium. Because of a glitch in the formula that dictates the income to that fund, there was not even $20 million. But no one challenged that number.

There was $50 million in the Governor’s budget proposal for the next biennium, but that number was slashed by the House of Representatives to $40 million. And yesterday, I am told, the Senate Natural Resources Committee cut it back to $30 million. We also now know that, to make up for that shortfall in the current biennium, the Industrial Commission, which approves the grants from that fund, is already borrowing from next biennium’s income, leaving something far less than $30 million  available for the next two years. So the $80 million we were promised last year has shrunk now to below $50 million, spread over 4 years, hardly enough for any major conservation initiatives, and far short of what voters were promised if they defeated Measure 5.

Karleen Fine, the Executive Director of the Industrial Commission, explained to me how this works. As of today, the Industrial Commission has approved more than $19 million in grants from the OHF, but the fund is only going to take in a little more than $18 million by the time the biennium ends June 30. But because a lot of these projects are going to take a few years, maybe even ten years, to complete, the grantees won’t draw down the actual cash in the fund below what is coming in this biennium.

Now there’s a new grant round coming up, with an application deadline of April 1—next week. The requests will be screened by the Outdoor Heritage Advisory Committee and recommendations made to the Industrial Commission, which will likely grant the funds at a meeting in June. But when they do that, they’ll actually be granting from whatever funds the 2015 Legislature approves for 2016-2017.

So if, for example, the Advisory Committee recommends $11 million in grants, and the Industrial Commission approves that amount, to bring the biennial total up to the $30 million they promised, they’ll be committing to spend $11 million of next biennium’s money before that two-year budget period even starts. Because they have continuing appropriation authority, Karleen says, they can do that. If they do that, and the Senate committee’s recommendation stands, there will be less than $20 million available in the next biennium, not the $50 million we were promised.

State agencies in the past have always been pretty gun-shy about spending next biennium’s money before next biennium starts. Kind of like a payday loan. It might be legal, but it sure sets a bad example for the rest of society.

Y’know what I think? I think all this money floating around the state as a result of the boom has made our government sleazy. And, by extension, has made North Dakota and its citizens appear a little sleazy too. I don’t like it.

But back to the Farmers Union. I wish them well. If I had one piece of advice, based on a lot of years of political campaigns, it would be to enlist someone like former Farmers Union President Robert Carlson to step in and run the campaign. Carlson flew in the face of the group’s leadership in the last election, but he is loyal, and he has credibility with the other organizations needed to join them in this campaign.  Something the Farmers Union desperately needs right now.

 

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Good Luck, Farmers Union (And Other Sort-Of Related Items)

So the North Dakota Farmers Union held a big rally today on the Capitol steps to kick off the petition drive to refer North Dakota Senate Bill 2351, which would exempt dairies and hog farms from our anti-corporation farming laws. It’s nice to see the spunk coming from the NDFU. I hope their referral effort is successful.

They’ve got a little experience at this. They’re fresh from a 2014 ballot initiative victory as part of the coalition formed last year to defeat Measure 5, the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment. It might have been better if the Farmers Union President Mark Watne had not referenced that as a victory in front of Friday’s crowd–about half of them were on the other side of that measure, and it opened some not-so-old wounds.

That coalition, which included, among others, the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association and the North Dakota Farm Bureau, ran the most despicable and dishonest campaign ever seen in North Dakota. So in that respect, it’s probably a good thing that none of those organizations was present at today’s rally, standing beside Watne and National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson.

But don’t be surprised if those unlikely 2014 coalition partners of the Farmers Union hold a rally of their own—to fight the Farmers Union’s referral attempt, and defeat their one-time ally. Because those three groups have been leaders in the effort to get rid of the state’s anti-corporation farming law for years and years. We’ll get an early indication of the opposition if somebody starts a campaign discouraging people from signing the referral petition. That was one of the tactics the group used last year. It wasn’t successful in keeping the measure off the ballot, but it was a way to get the anti’s message out early, and it set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

I think the leaders of the generally-progressive Farmers Union are about to learn a hard lesson: There’s no loyalty among thieves.

Emboldened by the millions of dollars supplied by Big Oil to defeat Measure 5 last year, those three conservative organizations are still grinning over the naivete of Watne and his board of directors who bit, hook, line and sinker, into the ugly campaign to defeat Measure 5.  I suspect the Farmers Union is about to be on the receiving end of what it participated in handing out to conservation groups last year. It’s going to be a lesson hard-learned.

So this year it is about big out-of-state corporate dairies and corporate hog farms invading the state.  Well, guess what? They’re already here. Is anybody following the story about the murder of two people at one of those huge hog farms near Bottineau this week? The manager and one of the employees of Turtle Mountain Pork were murdered by a fellow employee on the farm’s premises. And that’s no family farm. Hog farm(It’s not really a farm at all—just a big building where mama pigs spend their lives standing up in a pen not big enough to turn around in, spitting out babies. I’m guessing they are artificially inseminated, so they don’t even get the pleasure of a visit from a boar a couple times a year. You think your bacon comes from a pigpen on Old MacDonald’s Farm? Guess again.)

Turtle Mountain Pork, where the murders occurred, is owned by AMVC Management Services, LLC, of Aududon, Iowa. That “LLC” in the name stands for Limited Liability Company. Technically, it’ not a corporation, but a rose, or in this case a hog, by any other name . . . I mean, come on, say the words out loud: LIMITED LIABILITY. Isn’t that the whole idea behind corporations—to protect the shareholders from liability?

AMVC has a wide footprint in North Dakota. In addition to their Bottineau operation, they either own or manage similar operations near Langdon in north central North Dakota and Scranton in southwest North Dakota. There might be more. They also have a wide footprint nationally. amvc-mapThey are listed in farm publications as the 9th largest pork producer in the U.S., with operations in Iowa, North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado and South Dakota. So anyone who believes our anti-corporation farming laws are keeping big out-of-state operators out of North Dakota can think again. (Incidentally, they also operate dairies in other states. Isn’t that convenient?)

AMVC posted a statement on its website this week, after the murders, from their corporate headquarters in Iowa: “We were devastated and shocked by the tragedy that occurred at Turtle Mountain Pork yesterday morning.  We are cooperating with authorities to ensure the responsible person(s) is brought to justice.”

My guess is the AMC facility is just a taste of what is to come Hog farm exteriorif the referral is unsuccessful and the law passed by this legislature and signed by Jack Dalrymple is allowed to stand. I haven’t seen one of these “farms” but I read a newspaper story that described “a gestation barn roughly the size of two football fields placed end to end.”

But, back to matters at hand. I just hope the Farmers Union knows what it is getting into this year. The organization has been involved in a number of ballot measures over the years, most notably the successful effort to levy a 6.5 per cent tax on oil and gas production in 1980—the famed Measure 6. That year, they were part of another, more traditional coalition, which included the North Dakota AFL-CIO, the North Dakota REC’s and the North Dakota Education Association. Unlike today, those organizations were headed by giants in the North Dakota political arena: Stanley Moore from the Farmers Union, Adrian Dunn from the NDEA, Chub Ulmer from the REC’s and Jim Gerl from the labor groups. And their chief strategist was Deputy Tax commissioner Kent Conrad, whom I have called North Dakota’s best politician ever. If the farm group has half a brain, they will try to put that coalition back together. And bring back Kent.

Today’s Farmers Union is wealthy, the result of successful insurance and other outside business ventures, so it can probably afford to run a campaign. But it lacks political savvy, especially at the top. Its officers and county chairmen actually believed the anti-conservation line they were fed last year by the Chamber, and passed it along to the members. The Chamber needed to suck the state’s largest farm organization into the Measure 5 battle to give itself some credibility beyond the business community. President Watne took the bait, and became a visible part of that dishonest campaign.

All right, I’ve used the word dishonest a few times today, and a number of times in the past. So, prove it, you say. Well, okay then.

I’m not going to rehash the whole campaign, but I want to go back to something I wrote about here a couple months ago, something that influenced the votes of a lot of people who helped defeat the measure. That’s this:

We were told we didn’t need to pass Measure 5 because there was already an Outdoor Heritage Fund which was going to provide $30 million in the current biennium, and, at a key juncture in the campaign, Jack Dalrymple jumped in and promised to add $50 million to that in the next biennium. Turns out, neither of those numbers is true.

There never was $30 million in the kitty for the current biennium. Because of a glitch in the formula that dictates the income to that fund, there was not even $20 million. But no one challenged that number.

There was $50 million in the Governor’s budget proposal for the next biennium, but that number has already been slashed by the Legislature to $40 million, and may go lower before this Session is over. We also now know that, to make up for that shortfall in the current biennium, the Industrial Commission, which approves the grants from that fund, is already borrowing from next biennium’s income, leaving something far less than $40 million  available for the next two years. So the $80 million we were promised last year has shrunk now to below $60 million, spread over 4 years, hardly enough for any major conservation initiatives.

Karleen Fine, the Executive Director of the Industrial Commission, explained to me how this works. As of today, the Industrial Commission has approved more than $19 million in grants from the OHF, but the fund is only going to take in a little more than $18 million by the time the biennium ends June 30. But because a lot of these projects are going to take a few years, maybe even ten years, to complete, the grantees won’t draw down the actual cash in the fund below what is coming in this biennium.

Now there’s a new grant round coming up, with an application deadline of April 1—next week. The requests will be screened by the Outdoor Heritage Advisory Committee and recommendations made to the Industrial Commission, which will likely grant the funds at a meeting in June. But when they do that, they’ll actually be granting from whatever funds the 2015 Legislature approves for 2016-2017.

So if, for example, the Advisory Committee recommends $11 million in grants, and the Industrial Commission approves that amount, to bring the biennial total up to the $30 million they promised, they’ll be committing to spend $11 million of next biennium’s money before that two-year budget period even starts.  Because they have continuing appropriation authority, Karleen says, they can do that.

Well, yeah, but state agencies have always been pretty gun-shy about spending next biennium’s money before next biennium starts. Kind of like a payday loan. It might be legal, but it sure sets a bad example for the rest of society.

But hey, promises were made.

Y’know what I think? I think all this money floating around the state as a result of the boom has made our government sleazy. And, by extension, has made North Dakota and its citizens appear a little sleazy too. I don’t like it.

But back to the Farmers Union. I wish them well. If I had one piece of advice, based on a lot of years of political campaigns, it would be to enlist someone like former Farmers Union President Robert Carlson to step in and run the campaign. Carlson flew in the face of the group’s leadership in the last election, and he has credibility with the other organizations needed to join them in this campaign.  Something the Farmers Union desperately needs right now.

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Sometimes You Have To Be Careful What You Ask for

Tomorrow is the deadline for people to apply to become the next Chancellor of the North Dakota Higher Education system. Given the chaos that exists in the state’s higher education system right now, I’ll almost be surprised if anyone applies. I said almost. Because anyone who does apply will surely be well-educated and reasonably intelligent, and so even though they know they will be working for a dysfunctional board and they know that two of the last three chancellors didn’t last long and left under clouds of controversy, they also know that those two left with nice little buyout packages that enabled them to take a little time off and relax before jumping into a new career.

Former chancellor Dr. Robert Potts came out on the losing end of a spat with the president of NDSU and resigned, taking with him a buyout of about a quarter of a million dollars. He moved on to the Arkansas university system and is  now retired, I think.  Former legislator Bill Goetz then served out the last few years of his public service career before retiring and turning the job over to Dr.  Hamid Shirvani, who did much better financially than his predecessors, departing in 2013 with a buyout of his entire contract, about $925,000 cash in his pocket. He apparently hasn’t been so lucky in re-establishing himself in the academic world.

My friend Dr. Larry Skogen, who was serving as President of Bismarck State College, stepped up in mid-2013 and has been running the North Dakota University System about as well as anybody has ever done while the SBHE searches for a permanent chancellor, but he wants to go back to being a college president and will do so on July 1 unless the list of applicants for the job is so thin that the board convinces him to take the chancellor’s job. Could happen.

One whose name won’t be on the applicants list is Dr. Shirvani, although from what I hear, his name is on other application forms around the country. Which brings me to the point of this blog.

I got a call from a North Dakota legislator this week who told me Dr. Shirvani is having a hard time finding a job. He left with the $925,000 buyout in June of 2013, so maybe the bank account is getting a little light.  According to his Wikipedia page, which I have to say is one of the more amazing self-written Wikipedia pages I’ve ever seen, Dr. Shirvani is “currently a Senior Fellow with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.” I wasn’t quite sure what that was all about, so I went to their website, but they don’t seem to know him. I typed his name into their search engine, but he doesn’t show up on their website. I suppose that’s just an oversight and only means that either AASCU or Dr. Shirvani has not updated their website lately.

Anyway, the reason for the call was to tell me that Dr. Shirvani felt that a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago as Dr. Shirvani was leaving his job here was preventing him from getting a new job. And he would like it if I would remove that particular post from my blog. Really.

Well, I said, I couldn’t recall what I had said on that blog, but I would take a look at it and get back to him, adding that I wasn’t sure what kind of job Dr. Shirvani was looking for, but I was pretty doubtful that people who hire college presidents and chancellors and positions of that ilk really take time to read The Prairie Blog.

So this morning I finally got around to looking at that blog post, from June 3, 2013 (I was busy yesterday putting together a new gas grill that said on the box “some assembly required”). What I found was that I had written about the dysfunctionality of the State Board of Higher Education (SBHE), with a reference to the fact that Dr. Shirvani was their latest victim, and quoting from an earlier blog I had written when Dr. Shirvani first arrived here. That blog post referred to a story out of a California newspaper about the controversy that erupted when Dr. Shirvani hired Sarah Palin to speak at a fundraiser at the university he was running in California, which got him a no-confidence vote from his faculty. But other than that reference, and what I thought was a nice picture of Dr. Shirvani with his arm around Sarah Palin (you’ll notice if you look at his Facebook page he likes to put his arm around pretty women), that post was about the incompetence of the SBHE, which had led to the North Dakota Legislature’s goofy proposal to replace the board with a full-time, 3-member commission, an idea which was soundly trounced by North Dakota voters last November.

I can only surmise that it is the Shirvani-Palin photo which is giving the former chancellor heartburn as he seeks new employment. Because I certainly didn’t say anything disparaging about Dr. Shirvani in that blog post. You can read it yourself if you want.

So I politely informed the Legislator who had called me with the request that I didn’t see a good reason to take that down from my website. Not mentioning anything about the ethics of doing something like that, or even making a request to do something like that. It’s interesting that on the Internet, you can actually make a story disappear. You can’t “unprint” a newspaper, but you can “unprint” a web post. Well, thanks, but no thanks.

I did take the time, while I was online this morning looking at the blog, to take a good look at the amazing Wikipedia page of Dr. Shirvani’s. And after reading it, (including the sentence in which he declares himself a “devote” Catholic) I cannot figure out why he can’t get hired. It is really, really impressive. According to it, he’s not just a Fellow at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities—he’s a Fellow in a lot of places. Here’s an excerpt:

“Sir Hamid Shirvani is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, Recipient of Special Commendation by the American Institute of Architects (2003) for his contributions in the fields of architecture and urban design, Recipient of the Seikyo Culture Award of Japan (1999) and is listed in the “Who’s Who in the World.” Sir Hamid Shirvani has lectured at 27 international and 48 U.S. universities, several dozen public and private agencies, and professional societies.” 

Holy Cow! He’s a “Sir.” I never knew that! I wondered, how do you become a “Sir?” Well, the short answer is, you apply for it, on the website of the Royal Society of Arts. It’s a short process, with just three pages, titled “Your Details,” “Your Application” and “Your Payment.” You pay an entry fee of 75 pounds sterling (it is, after all, a British society—we don’t have organizations that make you “Sirs” in this country) and another 165 pounds sterling a year, and you have to pass some sort of screening committee, which means you have to have done something to earn the right to be called “Sir.” You and the other 27,000 “Sirs” and “Dames” worldwide. Quite an exclusive club, whose members include some of these people you might recognize: Judi Dench, John Diefenbaker, Anthony Armstrong Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon (remember him? He was married to Princess Margaret), Alfred Dunhill (the Dunhill Tobacco guy), Ian McEwan, George Washington Carver (apparently the Society has been around for a while), Stephen Hawking, Charles Dickens and Karl Marx. And then about 26,000 names you might not recognize, like Helena Kennedy, Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws;  Anthony FitzClarence, 7th Earl of Munster; Trixie Gardner, Baroness Gardner of Parkes; and John Stevens, Baron Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, among others. I couldn’t find Hamid Shirvani on the list I looked at on Wikipedia, but, it was only a partial list—I am sure 27,000 names is too many to list on one website. 27,000 “Sirs” and “Dames.” Pretty exclusive company, eh?

As for that “Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science,” title, well, I was curious about that too, so I looked them up. Their website says  “The World Academy of Art and Science is composed of 730 individual Fellows from diverse cultures, nationalities, and intellectual disciplines, chosen for eminence in art, the natural and social sciences, and the humanities.”

Cool. A much more exclusive club. Except that they do list all 730 members on their website, and there’s no one named Shirvani on it. Probably needs to be updated too. Oh, I checked, and Sarah Palin wasn’t there either.  Good news, though. I did find Dr. Shirvani on the Who’s Who in the World list (go ahead, take a peek), just like he said. Along with 1,499,999 other really important people. Including Sarah Palin.

Well, anyway, with credentials like that, Dr. Shirvani shouldn’t have trouble finding work. I wish him well. And I’ll be checking the traffic on that June 3, 2013 blog post of mine. Hope my server holds up.

P.S. If you want to see the most impressive Facebook page ever, check out the page for Dr. Hamid Shirvani. Don’t leave out the title–there are quite a few Hamid Shirvani’s, but none of the rest are “Dr.’s.”

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So Long, Bighorn Sheep

 

I learned about this earlier in the week, but today it became official, when my copy of North Dakota Outdoors arrived in the mail: Add Bighorn Sheep to the list of species for which there will be no hunting season in North Dakota this year. Or for the foreseeable future. At least not likely in my lifetime.

The Game and Fish Department announced this week that because of the big die-off of Bighorn Sheep in the past year, they have ended sheep hunting in the state—for now. When—or if—there will ever be a season again is unknown. This is the first year since 1983 there will be no Bighorn season.

Bighorns join Mule Deer does and Sage Grouse as species which will not be hunted here. In addition, like last year, there will be a severely reduced Mule Deer buck season and a limited Pronghorn Antelope season in just one small area of the extreme southern Bad Lands, with Antelope season closed again in the rest of the state.

Moose licenses are down about 40 per cent from five years ago. Likewise Elk. Moose licenses in the Oil Patch units are down 50 per cent.

And Whitetail Deer licenses are down by more than two-thirds from the peak in 2009.

What the hell is going on here?

Game and Fish has lots of answers, all legitimate, I think, and all different for each species. For Bighorns, the latest casualty, the Department says it is pneumonia. The herd has come in contact with a domestic sheep herd and caught pneumonia and is dying off in numbers so serious that the department’s wildlife chief, Jeb Williams, says “it would be irresponsible on the Department’s part to issue once-in-a-lifetime Bighorn licenses without further investigating the status of the population.”

In other words, it wouldn’t be fair to send someone afield who gets drawn  for one of those once-in-a-lifetime hunts this year, because the odds are he won’t find anything to shoot. They say they’re not sure about that, but they don’t want to take a chance. Actually, they’re pretty sure, they just don’t want to say so. And I don’t blame them, just in case they are wrong, and there are a bunch of critters hiding out there they just haven’t found. But that’s unlikely. They keep   pretty good track of the critters.

I spotted this yearling Bighorn south of Medora last summer. I hope he's grown up and still hanging around.

I spotted this yearling Bighorn south of Medora last summer. I hope he’s grown up and still hanging around.

And its not just pneumonia. The sheep are getting hit by trucks along the main highway through the Oil Patch, Highway 85, and the gravel roads leading up to it as well, taking a further toll on the population. Just about exactly two years ago this week, Game and Fish said they had lost six rams to collisions with vehicles along Highway 85 and had moved the remainder of what used to be a herd of 43 out of the area along Highway 85 to get them out of danger. I haven’t heard if they’ve lost any more to vehicles since then.

Since 1986, the beginning of the CRP program, North Dakota has been a hunter’s paradise. Now it is a totally screwed up disaster. And it’s not just the species I’ve lready mentioned that are hurting. Add Pheasants, Sharptail Grouse and Hungarian Partridge to the list.  Game and Fish blames a lot of it on three bad winters a few years back, and loss of habitat with the disappearance of CRP. I agree, but I’ll add one more reason they don’t like to talk about: the Oil Boom. I’m adding it because the loss or decline of most of these seasons and species is taking place in Oil Country. That’s no secret, and that’s no coincidence.

I can tell you the guys at Game and Fish are getting tired of covering up the casualties caused by the Boom though. Last spring, when I was doing a story about Sage Grouse for Dakota Country Magazine, which you can read on my blog by going here, one of the biologists, who gave me permission to use his name, although I didn’t, told me “Go ahead and use my name. I’m sick and tired of everyone walking on eggshells. This massive oil and gas development is bad for wildlife, and not just sage grouse. There are other species suffering just as bad.” That was a North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologist. He was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it any more. And I don’t blame him. These biologists, more than any of us can imagine, really CARE about the critters.  His job is becoming almost impossible.

He didn’t list all the other species who are hurting, but I’ve listed them above.

There are some really big losers with this latest turn of events. First, we’re losing one of our most spectacular species. Losing any species is a disaster. Losing this one is hard for a couple more reasons:  There are four North Dakotans who might have been able to spend their autumn in the Bad Lands hunting for a Bighorn Sheep this year, but won’t get a chance. They may never get another chance. But bigger than that, the Department has donated one license each year to the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS) to be sold at their annual banquet as a fundraiser. That has been bringing in about $75,000 a year for FNAWS. And FNAWS has been pumping money back into the state to help our sheep program here. That’s gone now.

Y’know, I know I can’t blame all this on the Oil Boom. But there are some days I really just want it to go away.

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Another Black Eye for North Dakota

Here’s an update to a post I wrote last night regarding North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring. Thanks to Valerie Barbie-Bluemle for pointing this out to me this morning. You can read yesterday’s post by going here.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General released its report Monday which tells why they will resume federal inspections of pesticides in North Dakota. It is a short report—take less than five minutes to read—but it is a damning one for North Dakota, and casts our state in a very bad light in the eyes of the nation.

Monday, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Douglas Goehring told the Forum News Service’s Johnathan Knutson that state Agriculture Department officials are enforcing state and federal pesticide requirements, and public safety isn’t at risk, and that the Department will continue to implement state and federal law.

Well, here’s what the Inspector General’s office had to say about that:

“EPA Region 8 staff stated that FIFRA inspections have not been conducted because North Dakota officials do not want federal inspections conducted in their state. The failure to conduct inspections increases the risk that pesticides are not in compliance with federal law, which could result in potential risks from toxics being undetected and adverse human health and environmental impacts occurring.”

Further:

“Since 2011, EPA Region 8 has also failed to conduct inspections of pesticides imported into North Dakota. Since that time, approximately 1,300 pesticide imports to the United States have come through North Dakota and none have been inspected. EPA Region 8’s failure to inspect imported pesticides to ensure compliance with federal law creates a potential risk not only for residents in North Dakota but residents in other states and locations in the United States.”

I’m going to just post relevant excerpts from the Inspector General’s report here. But let me point out a couple things in summary that I did not know yesterday when I wrote my initial story.

The reason the EPA requires federal inspections here is that we have pesticides coming into North Dakota from Canada. Canada has different pesticide regulations than we do, so we need to be sure pesticides coming from there meet our federal requirements for safety. The EPA provides funding to North Dakota to conduct these inspections for them. I don’t know how much we get each year–Douglas would know that. The inspector General’s report says that every state must have at least one federally-certified inspector. North Dakota has not had one since 2013. You will note that the EPA has not yet cut off our funding, in spite of the fact we do not have anyone certified here. I suspect that is a matter of time. Probably a short time, since we’ve been busted now.

Here are some relevant excerpts from the report. You can read the whole thing by going here.

            “The last FIFRA import inspection conducted by a Region 8 inspector in North Dakota was in 2010. Since 2011, the EPA has received approximately 1,300 notices that pesticides were coming into North Dakota from other countries and none have been inspected, according to the region’s data. EPA Region 8 staff explained that FIFRA import inspections are “inspections of opportunity.”  Failure to conduct import inspections increases the risk that pesticide products entering the United States through North Dakota are not in compliance with FIFRA rules for registration, labeling and sampling to verify the compound matches its label. Also, without such inspections, residents in other states and locations in the United States in addition to North Dakota could be at risk.

             “EPA Region 8 staff stated that producer establishment and import inspections have not been conducted in North Dakota because North Dakota officials do not want federal inspections conducted in their state. The North Dakota Director of the Pesticides and Fertilizer Division asserted that its state producer establishment inspections were sufficient to ensure FIFRA compliance, and that Region 8 officials were also in agreement. However, EPA Region 8 has the responsibility to conduct FIFRA producer establishment and import inspections in all of Region 8’s states, including North Dakota. The state’s preference that federal inspections not be carried out in North Dakota should not be accepted by Region 8.”

            “North Dakota does not currently have a federal-credentialed state inspector and has not had one since the inspector with credentials retired in 2013.  A 2013 EPA memorandum on this issue states, “due to the interstate nature of FIFRA, it would be inefficient to have a state-by-state, patchwork approach to inspection authorities and especially detrimental should there be an exigent need for Federal inspection. Therefore, all State Lead Agencies must have at least one inspector with a Federal credential.” The same 2013 memorandum regarding the use of credentials by state inspectors says that “the failure to have at least one inspector with a Federal credential may affect inspection-related funding under a cooperative agreement.” ” EPA Region 8 has not reduced funding under the Region 8 cooperative agreement with North Dakota since the position’s vacancy in 2013.”

            This is another black eye for North Dakota. At a time when we are being criticized all across the country for our lax regulation of the oil industry, in the wake of huge fireball explosions when tanker trains are involved in derailments, we don’t need more of this kind of publicity. We need to get in compliance, both in federal pesticide inspection and in oil train safety. It is getting to be embarrassing to be from North Dakota.

Shame on our elected officials.

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