Hacked. Again.

Somebody doesn’t like me.

Okay, for regular readers, you know that I’ve pissed some people off on this blog over the last five years. And I am not unique. Pretty much everybody, except maybe Mother Theresa and Robin Williams, has someone who doesn’t like them. And they’re dead.

But somebody really, really doesn’t like me, and they’ve got a personal campaign going to harass me and discredit me with my friends and acquaintances. And I swear, I’m going to find out who it is. And when I do, I’m going to call them up and say “Why are you doing this to me?” If they are allowed to take calls in their jail cell.

It started about a year ago, when I began getting e-mails and calls from friends saying “Jim, I think someone may have hacked your e-mail account.” Well, sure enough, someone had. Someone got my password to my Hotmail account somehow, accessed my e-mail account, and sent gibberish e-mails to everyone in my address book. A lot of my blog readers were among those getting those weird e-mails.

Lillian is the tech support person at our house, and so I asked her what to do, and she said “Change your password. And make it something unrelated to you, that is not so easy to figure out. Something other than your last name.” (Well, gee, I had tried to keep my password simple so I could remember it when I needed it. Bad idea, it turns out.)

Well, I changed it to something  harder to remember, and wrote it down and put it in my desk drawer in case I needed it. And then a few months later, it happened again. People started getting e-mails from me that I never sent. And once again, I started hearing about it. By now, I’m guessing, people are ready to tell me “Hey, Jim, please remove me from your address book. We don’t want to get a virus from you.” But people are nice, and no one did. They were just shaking their heads and saying to themselves “Geez, that Fuglie’s got a problem. I wish he’d get it fixed.”

Well, I sent an apology to everyone who let me know they had been getting these weird e-mails, and this time, my tech support person said “Get rid of Hotmail—it’s too vulnerable to hackers—and get a Gmail account.” So I did that last May. Closed my Hotmail account and opened a Gmail account with a password that itself is gibberish, and no hacker or hacker’s program will ever be able to figure out. So far, so good.

But when I closed my Hotmail account, I got an e-mail from the Hotmail people saying they were sorry to lose me, and just in case I wasn’t really serious, they were going to keep my account open for two months. That made me angry, but that’s their policy, so I had to live with it. And sure enough, my hacker kept sending stuff out to people from time to time. Until the account was finally closed for good on July 5.

Until this week, that is.

On Thursday night, Lillian said “Jim, someone has hacked your e-mail again.” Well, damn.

She showed me an e-mail she had just gotten. It said “Sup, Lillian.” And there was a link to some obscure website. And then my name. Here’s what it looked like, copied directly from her inbox:

From: Jim Fuglie <jimfuglie@hotmail.com>
Date: Thu, Aug 28, 2014 at 1:35 AM
Subject: From: Jim Fuglie
To: Lillian Crook (I’ve erased her e-mail address)

Sup Lillian

http://greengenetics.co.th/cannot.php?mwttyw3010vhspn

Jim Fuglie

That’s it. See there, in the “From” line it says jimfuglie@hotmail.com. Well, I said, that’s impossible, because I closed that e-mail account. Well, yeah, but there it was, on her computer screen. WTF? How did that happen?

Then Friday morning I got a call from a friend of mine, asking if my e-mail had been hacked again. Well, damn. Sure enough, she had gotten an e-mail like the one Lillian got. Here it is:

Subject: From: Jim Fuglie
From: 
jimfuglie@hotmail.com
Date: Fri, 29 Aug 2014 05:13:47 +0200
To: (I’ve erased my friend’s name and e-mail address)


Hi (Friend)

http://plataformaquintuple.com/strange.php?ezct3010dakdff

Jim Fuglie

You can see something a bit goofy in both—in the subject line, where it says “From: Jim Fuglie,” and in the second one, the “Subject” line is above the “From” line, which I’ve never seen before. Whoever is doing this knows what they are doing.  (And don’t click on those links, by the way.No telling what night happen.)

My friend advised me to call law enforcement. I said I would consider that, but first I wanted to learn a little more. Because this was no ordinary hacking. This was someone going to the trouble of actually sitting down at a computer and somehow sending out personal messages, under my name, to my wife and friends. That’s scary. This was no random computer program running through a list of possible passwords, scoring a hit, and then generating a mass e-mail to the people in my address book. No, this was personal. To two people I know and care about. Two messages, one sent at 1:35 a.m. Thursday and the other at 5:13 a.m. Friday. Some spook who doesn’t like me sitting in the dark of night and sending messages to people close to me under my name. That freaks me out a little bit.

Well, anyway, later Friday morning I called a friend who has a computer science degree from UND and works in the tech industry and knows about this stuff, and explained to him what was going on. I told him I was especially perplexed by the fact this person was using my old Hotmail account, that had been long closed. He said he couldn’t be sure, but here is what he thought was happening right now:

He said there is a way (I can’t figure it out, but a techie can, apparently) that someone can send an  e-mail and just type in your name and any old e-mail address in the “From” line, to make it look like that e-mail came from you, on that account. And neither you nor the person who was getting it would ever know the difference, unless they called you and said “Hey, did you send me this e-mail?” He said that person had probably captured my address book the first time it happened and was using that to send out these e-mails.

Well, I didn’t know that was possible, but it explains a lot. I asked him if that was illegal. He said maybe, depending on the circumstances. He’d need to study that a bit more. I said I would ask law enforcement to check on it. He said that would be a good idea.

He told me one other interesting thing. He said here might be a way to track who was doing this. He said there might be some tags or something like that (he used more technical terms) that could lead me to something called an ISP address, an Internet Service Provider, who might be able to track the e-mail to a specific computer. Well, wouldn’t that be something?

I’m going to do a little more checking. Then, if I think I am not going to be wasting their time, I’m going to call the cops. So, if whoever is doing this is also reading this blog, be forewarned. When the FBI shows up at your door, you better have dumped that computer in the Missouri River, or whatever river is closest.

And for the rest of you reading this, if you see anybody dumping a computer in a river in the next day or so . . .

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Protecting ALL Public Lands–A Modest Proposal

I know, I know, it’s been a while, but summer is vacation time, even for old retired folks, and so I took one, along with my lovely wife, to the Grand Targhee National Forest in Idaho–the backside of the Grand Tetons, those peaks you generally see only from the front, in Jackson Hole in Wyoming. Yes, it was grand.

I haven’t written much since I got back, but I want to share with you today  an article which will appear in the current issue of Dakota Country Magazine, which should be on the news stands about now. Here goes.

Here’s a wild idea: What if a state with nearly unlimited financial resources decided to do everything it could possibly do to protect the wildlife, and its habitat, on all of its public lands?

The key words there are “everything” and “all.” What if we really could do that? Well, guess what. In North Dakota, we can. Here are my thoughts, collected in my head one day on top a Badlands butte (where I tend to think most clearly), and transcribed to paper as best I can recall.

The two largest landowners—and mineral owners—in North Dakota are the state and federal governments. That means they have tremendous power and influence over how our state’s minerals—read oil and gas, for now—are developed.

The feds own more than a million acres of National Grasslands, most of them in the Bad Lands of western North Dakota. The state owns a couple million acres of “school lands” given to it at statehood, about half of it in the oil producing counties. Both own most of the minerals under their land.

The N.D. Department of Trust Lands manages oil leases on the state lands. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM, often called the “Bureau of Leasing and Mining” by environmentalists out west) manages the minerals for the Forest Service. Between them they control the minerals under about 2.5 million acres of state and federal land in the Oil Patch. (The BLM also manages minerals for the state’s Indian Reservations, another couple million acres.)

Here’s why all of this is important. The Forest Service, from time to time, writes a management plan for the National Grasslands. The most recent plan sets aside about 40,000 acres as roadless areas, technically “suitable for wilderness.” A lot of hunters, hikers, photographers, birders and others who just like the idea of saving a few remaining wild places where cars can’t go, applauded the designation, and an active effort was begun to designate those acres as official Wilderness Areas under the Wilderness Act of 1964. That effort is still underway. I wrote about it here a few months ago.

The acres are in two areas south of Medora, known as the Bullion Butte and Kendley Plateau areas, and two north of Medora, Twin Buttes and the Long X Divide. They are some of the most spectacular and isolated areas of the North Dakota Bad Lands.

Some of those blocks of roadless areas include school sections. Like the Forest Service lands, the school lands are leased to ranchers for grazing. However, because the federal government has not leased their minerals for oil development in those blocks, neither has the state. But then came the Bakken Boom, presenting a huge opportunity for the state to make some money off its lands.

The Trust Lands Department holds quarterly auctions of mineral leases on lands nominated by oil companies who’d like to drill on them. A couple years ago, an oil company nominated a section of state land that was landlocked inside a federal roadless area. It was a section on the west slope of magnificent Bullion Butte, which, outside of our national park, is perhaps North Dakota’s most treasured landmark. Citizen protests, however, scared away the oil company that was proposing to lease the land, and the land was withdrawn from the auction.

In July of this year the Trust Lands people posted on their website another long list of their sections that they were going to auction off in a sale on August 5. Well, several of us (who really need to get a life, I suppose), read those lists, and we found several tracts listed as objectionable, including a couple sections inside the Kendley Plateau non-motorized area, another section on the east slope of Bullion Butte, and one inside a state game management area. The Kendley Plateau and Bullion Butte tracts are both within the boundaries of Wayne Stenehjem’s “Extraordinary Places” list. Mike McEnroe of the Wildlife Society and Jan Swenson of the  Badlands Conservation Alliance met with the Trust Lands staff, and I sent an e-mail questioning whether the Trust Lands people were really sure they wanted to lease those, recalling the bad publicity they received a couple years ago.

Well, it turns out the Game and Fish Department staff reads those lists too, and they were doing their job by also calling those lands to the attention of their fellow state agency, saying preserving the integrity of those lands is important, and it is probably not a good idea to allow oil development on them. They recommended that if the Trust Lands Department insisted on leasing those lands, that they attach a stipulation to the lease that there be “no surface occupancy” on those sections. No wells on those sections. Period. Any drilling would have to come horizontally from outside the sections.

Well, the system worked. Partly because of the Game and Fish recommendation, and partly because of the visit by the two folks from the conservation groups, (and partly, I suppose out of just good common sense), the Trust Lands staff has agreed to “suspend” the lease of those tracts for a year. Good for them. For now.

It was a hard call. Both the staff and the Land Board members believe, as Wayne Stenehjem, who, as Attorney General is a member of the Land Board, told me in an e-mail, that “the Land Board does have a duty to maximize the return on the funds in the Common Schools Trust Fund for the benefit of school students in the state, and that requirement cannot be set aside.”

Well, yes, but . . . The section of the law that directs the Trust Lands Commissioner instructs him to determine the “highest and best use” of school lands when considering a sale, trade or lease of land or minerals. And it says “As used in this section, “highest and best use” means that use of a parcel of land which will most likely produce the greatest benefit to the state and its inhabitants, and which will best meet the needs of the people. In making this determination, the considerations of the commissioner shall include soils capability, vegetation, wildlife use, mineral characteristics, public use, recreational use, commercial or industrial use, aesthetic values, cultural values, surrounding land use, nearness to expanding urban areas, and any other resource, zoning, or planning information relevant to the determination.”

Some of us read that to mean that wildlife use, public use, and recreational use, for example, might just sometimes be the highest and best use of some of those lands—especially those in roadless areas that are suitable for wilderness designation.

Drew Combs, the minerals manager for the Trust Lands Department, told me they are working on a possible minerals swap with the Forest Service, which is a very desirable outcome. Wayne Stenehjem apparently also reads those lists, because he also talked with the Trust Lands staff about them, out of concern for his “Extraordinary Places” policy. Wayne also pointed out in an e-mail to me that “there are tons of hurdles to contend with” in trying to arrange a minerals swap with the Forest Service. (Not the least of which, I might mention, is the lawsuit now making its way through the federal court system that the Attorney General has filed against the Forest Service, seeking to open up the section lines inside those roadless areas so the North Dakota counties can build roads through them. Those are the kind of things that make the Forest Service a little grumbly in its relations with the state. And make the Attorney General look a little hypocritical.)

“We’ll see how that (the mineral swap) goes,” Stenehjem said. Yeah, I guess we will. I just hope the Forest Service can look past the state’s lawsuit over the petty issue of “sovereignty” and work with us on this issue. If a trade for the mineral rights between the state and the Forest Service for mineral rights somewhere else in a non-protected area happens, the environmental integrity of those roadless areas can be maintained.

So, in spite of the unbridled enthusiasm emanating daily from the Governor’s office for drilling every acre in the state, some folks at the staff level in state government are helping to make the system work the way it should. The policy the Land Board put in place, in response to public pressure, of having state agencies review each section of state-owned land before mineral leasing, seems to be working. The state Game and Fish Department has been especially attentive to this (I think maybe Terry Steinwand is getting tired of being called a lackey of the Governor by the conservation community, which he is supposed to be representing in his position as Director).

In the latest review of the lands on the list for the August auction, Game and Fish staffers flagged more than 100 parcels for special attention. The recommendations were detailed and specific.  While some did recommend no surface occupancy, most are as simple as placing wells on the north side of a quarter-section instead of the south side, to avoid critical habitat, or to keep development alongside the roads to avoid fragmenting the habitat any more than it already is. These Game and Fish guys know their job and their wildlife, and are paying serious attention to details, without being unreasonable. This is the biggest test yet of the policy, and I really hope it works, because, getting back to what I mentioned in the first paragraph of this article, it could serve as a model for checks on future development on other public lands.

The Game and Fish Department has a pretty sophisticated method of making its recommendations. In some cases, like on or near Game Management Areas, staff is personally familiar with the land. In others, Steve Dyke, Conservation Supervisor for the Game and Fish Department, said the staff generates recommendations from desktop analysis using things like aerial imagery, the Department’s important habitat maps, spacing units, existing roads/pads and land ownership patterns, among other tools.

I asked the guys at Game and Fish if this could be done on all federal lands as well as state lands, and they said when the BLM schedules its own lease auctions, it is getting recommendations from North Dakota Game and Fish. Dyke told me they “do not yet have a good feel for how they are incorporating our recommendations. Hopefully that will become apparent in the near future.” Dyke also pointed out that most of the federal land is leased already, prior to his department’s involvement, and those leases last ten years.

But even though the oil companies have their leases, they still have to clear one more hurdle—they have to get a drilling permit. And both the state and federal government have something to say about that. And both are aware of the Game and Fish Department recommendations. Now we’ll have to see if the folks who issue drilling permits–Lynn Helms  and his staff at the Oil and Gas Division, which answers to the North Dakota Industrial Commission–are up to the task of looking out for the critters and the land. That hasn’t often been the case in the past.  Somebody needs to hold their feet to the fire.

So what we’re finding, as the Trust Lands Department somewhat grudgingly acquiesces to some restraints on their enthusiasm for maximizing income at the expense of environmental sensitivity (the Department Commissioner responded to our first request, to preserve the integrity of Bullion Butte, with “conservation doesn’t support education for my kids and grandkids”), is that, if we want to, we can indeed support the requests from the oil industry to go after the oil, but in a way that wildlife experts tell us will do the least damage. That being the case, we should see how far we can expand the bounds of that effort.

If the Forest Service and BLM were amenable, for example, and if Game and Fish had adequate resources—two big “ifs,” but both doable—perhaps we could provide some measure of wildlife and habitat protection to ALL public lands in the state. Wouldn’t that be something?

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A Loophole Big Enough To Drive A Fracking Truck Through

I’m working on an article for a magazine I write for about the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s new policy for siting oil wells, and I thought I might share some of what I have learned here, because it’s pretty interesting and I can often say things here that my editor at the magazine (although he is fairly generous with me) won’t let me say in print. Things like bad words, really bad words, of which I have a few on my mind today. Let’s see if I can get through this without using too many of them.

The article zooms in on the Industrial Commission’s Policy “NDIC-PP 2.01,” more commonly known as Wayne Stenehjem’s “Special Places,” “Extraordinary Places,” or “Areas of Interest” policy. That’s the policy that identifies 18 of these “Areas of Interest” in the Bakken oil field which have some intrinsic value beyond the minerals under them, generally scenic values, critical wildlife habitat or historical significance. Stenehjem’s idea, proposed to his two fellow Industrial Commission members Jack Dalrymple and Doug Goehring last winter, was to run a routine check on drilling permit applications, and if the request is for mineral development in or near these special areas, that they are subjected to some scrutiny, both by the public and by knowledgeable state and federal officials, to make sure that if a well is sited, the company developing it goes a bit out of its way to make sure it is placed in a spot where it will do the least amount of damage to those intrinsic values. Like tucking the well behind a butte, or keeping it out of woody draws that mule deer like for procreating, sleeping and eating, or out of sight and sound of an eagle’s nest. I published a list of those areas a week or so ago.

That policy took effect May 1. It generally says that when an application for a drilling permit arrives at the Oil and Gas Division, someone on the staff will check it against a list, and if it is on public land, and near one of these places, a process is triggered to enforce the policy. As far as I am concerned, that person—whoever it is—now has the most important job in North Dakota: Starting a process which will help protect the most important places in western North Dakota.

I don’t know who that person is, or if there are more than one of them. Alison Ritter, spokesperson for the Oil and Gas Division, outlined the process for me. To make it happen as efficiently as possible, the Division has compiled a pretty sophisticated GIS tool (you can actually look at the map by going here), and the application is checked against it both when it arrives and again during the evaluation process. If it scores a hit with the areas of interest list, a process begins which includes a review, public comment, agency comment and, hopefully, mitigation. Here’s the process outlined in the policy:

NDIC-PP 2.02. The director shall, within five calendar days after receiving an application to drill a well on public land within an area of interest identified under NDIC-PP 2.01: 

 A. Post on the daily activity reports (emphasis added) section of the Department of Mineral Resources website a notice including all non-confidential permit application information. The posted notice shall include all supporting information or records provided by the applicant which are not confidential. Public comments about public lands within the areas of interest regarding such issues as access road and well location, reclamation plans and timing, noise, traffic, and visual impact mitigation, will be accepted by the Industrial Commission executive director’s designee for 10 calendar days after the notice is posted. 

B. Forward the portions of the application that are not confidential to the Director of North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the State Historical Preservation Officer, the Director of North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, the Director of North Dakota Department of Transportation, the Commissioner of North Dakota Department of Trust Lands, the State Engineer of the North Dakota Water Commission, the State Director of the Bureau of Land Management, the Park Superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Supervisor of Dakota Prairie Grasslands, the Field Supervisor of United States Fish and Wildlife Service North Dakota Field Office and the county auditor of the affected county. Any comments regarding the permit application may be accepted by the Industrial Commission executive director’s designee (Note: I wrote about this designee last week) within 10 calendar days after the information is sent. 

NDIC-PP 2.03. All comments shall be reviewed by the Industrial Commission executive director’s designee who shall summarize any comments received for the director of the Division of Mineral Resources. However, the Mineral Resources director is not bound to act upon any comments. (emphasis added)

NDIC-PP 2.04. The director may consider the comment summaries for the purposes of attaching conditions to any permit pursuant to NDAC 43-02-02, 43-02-02.2, 43-02-02.3, 43-02-02.4, 43-02-03 and 43-02-05 to mitigate potential impacts to the sites listed in NDIC-PP 2.01.

So, as you can see, the process can be used to write and attach special provisions to a drilling permit, designed to help protect these “Special Places.” The Division Director, Lynn Helms, can do that if he wants to, but he doesn’t have to.

It was a good idea Wayne Stenehjem had, and even though it was gutted to remove drilling on private land from consideration—only lands owned by the state, federal or local governments will get this scrutiny—it creates an awareness that we should be considering things other than maximization of wealth to drillers and mineral owners when we site an oil well—at least on public lands.

The problem with the policy is that there is a loophole in it big enough to drive an oil well fracking truck through. Or a thousand trucks, or, possibly fifty thousand or a hundred thousand trucks (I’ve been told it takes a thousand trucks full of water and fracking material to complete a well). Here’s the loophole which is the problem:

The policy only applies to drilling permit applications received by the Oil and Gas Division after May 1, 2014. Applications. Paperwork that comes into the Division office asking for permission to drill a new well. Paperwork that is coming into the Oil and Gas Division now, since the policy took effect May 1.

It does not apply to applications received before May 1. That’s the loophole. You see, one rainy day a couple of weeks ago I was looking at those “Daily Activity Reports” mentioned above (you can see them here), and I spotted approval of a drilling permit for a well to be drilled on state-owned land about half a mile from the boundary of Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit. Wait a minute, I said. That’s within the “Areas of Interest” boundaries. How come the new policy doesn’t apply?

Well, it doesn’t apply because the application came in before the policy took effect. So even though it is now the policy of the state of North Dakota to carefully examine all oil well sites for their impact on the neighborhood and those who live in it, it doesn’t apply if you beat the deadline.

Well, that’s a bummer. We’ve got a policy in place, but it doesn’t apply right now. We’re going to go ahead and allow wells inside these “Special Places,” as long as they beat the deadline, defeating the purpose of the very policy we put in place to prevent that.

I just happened to look at the legal section of the Bismarck Tribune the very next day, and there was a legal notice posted by the U.S. Forest Service that they were signing off on a well about a mile and a half from the North Unit of the Park, again inside the two-mile boundary zone of the Park that the state wants to protect. Same story. The application came in before the deadline.

I began to wonder just how many of these applications were now on file with the Oil and Gas Division, awaiting approval. See, the Industrial Commission had been discussing this since back in December, so oil companies had four or five months to get their applications in before the policy took effect on May 1. So if they knew they were going to want to drill next to the national park, or beside a wildlife refuge, or snugged up against the shoreline of Lake Sakakawea, they just hurried up and got their applications in before May 1.

So I sent an e-mail to Alison Ritter, a very helpful spokesperson for the Oil and Gas Division, asking how many permit applications were on file when the policy took effect May 1.

1,062.

You read that right. On May 1, the day the new policy took effect, there were more than a thousand pending applications to drill for oil sitting on somebody’s desk at the Oil and Gas Division, and none of them were subject to the new policy, because they were submitted before the deadline. I don’t have any way to determine how many of them are inside the boundaries of the “areas of interest,” and I have a bit too much fishing and gardening and golfing to do to spend my time looking at a thousand applications to see how many are inside those “Areas of Interest” boundaries, but I do know there are at least two—the ones I just mentioned—and that there are probably more. Maybe a lot more.

Well, shit, that’s discouraging. The oil industry has plenty of time to screw up the “Special Places” before they have to start following the new rules. And there’s nothing we can do about it. Legally, at least.

Last Spring, when the Industrial Commission was putting the finishing touches on the policy, the Attorney General told me he’d like to have coffee and visit about this. So last week I took him up on that offer. I took him copies of the map that showed the locations of these two wells that are going to be drilled inside the two-mile boundary around Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and asked him if there was anything we could do about them, and the other 1,062 pending applications. He was interested in finding out. He said that he’d check to see what could be done with those 1,062 pending applications. We agreed that, legally, the oil companies can plunge ahead. But Wayne thought he might see if we could get some agreement about informally checking those permit applications to see if any of them would have the new policy applied to them if they had come in after May 1. And then, maybe, in good faith, the Oil and Gas Division director could ask the companies to work with him on siting those wells and the roads to them. I expect Wayne’s working on that right now. But I won’t hold my breath waiting for a positive outcome. I know those folks over at the Oil and Gas Division.

So, right now, the old rules still apply. If you’re an oil company and you got your application to drill a well on a school section next door to the National Park filed before May 1, you can just go right ahead. I don’t know how old those applications are, but Ms. Ritter told me it takes an average of 27 days from the time an application arrives until it is approved by the Oil and Gas Division. As I write this, May 1 was about 75 days ago, so all of those should have been approved and issued by now.

I don’t know how many of those 1,062 might have been inside the boundaries of the “Areas of Interest,” but my cursory look showed me there were two, so it’s likely there are more if you carefully scrutinize the daily activity reports. I’m not doing that. I’m going fishing.

I hope Wayne will ask three questions of his staff over at the Oil and Gas Division:

  1. How many of those 1,062 applications have yet to be acted on?
  2. Would you please check and see if any of those not yet acted on are inside the “Areas of Interest” boundaries?
  3. Would you see if you can get your experts, like wildlife or historic preservation staff , to take a look at them and see if there are any problems, and if there are, talk to the oil companies about rectifying them?

That would be a nice thing to have happen, and it would reassure all of us that the state is serious about this business of looking out for “Extraordinary Places.”

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Remembering Larry Erickson

There are not many people about whom you can say, honestly, not wishfully or wistfully, “He was one of a kind.” Such a man was Larry Erickson.

Larry died late Thursday afternoon with his loving wife Claryce beside him, and his kids surrounding him.  He had beaten cancer a couple of times, but in the end it took too great a toll on his body. A whole lot of people are going to miss this man. I’m among them. I want to tell you some of what I know about this great man, mostly from experiences I had with him.

I had only heard of him before I became Buckshot Hoffner’s campaign manager when he ran for state Agriculture Commissioner in 1980, shortly before I became executive director of North Dakota’s Democratic-NPL Party. It didn’t take long after I went to work for the party to get to know the “Minot Mafia.” That was the group of Minot Party Bosses who were indicted in the infamous First Western Bank scandal in 1968-69. The group was Erickson, who was state Democratic-NPL Chairman at the time, Mark Purdy, who was the party’s National Committeeman, State Representative Richard Backes and former State Representative Gary Williamson. It was a big scandal—a bunch of Democrats who had either been elected or helped others get elected to state and federal offices during the Lyndon Johnson years, charged and prosecuted by a bunch of Republicans appointed to federal law enforcement jobs by Richard Nixon. In the end, nobody went to the pokey. Larry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a $1,000 fine. You can read the whole story on the late Ardell Tharaldson’s blog, here. Fascinating.

Larry when he was ND Democratic-NPL Party Chairman in 1968

My knowledge of the scandal came from the Dickinson Press. I was floating around the Gulf of Tonkin on an aircraft carrier at the time, and had a subscription to the Dickinson Press. We got mail only sporadically, so when it came, I would sometimes have up to a dozen papers. I’d unwrap them from their brown wrappers, smooth them out in a stack in front of me, and read them in order. From time to time there would be a burst of news about First Western, so it was kind of like reading a crime novel or watching a soap opera. By the end of the story, sometime in 1970, I think, I found myself cheering for these rapscallions from Minot who had decided they could play in the big leagues, just like the Republicans did, and almost got away with it.

Well, ten years later I found myself sitting around a table with these one-time heroes of mine (often a bar table) talking strategy about getting Minot Democrats elected, and helping George Sinner toss Allen Olson out of office. We did that, of course, and I got a reward. One day in the spring of 1985, while I was wrapping up my duties at Party headquarters and preparing to become State Tourism Director, my phone rang and it was Larry Erickson, and he said “Jim Fuglie, how’d you like to go fishing in Canada? We’re heading up there in June and we’d like you to come along.”

Holy shit! The Minot Mafia wants to take me on their annual Canadian fishing trip! I’ve just been “made!” Just like in the movies!

I went. I could tell you a couple dozen stories about that trip, and subsequent ones, but what happens in Canada stays in Canada. But I’ll tell you that I did ask Larry before we left what a typical day was like up there. He said we’d just fish all day, then have supper back in camp, then sit around the fire and drink a few martinis until it got dark, then go to bed. Sounded good to me. Until the first night we were there, and I finally realized at about 3 a.m. that it never really gets dark at the end of June, at the end of the road, in Northern Saskatchewan. And the martinis never run out.

That began a nearly 30-year friendship. It ended Thursday night. But the memories, the stories, will linger the rest of my life.

His life, of course, is the stuff of legend. His son Jon told me Thursday night that Larry joked that at least half the people who would come to his funeral were coming to make sure he was really dead. Well, there might be a few . . .

Larry’s political involvement goes back to the late 1950’s. His father Lawrence, a grand old man by the time I met him, had been involved in Democrat and NPL Politics for many years, and Larry was one of those young bucks at the 1960 NPL convention that helped bring the League into the Democratic Party. Four years later he was elected to the North Dakota House of Representatives in the Johnson landslide of 1964. Democrats controlled the House in the 1965 session, and Art Link was elected Speaker of the House, the first Democrat to serve in that position. The glory days for the newly-merged Democratic-NPL Party ended quickly—one session in the majority—and Larry was one of those who only served that one term. But then he got himself elected State Chairman of the Party and from that point on, he was involved only in organizational politics, never running for office again. But he remained a force, and there wasn’t a single elected official—Burdick, Dorgan, Conrad, Pomeroy, Guy, Link and all the rest—who wouldn’t take his phone calls. And they were frequent. He took a liking to Heidi Heitkamp back when she was Tax Commissioner, and Sarah Vogel, when she was Commissioner of Agriculture, and they remained lifelong friends, in spite of the fact he chewed them out mercilessly when they strayed from the Democratic fold. He gave Heidi the nickname “Big Red”—although I’m pretty sure he was the only one who ever called her that to her face.

Former North Dakota Farmers Union President Robert Carlson, in a post on my Facebook page, said “This is a loss of a unique man who was always irascible, often profane, and always loyal to co-ops, Farmers Union philosophy, and friends of any progressive movement.”

He was right about the irascible and profane part. Irreverent, too. But so disarmingly lovable he could get away with it most of the time. Larry served on the North Dakota Centennial Commission in the 1980’s, as did I. Larry was appointed by Bud Sinner to serve as Chairman Art Link’s Vice Chairman. Sinner appointed the Centennial Commission members in 1985, and we met every month for four years, for day-long, sometimes two-day meetings. 45 meetings of that group, I think. We got to know each other well. When the Centennial finally came in 1989, there were dozens, maybe a hundred, Centennial parades around the state, and we agreed that at least one member of the Commission would ride in every parade. Larry had a neighbor, Danny Tuchscherer, who had some big horses, Percherons, I think, and Larry commandeered them, with a big wagon, for parades. Those horses were wide across the beam, and at the time, both Heidi and Sarah were a little chunky themselves, and Larry named those two horses Heidi and Sarah, much to the ladies’ chagrin. And told everyone he met—introduced those two horses as Heidi and Sarah to everyone on the parade route. “There I was, riding down Main Street, staring at the back end of Heidi and Sarah,” he’d say, and then burst out laughing.

There are a lot of Larry Erickson stories, and I suspect when they have a memorial service for him one of these days, a lot of them will get told. Here’s one. I had an outdoors writer doing an article on hunting Hungarian partridge for a national outdoors magazine here, and I knew Larry had some partridge that hung around his ranch, the Diamond T, so we stopped there to hunt them. The writer and I walked from one end of the field to the other and were just getting ready to start back when Larry comes barreling down the field in his pickup. “Hop in,” he said. Well, we did so reluctantly , because in North Dakota it is illegal to drive off a road when you are hunting. I told Larry that as we drove back, to the road, and he replied “Hell, there ain’t any game wardens around here.” Except that there was one, and he was sitting at the road at the end of the field, watching us. Bad timing.

Well, Larry pulls up beside him, hops out, and the warden says “Sir, you’re not allowed to drive off the road, you know.” To which Larry replies, pretty belligerently, “Well, I can.”

Oh, shit, I think, we’re in big trouble. But Larry proceeds to tell him that this is his land, and he can drive on it if he wants to. A conversation ensues, and the next thing I know, Larry’s back in the pickup and we’re driving away.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Well, I told him I was out checking cows and I saw these two guys hunting on my land without permission, so I drove down the field and told them to get in the truck, and I was hauling your asses out of here, kicking you off my land, when I came across Mr.Warden. He asked me if I wanted to press charges, and I said no, I just want to get rid of them.”

About that time the warden has driven away, and we’re back at my vehicle, and we get out of his pickup and follow him over to the house, where we drink coffee and eat some of Claryce’s pie and have a good laugh. I’m not sure to this day if that is what he really did, but I know that all’s well that ends well, so I never did ask any more questions.

Larry on the ranch last fall

Larry loved horses, and he loved the Bad Lands, and he loved national parks. He traveled the country visiting national parks, including for four years as a member of the National Park Board (yes, there once was such a thing—I think it was called the National Parks Advisory Committee—and I think it was his friend Gary Williamson’s Georgia connections to Jimmy Carter that got him that appointment), one of the greatest perks in all of government. But he most enjoyed trailering his horse out to the Bad Lands, and he’d cuss at the ranchers who had the cheap grazing leases on the Little Missouri National Grasslands, dubbing them “Welfare Ranchers,” because what they paid to lease grazing land from the government was about half of what he paid his neighbors back home in Ward County.

Tributes are pouring in on social media. Here’s one of the best, from his grandson Jake, a student at Yale:

“Last night, I was with my dad, my aunts Susie and Vicky, and my grandma Claryce as my grandfather, Larry Erickson, died after a prolonged medical fight. It’s hard to comprehend that he’s no longer with us. Those who knew Larry know that he was mythic in stature and that the brilliance of his personality is hard to exaggerate (even, especially, as a grandson who loved him dearly). Many of you hold such stories. He was a rich political mind–ND State Democratic-NPL Chairman, member of the ND State Legislature, member of the National Park Service Board. He was often identified as the leader of what was called the “Minot Mafia” cohort of politicians. He was one of the true agrarian radicals (as Robert Carlson pointed out), an instigator of grassroots democracy and prairie fire populism, a fierce champion of unions, cooperatives, and cooperative ownership. He was chums with LBJ, delegate to the riotous 1968 Chicago Convention, and loved that damn three-legged dog, Tiffany. He instilled the beauty of the farm and the intense, hard values of progressivism. He inspired most of my hard questions about religion. His wit and brutal honesty terrified many and endeared him to many more. He despised disloyalty, cheap Christians and pieties, weakness of character. In short, he was to me and so many–without exaggeration–a prophet of the human spirit. My world is a shadow of its former self today. But, by God, he left a family that carries his spirit well, and we’re holding so close in love.”

Isn’t that something? There’s a lot of Larry in that boy. Here’s another from Alice Olson, longtime Democratic-NPL activist and the party’s candidate for Attorney General in 1980:

“All of my involvement with the ND Dem-NPL Party began with Larry Erickson. He and Scott Anderson sat us McCarthy activists down and explained what it would take for us to get the party to endorse Gene McCarthy. That didn’t happen, of course, but we won Cass County overwhelmingly and that certainly made everyone sit up and take notice. Lots of wonderful things followed, including proportional representation on the national convention delegation — ND was way ahead of the national party on this issue and we had Larry to thank for that. He seemed beyond enthusiastic about all the new young people coming into activism in 1967/68 and he welcomed us wisely and warmly.”

From fellow Minot-area farmer and former Democratic-NPL State Representative Bruce Anderson:

“Larry taught me a valuable lesson back when I was a young, wet-behind-the-ears up and coming politician. He would call me a name, a name of someone he considered a light-weight. He was goading me – to be something better. I knew it but I didn’t know what to do. It took me a couple years but I realized I needed to respond and I called him a name of someone he considered not too bright. We never exchanged those names again; I had gained his respect. He was unique, he was coarse but he was a great man. I was once in a conversation with some folks when his name came up and one person looked puzzled. I said, “You’ve never met Larry Erickson?” She said, “I’m not sure.” I said, “Then you haven’t!”

And so Larry Erickson is gone. Seems impossible–he was the strongest man I knew. He’s with his friends, Lee Christensen, Mark Purdy and Richard Backes. The Minot Mafia is all gone now except Gary Williamson–Larry nicknamed him Slim a hundred years ago and it is Slim to this day, and we grieve for him, as well as for Claryce, and his children, Julie, Jon, Vicky and Sue. My memories of Larry will be many, but mostly fishing trips and political conventions. A good man is gone. But the stories will last forever.


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Meet The New “Drilling Permit Review Policy Commentary Analyst”

The North Dakota Industrial Commission, the agency which oversees oil and gas development in North Dakota, adopted Policy NDIC-PP 2.01 last Spring, a half-hearted attempt to offer some protection to “Special Places” in western North Dakota from the zealots who drill for oil and those who are supposed to be regulating them. The land and its critters, I might offer, need protection from both of them. Applications for drilling permits in and around these special places are going to be open to public comments before the Industrial Commission approves them..

“All comments,” Section 2.03 of the Policy states, “shall be reviewed by the Industrial Commission executive director’s designee, who shall summarize any comments received for the Director of the Division of Mineral Resources. However, the Mineral Resources director is not bound to act upon any comments.”

Well, now there’s a policy with some real teeth, eh? But we’ve talked about that before. And we will again. That’s not the purpose of this article. This article is to introduce you to the new “Industrial Commission executive director’s designee.” His name is Stan Benson, and he’s a retired banker from Bismarck.

Stan recently retired as the Credit Standards & Review Manager at the Bank of North Dakota, so the Industrial Commission, which also oversees the state bank, and its executive director, Karlene Fine, know him well. According to his BND bio, after coming to BND from Wells Fargo Bank, Benson had “oversight within Lending Services to provide lending staff and Bank management with an on-going assessment of a variety of credit risk issues impacting the commercial, farm, residential and student loan portfolios.”

Karlene told me “Stan’s work at the Bank partially dealt with credit reviews and summarizing information, so he has expertise in taking information and putting it into a concise format.”

Well. That seems to be something the Industrial Commission needs. They’ve not been long known for conciseness and brevity.

According to that BND bio, before his retirement last year Benson was also the legislative coordinator for BND. “He maintains knowledge, reports to management, and occasionally testifies on the status of a large variety of legislative bills that impact the Bank,” the bio says. State agencies don’t have lobbyists, per se, but the Bank is a hybrid state agency, and Benson would have been the closest thing to a lobbyist as it could have. So he likely has good Legislative connections. Our Legislature likes bankers.

Last week, Benson agreed to answer a few questions I posed to him.

1. What’s your job title? Are you part of the Oil and Gas Division staff now or do you work directly for the Industrial Commission?

I am employed by the Industrial Commission’s Administrative Office reporting to the Industrial Commission Executive Director. Job title – Drilling Permit Review Policy Commentary Analyst. (emphasis added)

2. Is your position full or part time? If part time, how many hours per week, month, etc.?

My position is part time and the number of hours worked per week, month, etc. is dependent on the number of applications and commentary received pertaining to drilling permits located on public land within an area of interest identified under NDIC-PP 2.01.

 3. How much are they payin’ you?

My compensation is $46 per hour

4. When did you start, and where is your office?

I started May 1, 2014 utilizing my home office and also the Industrial Commission Executive Director’s office at the State Capitol for work activities such as periodic meetings.

5. Please describe your job as you understand it.

My job duties are the acknowledgement, review, and summarization of any written commentary received under the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s Drilling Permit Review Policy for permit applications located in an area of interest identified under NDIC-PP 2.01. Summaries and supporting detail for received commentary are forwarded, after posted deadlines have passed, to the Department of Mineral Resources for the DMR Director’s  consideration in determining permit conditions for applications on impacted well sites. 

6. Are you responsible for looking at every permit application and flagging those in “areas of interest?” If not, who is?

The Department of Mineral Resources is responsible for looking at every drilling permit application and DMR utilizes a query system and mapping to locate and flag those permits located in an area of interest.

7. Have any permits been requested in “areas of interest” so far? If so, please describe the process you went through with them, and the results.

As of July 2, 2014, the Department of Mineral Resources has not identified any permit applications to be within an area of interest identified under NDIC-PP 2.01.

Well, okay then. Stan Benson, the Industrial Commission’s new Drilling Permit Review Policy Commentary Analyst is on the job, but so far he hasn’t had anything to do. Because so far, no oil company has requested to drill an oil well in any of the “areas of interest,” aka “Special Places” or as Wayne Stenehjem preferred to call them, “Extraordinary Places.”

One of the questions I forgot to ask Stan Benson was how many of the “Special Places” listed in the policy he had been to. I need to ask him that next time I get a chance. I don’t think that’s critical, because his job is just going to be summarizing other people’s comments, but it seems to me it would help him to put those comments in context if he was familiar with the places the comments are about.

I hope he will go see them. It’s still pretty early in the summer, and he doesn’t have anything to do yet, so it seems to me a two or three day road trip to get a good look at those places might give him an idea of why they are on the list, why they are important, and why they are deserving of special consideration in the siting of oil wells and the roads leading up to them. I wouldn’t even mind if he did that on the Industrial Commission’s nickel. Seems like a pretty good investment to me. I’m sure they want to know as much about these places as possible before they sign off on applications which are likely going to be recommended for approval by Lynn Helms no matter what’s in the comments Stan Benson summarizes.

The Industrial Commission, you might remember, announced with great fanfare they were going to do that themselves, but that effort fizzled. The governor flew over a few Bad Lands spots last summer and got to two or three on the ground, holding press conferences along the way, saying “I want to emphasize today that we are already asking oil companies to stay back from sensitive areas like our national parks and our state parks.” Uh huh, that’s why we’re drilling 30 or 40 wells and building roads to them over the top of hiking trails in Little Missouri State Park, a place I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

But, back to matters at hand. Stan Benson is on the job. Here’s the list of “areas of interest” from the state’s policy. I hope he will get to see them this summer, before he dives deep into his job.

Oh, one more thing: just because the policy is in place, and Stan’s on the job, doesn’t mean these places are any safer from the developers and drillers today than they were a year ago. There’s a big loophole in the policy nobody’s talking about. Yet. But more about that another day.

NDIC-PP 2.01. After May 1, 2014, any application for a permit within the following areas of interest that relates to public lands, shall comply with NDIC-PP 2.02 through NDIC-PP 2.04.

1. Black Butte – two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte. 

            2. Bullion Butte – two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte. 

            3. Camel’s Hump Butte – two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte. 

            4. Columnar Junipers (Limber Pines) and Burning Coal Vein – one mile from the exterior boundary of the former Dakota National Forest. 

            5. Confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers – two miles from the intersection of the centerline of the riverbeds. 

            6. Elkhorn Ranch – two miles from the exterior boundary of the National Park and State Park sites. 

            7. Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site – one mile from the exterior boundary of each site. 

            8. Lake Sakakawea – one half mile from the shoreline at 1850′ msl elevation (i.e., the spillway elevation). 

            9. Little Missouri River – one mile from the centerline of the riverbed as it is determined at the time of the application. 

            10. Little Missouri River National Grasslands that are designated by the United States Forest Service as backcountry recreation areas. 

            11. Little Missouri State Park as of 1/1/2014 – one mile from the park’s exterior boundary. 

            12. Pretty Butte – two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte. 

            13. Sentinel Butte – two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte. 

            14. Theodore Roosevelt National Park – two miles from the park’s exterior boundaries. 

            15. Tracy Mountain – two miles from the maximum elevation of the mountain. 

            16. West Twin Butte – two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte. 

            17. White Butte in Slope County – two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte. 

            18. Wildlife Management Area not located within any other area of interest – one mile from the exterior boundary. 

That list, incidentally is copied directly from the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s website. They are very, very proud of their new policy. It is the first thing you see when you go to their website, at the very top of the page, even above the smiling photos of the three members of the Commission in their black suits and red ties, apparently their official Industrial Commission uniforms. You’ll also find the other provisions of the policy at the same place.

However, the list on the Oil and Gas Division’s website uses a different numbering system. I haven’t figured it out yet, but there’s a lot about the Oil and Gas Division I haven’t figured out yet. Here’s what’s on their website.

NDIC-PP 2.01. After May 1, 2014, any application for a permit within the following 

areas of interest that relates to public lands, shall comply with NDIC-PP 

2.2 through NDIC-PP 2.04. 

1. Black Butte – two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte. 

            2. Bullion Butte – two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte. 

            3. Camel’s Hump Butte – two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte. 

            7. Columnar Junipers (Limber Pines) and Burning Coal Vein – one 

            8. mile from the exterior boundary of the former Dakota National Forest. 

            9. Confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers – two miles from the intersection of the centerline of the riverbeds. 

            6. Elkhorn Ranch – two miles from the exterior boundary of the National Park and State Park sites. 

            10. Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site – one mile from the 

exterior boundary of each site. 

            11. Lake Sakakawea – one half mile from the shoreline at 1850′ msl elevation (i.e., the spillway elevation). 

            9. Little Missouri River – one mile from the centerline of the riverbed as it is determined at the time of the application. 

            10. Little Missouri River National Grasslands that are designated by the United States Forest Service as backcountry recreation areas; 

            11. Little Missouri State Park as of 1/1/2014 – one mile from the park’s exterior boundary. 

            12. Pretty Butte – two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte. 

            13. Sentinel Butte – two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte. 

            14.Theodore Roosevelt National Park – two miles from the park’s exterior boundaries. 

            15. Tracy Mountain – two miles from the maximum elevation of the mountain. 

            16. West Twin Butte – two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte. 

            17. White Butte in Slope County – two miles from the maximum elevation of the butte. 

            18. Wildlife Management Area not located within any other area of interest – one mile from the exterior boundary. 

These are the people entrusted with our state’s future. No wonder I’m nervous.

 

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Time To Cut Taxes?

Here’s a quote from a well-known North Dakota politician:

“Starting next year, we could suspend the individual and corporate income tax for a one-year income tax holiday and still have enough money to meet our obligations. North Dakota has a surplus so large it isn’t just a cushion, it is a mountain of pillows.”

Here’s the reaction of the editor of the Bismarck Tribune in a subsequent editorial:

“If the state can get along without collecting an income tax for a whole year, what justification is there for collecting it? If government doesn’t need to the money it ought to leave it in the pockets of the people.”

Does that sound like it could have come just this week?  Well, guess again. The politician was Byron L. Dorgan, and he said it on November 5, 1976. The Tribune editor was John Hjelle, and he printed his editorial response to Dorgan a couple days later.

And you thought it was some conservative in 2014 spouting off about tax cuts, didn’t you?

Aha.

Gotcha.

A little (not a lot) of history. On November 5, 1976, Dorgan had just been elected to what was to be his last term as North Dakota Tax Commissioner. He was at the beginning of what was to be his long peak of popularity, and he had defeated somebody named Kermit Schauer (how’s that for a forgettable opponent?) on the no-party ballot by a margin of 210,311 to 54,968, almost four to one.

His remarks were made in response to a question about what he saw ahead during his next four years as Tax Commissioner. North Dakota was prospering at the time, thanks to a very strong farm economy from 1973-75 (the first $5 wheat in the history of the state, I think, had come in 1974, after a big Russian grain deal, but it didn’t last), and the North Dakota Office of Management and Budget was predicting a $175 million dollar budget surplus as the 1977 Legislature was preparing to meet.

Dorgan said that a one-year income tax holiday would cost the state about $70 million. But if you read his statement carefully, you’ll notice that he said the state “could” have a tax holiday. Not “should.” That’s Byron Dorgan, the most astute politician, with the possible exception of Kent Conrad, the state has ever known.

Just a few days earlier, the voters of North Dakota had voted themselves a sales tax cut. Bismarck businessman Robert McCarney had led a petition drive for a successful initiated measure that cut the state’s sales tax from 4 per cent to 3 per cent, a tax cut of $32 million.

Dorgan pooh-poohed the McCarney-led sales tax cut, saying that if North Dakotans wanted a REAL tax cut, they could just get rid of the income tax for a year. Dorgan’s arch-nemesis, House Republican Leader Earl Strinden (he was on a two-year hiatus from his title of Majority Leader because the House was tied 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans that year, so there was no majority) didn’t think much of the idea, and nothing came of it.  The 1977 Legislature did not pass a bill for a tax holiday, and the sales tax did not remain at 3 per cent for long.

But the real story is that there was indeed a serious discussion of whether or not we should be collecting taxes we didn’t need. Which has implications today. Because we sure don’t need to collect as much in taxes from North Dakotans as we’re taking in right now. Just like in 1976, we “could” grant a one-year income tax holiday and still be able to pay the bills. The numbers are just bigger now.

But we probably won’t do that. What we SHOULD DO, though, is what McCarney and the North Dakota voters did in 1976—cut the sales tax. Cutting the sales tax from its current 5 per cent to 4 per cent is a true middle class tax cut. It would cost the state about half a billion dollars. We can afford that. If I were running for office this year, that’s what I’d be campaigning on. Bob McCarney too. And for the first time in his life, Byron Dorgan might even agree with Bob McCarney.

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You Can’t Mitigate Greed

Mitigation. There’s a word that draws mixed reaction.

Most dictionaries generally define mitigation as “the act of making a condition or consequence less severe, the process of becoming milder or gentler.”

It’s a word we didn’t much find in common usage in North Dakota until the 1970s, when the Garrison Diversion project surfaced. That project would have destroyed tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of acres of wildlife habitat, and the state of North Dakota and the federal government agreed to a mitigation plan to replace that habitat. The project was never completed. Even mitigation could not justify a really bad idea.

Today, it’s a pretty familiar word here. Our on-the-ground definition of mitigation is “if you screw something up over here, you better do something nice over there to replace it.” Most recently it has come into play as a requirement of a new North Dakota Industrial Commission policy designed to offer some measure of protection to critical wildlife habitat, or scenic, recreational or historic areas near proposed oil development sites. Note I said “designed.” Not “implemented.”

The policy, affectionately known as “Wayne Stenehjem’s Special Places,” was scheduled to take effect on May 1. Essentially it said that after that date, any state-issued permit to drill an oil and gas well in North Dakota on publicly-owned land that is on, or in, or near, any site designated as one of 18 “areas of interest,” might be subject to special conditions designed to “mitigate potential impact to the sites.”

There is no visible indication that the state’s Oil and Gas Division is paying any attention to it, although as of last week, a North Dakota Industrial Commission spokesperson said “There have been no applications for drilling permits on public lands within an area of interest since the policy was implemented on May 1.” We’ll see if Stenehjem, the state’s Attorney General and a member of that three-person Industrial Commission which regulates oil and gas drilling in the state, decides to follow through on his initiative to try to offer some protection, or “mitigate” the damage, to places like national parks and wildlife refuges. Parks, both state and national, as well as all federal refuges and state wildlife management areas in western North Dakota, are on the “Special Places” list.

Including Little Missouri State Park in the North Dakota Bad Lands, about which I want to share a few thoughts. I’ll be as blunt as possible at the outset, and then try to “mitigate” my remarks: The oil industry is on a path to totally trash one of the most spectacularly scenic areas of North Dakota. All in the name of oil company profits. Specifically, ConocoPhillips and Burlington Resources profits. There. I’ve said it. I am not exaggerating. That is what is about to happen. And then they are going to try to mitigate the damage.

Some background. Forty-some years ago the North Dakota State Parks Department decided the people of North Dakota deserved to have a state park in North Dakota’s Bad Lands. They chose one of the most scenic areas of the Bad Lands, a rugged area where the waters of the Little Missouri River stop flowing and become the Little Missouri Arm of Lake Sakakawea. Here there are hundreds of square miles on either side of the river that are virtually roadless, inaccessible except on foot or horseback. There are likely still places here where no white man has ever stepped. A few ranchers use parts of it to graze cattle and cut hay. Back in 1970, North Dakota converted part of a school section there to a state park, and a couple of those ranch families agreed to lease some of their adjoining rugged ranch land to the State Parks Department so the Parks folks could put some riding and walking trails through the area for the enjoyment of hikers and horse people.

Trail riders in Little Missouri State Park

Ever since, thanks to those ranchers, it has been a place of pure escape into North Dakota’s most rugged wilderness for those who choose to take advantage of what the state has provided them in its most spectacular, largely undeveloped park.

Besides the park entrance road off Highway 22, about 20 miles north of Killdeer, there are just a couple of roads into the area on the south side of the river, used by the families who ranch there. Otherwise, except for some two-track trails the ranchers use to get to their cows, the 5,000-acre park is pretty much God’s country. The north side of the river is the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, and there are virtually no roads to the river for 20 or 30 miles. On the south side, only because of park access, you can hike or ride through the breaks down to the river. But that’s the only river access. No roads.

Until now. Until the oil boom. Soon, this formerly forever-undeveloped area, sculpted by God and wind and water over the ages, unmarred by man, will become North Dakota’s newest oil field. Thank you, ConocoPhillips, Burlington Resources and the North Dakota Industrial Commission. Burlington Resources, the latest incarnation of the minerals division of the once powerful Northern Pacific Railroad, owns nearly half the minerals in a giant oil field created by the Industrial Commission a couple years ago. Enough to dictate how the oil field is developed. The NP acquired the mineral ownership from the federal government when it planned a railroad through the area a hundred and fifty or so years ago, and through independent purchases in later years. It has partnered with ConocoPhillips to develop them (there’s a connection: Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway company owns the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad and is a major shareholder in ConocoPhillips). They got the go-ahead from the Industrial Commission in a somewhat controversial unitization plan back in 2011. Initially the Commission required Conoco to drill their 80 planned wells in four years and then get the hell out of there and let the oil flow. But now it looks like there could be many more than 80. Plus a couple of huge salt water disposal sites (one is built, one is pending nearly-certain approval of a building permit by the—you guessed it—the North Dakota Industrial Commission) at the entrance to the park, a new landmark for travelers looking to find Little Missouri State Park: “Turn east off Highway 22 at the new Dunn County Industrial Park.”

There’s a pretty good gravel road leading two miles into the state park, but there’s another road just across the fence paralleling the park entrance road. That dirt road leads past the park’s campground, past a private campground and down into a drainage where a brand-spankin’ new scoria-covered oil pad sits waiting for the drilling rig to arrive.

A new oil pad in Little Missouri State Park awaits the drilling rig. Up to 5 wells will be placed on this pad just down the road from the nearby campground, inside the park.

It will come in November and drill up to five wells less than a mile from the campground. Up to 5,000 truckloads of fracking water will pass by the campground next winter if all goes as planned. The good news is, the campground is closed in the winter. ConocoPhillips has agreed to do the drilling over the winter so the park will see less disturbance than if it happened in the summer. Still, there’ll be plenty of traffic in and out just from normal well service once the oil is flowing. It’ll be a much less desirable place to camp.

But I started to write about mitigation, and I want to get back to that. The campground is just one small area of the park. The major activity in the park is use of the trails on the private land leased to the Parks Department down into the breaks. And the trails are going to be heavily impacted. In fact, some of them will be destroyed by the new roads down to numerous well sites scattered throughout the park. Park officials tell me that there is now a map of where all the wells will be. And where the access roads to those wells will be. I don’t want to see it. As someone who has hiked those trails, I am afraid it will break my heart. But rather than abandoning the park’s major use, those backcountry trails, the State Parks Department is going to sit down with the ranchers from whom they lease the land and seek permission to build new trails. Remember, those ranchers still run cows here, and that is their livelihood, so they’re going to be pretty careful about where any new trails go.

Conoco will pick up the bill for any new trail construction. Where roads and well pads are visible from the trails, the parks people will try to move the trails to areas where, hopefully, the development is less intrusive.  If it all works out, beginning next summer, park users will find new views and experiences awaiting them. The oil development won’t be invisible in the park, one parks department official told me, “but we’re going to do the best we can.”

That’s mitigation, and Conoco is being pretty magnanimous about it, including opening their checkbook. But the mitigation will only satisfy the humans. You can’t mitigate the damage to the land that is going to be disturbed for the first time ever by roads designed to carry thousands of trucks, or the destruction of wildlife habitat and temporary wetlands and game trails and raptor nests. The damage to them is going to be permanent, not just from the new roads and the well pads, but also from the new trails being built to accommodate humans. You can’t mitigate the noise and dust those thousands of trucks will bring, disrupting the critters’ lives.

Because mitigation doesn’t make things whole. It just makes the best of a bad situation. Little Missouri State Park is one of those “special places” that isn’t going to be so special any more.

You can’t mitigate greed.

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A Million Barrels A Day

Caught a rerun of the Beverly Hillbillies the other day. Then I turned on the news and learned that we’ve reached a milestone in North Dakota–we’re producing a million barrels of oil a day–way more than old Jed Clampett could have imagined. And there’s the North Dakota Petroleum Council feeding crawdads and Cajun shrimp to 3,000 North Dakotans to celebrate the occasion. Old Jed would have loved that. Dang it, I wish I been there to see it myself. But Jed’s theme song stuck in my head as I went out to work in the garden, and by the time I had finished weeding the peas, I thought I might have the makings of a song for a new North Dakota reality TV show: “A Million Barrels A Day.” Fire up the band, boys.

A Million Barrels a Day: The Ballad of Jack Dalrymple

(With apologies to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and REAL hillbillies everywhere)

 

Come and listen to a story about a man named Jack,

A rich Valley farmer and political hack.

He’s in Bismarck governing, the state ain’t doing so good,

When up from the ground came a bubblin’ crude.

 

Oil, that is. Black Gold. Bakken Style. Lots of it.

 

Well, next thing you know Jack’s friends got millions.

The frackin’ and the flarin’ means the state’s got billions.

No rules or regulations, just like the Wild West,

Jack says “Don’t worry folks, I know what’s best.”

 

Train wrecks. Oil spills. Broken Pipelines. Lots of ‘em.

 

The rich guys’ helpers are livin’ in their cars,

And cashing in their paychecks in McKenzie County bars.

Hookers on the corner, rapes and robberies on the rise,

A couple thousand gas flares lighting up the prairie skies.

 

Dust Clouds. Filter socks. Out-of-state plates. Everywhere.

 

A million barrels a day is a whole lot of oil,

When the wells start leaking, it’s soaked up by our soil.

The critters and the crops will just have to move aside,

‘Cuz the oil boys are taking us on a good long ride.

 

Harold Hamm. Lynn Helms. Special Places: Not so much.

 

Well, now it’s time to say good-bye to Jack and all he’s done.

The Bad Lands ain’t the same no more, the oil boys had their fun.

Yep, Jack sure made them happy, as they drove us in the ditch

He sold us out, his friends got rich, and he’s a happy son of a . . . gun.

(Hey, rhymes with done and fun.)

 

Prairie Hillbillies. That’s what they call us now. “We skinned ‘em good.”

We might be back, Jack. Hear?

 

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The Saga of the Elkhorn Continues: What’s a FONSI?

About ten years ago, Ken and Norma Eberts decided to sell their Bad Lands ranch and retire. The ranch is directly across the river from the Elkhorn Ranch Site, home to our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. It is where he developed his famous conservation ethic, before becoming America’s greatest Conservation President.

Ken and Norma knew the area’s history. The Elkhorn Ranch Site is part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and they wanted to make sure that their own ranch, which sits on the bank of the Little Missouri River, was not bought by a developer and broken up into 40-acre parcels as summer getaways for rich folks with four-wheelers and jet boats. That kind of development would have ruined the solemnity of this quiet, peaceful place.

They offered it to the National Park Service and the North Dakota Park Service, but neither had the wherewithal to make a deal. Then, in 2007, a group of more than 30 national conservation organizations, representing more than 40 million members, headed up by the Boone and Crockett Club, which was founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887, pooled their resources, bought the ranch, and donated it to the U.S. Forest Service, which manages more than a million acres in North Dakota’s Little Missouri National Grasslands. The Forest Service named it the Elkhorn Ranchlands, and it became a National Historic District, a fitting partner to the National Park Service site across the river.

The deal was put together in a hurry, because the Eberts had already postponed their retirement by several years waiting for something like this. Resources were finite. As a result of those two things, the Forest Service did not become the owner of what are called “surface minerals” on the property. Surface minerals in North Dakota’s Bad Lands are generally coal, scoria and gravel. The surface mineral ownership was divided over the generations into the hands of more than 40 people. To try to track them all down and do a deal would have taken years (the process is underway now, and still not complete, seven years later).  We know the Eberts family owned 50 per cent. Another family, which previously owned the land, owned about 25 per cent. The remainder was divided among many owners, some with less than one per cent interest. No one really believed it would be a problem if the mineral ownership remained that way, instead of being transferred to the Forest Service.

And then this asshole named Roger Lothspeich came along. He had lived in the area at one time, and knew the family that owned a quarter of the mineral rights, and bought them for some undisclosed amount, probably a pittance. He owns a four-wheeler dealership in Montana, and someone jokingly (or maybe not) said he probably traded a couple of four-wheelers for them. And then he announced that he was going to mine the gravel on the land directly across the Little Missouri River from the Elkhorn Ranch Site, in full view of the National Park Service site. Unless the government was willing to buy him out for a couple million dollars. Blackmail. Extortion.

The government told him to go jump in the lake (or river), so he put together his mining plan and presented it to the Forest Service. He had the right to develop his minerals—mineral ownership trumps surface ownership—but because the land is in a National Historic District, he had to present an operating plan, which triggered an Environmental Assessment (EA) process. The EA was completed in 2012. Then it was open for public comments. Many people (including me) questioned the findings of the EA. The Forest Service then considered those comments, and in April of this year, the District Ranger, Ron Jablonski, the man charged with overseeing the process, released a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI). Which, after a public comment period, will give Lothspeich permission to start mining the gravel.

Jablonski, in his decision memo, admitted that this is going to cause quite a disruption for a few years. It’s going to be ugly and noisy and busy and will affect tourism, but it will go away after a while. But, he said, I am powerless to stop it.

Well, somebody who knows a whole lot about this process, and the National Grasslands, and the Elkhorn Ranchlands, disagrees. His name is Dave Pieper, and he was the Dakota Prairie Grasslands Supervisor—Jablonski’s boss—for ten years, now retired, and he was the man who put the deal together to get the land into public ownership and protected from development in the first place. And Dave is pissed.

As the end of the 45-day comment period on the FONSI approached this week, Dave sent his letter objecting to Jablonski’s findings to Dennis Nietze, the man who succeeded him as Supervisor. With copies to Nietze’s bosses, Faye Kreuger, Regional Forester and Nietze’s immediate supervisor, and Tom Tidwell, the big boss, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Pieper knows them both well, and he minced no words.

He begins his letter by saying “I am writing this letter because I am deeply concerned over the impending decision.  Reserved and outstanding minerals notwithstanding, there are other reasonable alternatives that the Medora District Ranger, Ron Jablonski, has failed to carry forward or exhaust. Rather, he summarily dismisses both the purchase and exchange alternatives. The main purpose of this letter is to request that the Forest Service rescind the decision until the Elkhorn Plan amendment and other important work is completed.”

Note the words “until the Elkhorn Plan amendment . . . is completed.” What he’s referring to there, is that once the Eberts Ranch was acquired—it is several thousand acres with a full set of ranch buildings, corrals, fences, wells, watering tanks and feed lots—it is the responsibility of the Forest Service’s District Ranger—Jablonski—to write a plan for its use, like any good rancher would for a ranch he acquired. Seven years after its purchase, the plan is not yet written. The buildings sit empty. I think someone is running cows on it, but I am not sure. It is the height of irresponsibility to ignore this important mandate.

Last fall, Tweed Roosevelt, TR’s great-grandson, and I met with Nietze and we asked him why there was no management plan written yet. He said with this oil boom going on, his staff was too busy to get it done. Well, maybe, but they weren’t too busy to rush this gravel pit proposal through. The FONSI is a lengthy, complicated government document which took someone hundreds of hours to develop and write. When they could have been, instead, writing a plan for management of the entire ranch, not just the 30 or 40 acre gravel pit. That alone seems like a good reason to send Jablonski into early retirement and put someone in charge out there who understands what’s important and what’s not. (Incidentally, I’m not the first person to ever call for Jablonski to be fired. A lot of folks who know more about what he does than me have been saying it for years.)

I am going to attach the entire text of Pieper’s letter to the bottom of this post, so those of you who want to read that far can do so.  Pieper is as articulate as he is demanding. He says this: “To be given the opportunity to work with an inspired coalition of partners to successfully acquire of a piece of history – the place where many believe Theodore Roosevelt developed his conservation philosophy – was the capstone accomplishment of my career. The conservation community coalesced with energy, resolve and resources and would not be denied in its effort to protect and preserve this nationally significant historic site.”

His passion for this place, and for the National Grasslands, clearly shows through. His former bosses will quickly affirm that this is the man who probably knows more about both the process involved and value of protecting this particular piece of the Grasslands (his civilian retirement e-mail address is “grasslands4ever@ . . .”) than anyone in America.

What is surprising about the letter is his bluntness about the failings of his former employee. You see, Jablonski’s decision caught everyone off guard. Because a process was underway to prevent this from happening. Last year, the Forest Service and Lothspeich signed an informal agreement to try to work out a swap of Lothspeich’s minerals for some land or minerals somewhere else. The Forest Service owns a million acres. That should be doable.

At the same time, a parallel process began to identify the 40-some other mineral owners, an effort funded by the same conservation partners who bought the land and gave it to the Forest Service. Bismarck attorney Robert Harms has spent probably hundreds of hours finding those people—grandsons and great-granddaughters of former ranch owners as well as oil company executives who have purchased the other mineral rights under the ranch. Robert told me this week that he was making substantial progress in working with those owners to sell or gift the surface minerals—the gravel—to the Forest Service. He believed that, given enough time, he could find a way to get all the minerals conveyed to the Forest Service, and make this problem go away.

Then, Bam! Jablonski’s decision was released. It seemed to make no sense. Both Jablonski and Nietze knew about Harms’ work. But something caused them to pull the trigger on Lothspeich’s application to mine. That’s what has Pieper so angry.  Angry enough to say, on paper, things like this:

  • Mr. Jablonski has . . . failed to adequately assess and evaluate the importance of the viewshed within the context of the National Historic District designation.
  • From a leadership perspective, Mr. Jablonski also fails to understand the strategic importance of the partnership to the Forest Service or the willingness of partners to engage in the protection and preservation of the site.
  • Mr. Jablonski’s . . . statement is misleading, capricious and calculated to lead the reader to believe that minerals acquisition is an all or nothing proposition.
  • (Jablonski’s) statement is disingenuous . . . The focus should be on alternatives to accomplish acquisition rather than arbitrary requirements to limit options.

Pieper closes his letter with this: “Finally, some may believe that the proponent will never mine the gravel for lack of resource and associated costs. That may be true. The next owner, however, may not share that sentiment. Through its partnership with the conservation community, the Forest Service goal should be to exhaust all opportunities to acquire these minerals before permitting mining operations. That will take leadership, initiative and partnership development skills; something that is clearly lacking in this proposed decision.  The Forest Service can and must do better.”

What Pieper doesn’t want to come out and say, but I will, is that the Forest Service is playing a high-stakes game of Chicken. It’s a dangerous game. Lothspeich may not have the resources to actually go ahead and develop the minerals. He may have been gambling all along that he could just extort a bunch of money from the government. He’s that kind of character.

But—and there’s a big BUT—he might just be able to find a buyer with deeper pockets for the minerals he owns, recover his money, and the buyer, having determined that there really is a bunch of money in the ground in that gravel pit, could start a mining operation that could go on for years and years and years. By the time it is done, the disruption could cause permanent damage to a site so important to America that it has been called “The Cradle of Conservation.”

Well, good for you, Dave Pieper. I know it is not easy to write a letter which, by implication, is critical of the man (Dennis Nietze) who succeeded you in your position as Dakota Prairie Grasslands Supervisor. It goes against the grain. But if anyone can catch the attention of the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, it is you. Thank you for doing that. Now, the next step is for the Roosevelt family and the conservation partners who bought the land to go even higher, to the President of the United States. I hope they will do that. This is a place worth saving. Forest Service Chiefs and Presidents have that power. Let’s hope they use it.

Here’s Pieper’s letter in its entirety. Following that are links to previous articles I have written about this issue. This is Article Number 9. Sheesh. I hope Number 10 is the one that says “Roger Lothspeich has gone away. The Elkhorn is safe.”

June 9, 2014

Dennis Neitzke

Supervisor, Dakota Prairie Grasslands

1200 Missouri Ave.

Bismarck, ND 58504

Dear Dennis;

 As the Dakota Prairie Grasslands supervisor (2001 – 2011) I had the unique opportunity to manage and guide the day-to-day operations and activities of some of the Nation’s premier national grasslands.  Without a doubt it was the most interesting and challenging assignment of my career.  It was often a contentious environment. Grassland users and elected officials often disagreed with Forest Service policies and decisions. And still do today. Through it all, however, some very important and lasting partnerships evolved; the most significant of which was the coalition that successfully acquired the Elkhorn Ranch. 

 To be given the opportunity to work with an inspired coalition of partners to successfully acquire of a piece of history – the place where many believe Theodore Roosevelt developed his conservation philosophy – was the capstone accomplishment of my career.  The conservation community coalesced with energy, resolve and resources and would not be denied in its effort to protect and preserve this nationally significant historic site.

 Over 50 national wildlife and natural resource conservation organizations worked together with the Forest Service to secure the purchase of the Elkhorn Ranchlands in 2007. The effort was lead by the Boone and Crockett Club, which Roosevelt founded in 1887, in cooperation with the American Wildlife Conservation Partners (AWCP), an umbrella organization of 41 separate national conservation groups. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation also played a key role in the acquisition, facilitating the final legal transaction and closing.

 Roosevelt’s Pulitzer Prize winning biographer, Edmund Morris wrote, “To my mind, there is no memorial or bronze anywhere in the country that evokes the conscience of Theodore Roosevelt as powerfully as the Elkhorn bottom and its surrounding hills.” The surrounding hills, of course, comprise the “viewshed” as seen from Roosevelt’s ranch headquarters, the crown jewel of the acquisition.

 The whole effort was centered on acquiring and protecting a piece of ground that many considered to be the Cradle of Conservation. Without this diverse partnership the Forest Service could not have completed the acquisition. The agency has had responsibility for these lands for nearly seven years and has yet to complete the plan amendment to guide the management of the historic ranchlands.  Now the agency is poised to approve a gravel pit operation (with unknown reserves) that is located within the viewshed of the proclaimed National Historic District, before fully exhausting all available options.

I am writing this letter because I am deeply concerned over the impending decision.  Reserved and outstanding minerals notwithstanding, there are other reasonable alternatives that the Medora District Ranger, Ron Jablonski, has failed to carry forward or exhaust. Rather, he summarily dismisses both the purchase and exchange alternatives. The main purpose of this letter is to request that the Forest Service rescind the decision until the Elkhorn Plan amendment and other important work is completed. 

Mr. Jablonski has also failed to adequately assess and evaluate the importance of the viewshed within the context of the National Historic District designation. With respect to the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), the viewshed is clearly nationally significant and the proposed mitigation insufficient in light of the opportunity to avoid any impacts at all.

 From a leadership perspective, Mr. Jablonski also fails to understand the strategic importance of the partnership to the Forest Service or the willingness of partners to engage in the protection and preservation of the site. The agency has an obligation to its partners and public to proactively protect and preserve the outstanding ecological and historic resources of the Elkhorn Ranch. Avoidance and offset will provide maximum resource protection measures, especially with respect to the protection of important cultural and historic sites.

 The decision notice (DN) rationale to not carry forward the purchase of mineral rights or exchange of mineral rights is inconsistent, arbitrary and capricious. There is no agency policy or law that prohibits the agency from acquiring partial mineral estates. The broad-brush mandate that the federal government is required to own all minerals is an arbitrary decision to justify the elimination of the exchange or purchase alternatives from further study. While acquisition of partial interest mineral estates may be rare, it may occur to accomplish management objectives (FSH 5409.13). However, without a plan amendment in place there are no site-specific management objectives on which to base decisions.

 The proponent has indicated his willingness to exchange or sell the rights, the ranch sellers were willing to donate all or part of their rights, and Mr. Lowell Baier (Boone and Crockett) is currently coordinating with the other gravel owners to determine their willingness to divest their ownership. By taking the initiative, the Forest Service could incrementally acquire these surface rights through purchase, exchange and/or donation. And although the agency has determined the number of acres to be disturbed by the proposed mining, it has not provided an estimate of the volume of gravel to be mined. An inventory must be completed as a basis to inform the process.

 It’s obvious that the Forest Service does not have the current funding or the legislative support to purchase “all” the mineral estates.  The issue at hand is not the entire minerals estate but the gravel within the viewshed. 

 Minerals acquisition funding could be accomplished through a combination of appropriated funds, partnership contributions, grants, etc.  In fact, agency policy (FSM 2830.3) states: “Consider acquisition of mineral rights…when the public benefits derived from surface values are deemed to justify the cost of acquisition.” Coordination with the delegation and governors office outlining the limited scope and voluntary nature of the acquisition would help to address their concerns. More elected officials are embracing the protection of North Dakota’s “special places”.

 In 2002 Western Sand & Gravel (see attachment) estimated the value of the gravel if marketed for quick sale at $52,500. Over the life of the resource the value was estimated to be from $130,000 to $275,000. Gravel quantity and market value must be determined to provide a basis for any exchange or purchase. Hopefully Mr. Jablonski anticipated this work when he signed an Agreement in Principle in 2012 to exchange with the proponent.

 The purpose of the Agreement was to work out an exchange for other federal land or mineral rights at a different location. Mr. Jablonski said, “We are going to take a look at options for some type of exchange.” However, now Mr. Jablonski (DN p. 8) discusses potential liability associated with partial mineral ownership and that any mineral exchange would have required the government to obtain 100% of the mineral ownerships from all mineral owners  (even though he signed the Agreement with only the proponent). This statement is misleading, capricious and calculated to lead the reader to believe that minerals acquisition is an all or nothing proposition.

 Mr. Jablonski states the potential liability associated with partial mineral ownership proved to be an obstacle with any mineral exchange. If the basis for the potential liability issue is erionite, it appears that test results now obviate this concern.

 Mr. Jablonski also states that overall timeframes to resolve and exchange minerals resulted in the agreement being withdrawn.  This statement is disingenuous. Work planning and timely accomplishment of priority work products, including completion of the plan amendment, is the core issue. The focus should be on alternatives to accomplish acquisition rather than arbitrary requirements to limit options.

 In summary, I request that the Forest Service consider the following: 1) Rescind the Elkhorn Gravel Pit decision and complete the plan amendment, 2) Determine the volume and value of the gravel resource proposed to be mined, 3) Develop a plan to exchange or purchase the surface mineral rights within the viewshed, 4) Pursue donations of outstanding and reserved gravels rights within the viewshed, and 5) Coordinate meaningfully and candidly with the partnership, especially with Mr. Baier, that enabled and completed the acquisition of the Elkhorn Ranchlands.

 Finally, some may believe that the proponent will never mine the gravel for lack of resource and associated costs. That may be true. The next owner, however, may not share that sentiment. Through its partnership with the conservation community, the Forest Service goal should be to exhaust all opportunities to acquire these minerals before permitting mining operations. That will take leadership, initiative and partnership development skills; something that is clearly lacking in this proposed decision.  The Forest Service can and must do better.

 Sincerely,

 Dave Pieper

Cc:  Tom Tidwell, Chief US Forest Service

Faye Kreuger, R1 Regional Forester

Lowell Baier, President Emeritus Boone and Crockett Club

Previous Posts:

October 6, 2011

October 8, 2011

October 11, 2011 (#1) 

October 11, 2011 (#2)

May 29, 2012

June 1, 2012

June 4, 2012

June 15, 2012

 

 

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Finally, A Tax I Don’t Like

I’m an old liberal who, my conservative friends say, “never met a tax he didn’t like.” Well, they’re pretty much right. Taxes generally do good things for people, especially those at the local level. The federal government is often another story. But that’s our own fault, for electing the wrong people sometimes, and leaving them in power.

But at the local level, I don’t remember ever voting against a mill levy increase or school bond issue. City Commissioners, County Commissioners, School Board and Park Board members are generally in pretty close touch with their constituents, and I tend generally to trust them with my tax dollars. The wackos get weeded out pretty fast if they get out of hand.

But I’m voting against the sales tax increase for a new jail next Tuesday. Uffda. The earth just shook under my house as I wrote that.

Burleigh and Morton County residents are being asked to approve a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for a new $70 million jail. In the big picture, that’s not much of a tax increase. If it passes, I’ll pay a penny more every time I spend two dollars at a store. It won’t apply to groceries, since food isn’t taxed in North Dakota, and I’d guess for a retired couple like Lillian and me, groceries are the biggest item in our retail spending budget. I’d be paying an extra cent and a half for a scoop of minnows or a box of night crawlers at Pony Express, and probably a nickel more for a box of shotgun shells at Runnings. Gas would cost another couple cents per gallon, so I’d pay another quarter every time I fill up. You get the point. It’s not a big burden.

It’s just that, WE SHOULDN’T HAVE TO PAY FOR A NEW JAIL!

Burleigh and Morton Counties have fairly new jails. I can remember when both of them were built. With local tax dollars. And we said “There, now we have places we can lock up the bad guys that will take care of us for a long time.”

We should have added “Or until we have an oil boom.”

The oil boom has brought a rapid increase in population, and a significant number of those new people are bad guys who need to be locked up. That’s just the reality. Crime is up as a result of the oil boom. Local police and prosecutors are doing the best they can to protect us from the new, bad people. They’re catching them and putting them away. And now all of a sudden there’s no room at the inn.

And, well, jails have always been the responsibility of local taxpayers. It’s time to change that. It’s time for Jack Dalrymple to pay for a jail or two (I can’t believe we’re the only ones who need one). Because he created the problem and he’s got all the money.

Our state government leaders, Dalrymple in charge, turned the oil industry loose here with no regulations and no planning. They let things get out of hand when lots of people were hollering “Slow down and figure out what the problems are going to be with this boom, and how to solve them.” The result has been an unmanageable boom, with the burden falling on local taxpayers. All across the western half of our state, people are being asked to raise their own taxes to pay for jails, schools, streets, sewage lagoons, water lines and all our other infrastructure needs, and the people to manage them. That’s not right.

Because Jack Dalrymple is collecting billions of dollars in oil taxes as a result of this boom. Oh, and sales taxes and income taxes too. And it’s all just going in the bank, while we are being asked to pay for the problems the boom is creating. That’s just wrong.

In this biennium alone, the state Office of Management and Budget said a couple months ago, our state budget surplus will be almost half a billion dollars. That’s just their current projection. I’d bet dollars to donuts that when July 1, 2015 comes around, it’s closer to a billion than to half a billion. That’s surplus. Tax money we will collect but not spend.

And I am told that by the end of the biennium, when you add all reserve funds together that are not committed to any spending project, we will have $6 billion in the bank. That’s Billion, with a B. I’m old enough to remember the end of one of the Legislative sessions in the 1970s when Democrat House Leader Richard Backes, who was trying to squeeze out a few more dollars for education funding instead of leaving it in the bank, said “Representative Strinden, there’s not an emergency we can’t take care of in the next biennium with a $10 million surplus.”

I know, that makes me a geezer, but you can see the scale of how things have changed. No one could have imagined this.

And it is not just the Burleigh/Morton County jail that bothers me. Just this morning in the paper, there was a story about the little town of Medora, population a hundred and something, needing to raise their sewer rates to pay off a $1.7 million loan for a new sewage treatment plant. WTF? A town with maybe 50 or 60 sewer hookups paying off a $1.7 million loan?  It makes no sense.

Why do they need a new sewage treatment plant? The oil boom, that’s why.

You’ve read the stories about new schools in Watford city and Williston and little towns across the oil patch. Paid for by local taxpayers. It needs to stop. It is time for the state to step up and pay for it. All of it.

What’s the state’s response? Jack Dalrymple tells his state agency heads to bring him budgets with no funding increases for the next biennium. Sorry, Jack, but that is just total bullshit. You created this mess. You clean it up.

As for us voters and taxpayers, here’s what we do. First we send a signal to the Capitol that we are sick and tired of cleaning up someone else’s mess by voting down the new jail tax. And then we ask every Legislator we see on the street and every Legislative candidate who comes to our door if they will appropriate the money in the next Legislative session to pay for stuff like this. And we vote for those who say yes. We don’t need tax increases with $6 billion in the bank. “That’s OUR money,” the right wingers like to say. Well, here’s a left-winger saying “Let’s spend it.”

I’m pretty sure my hand is going to be shaking pretty violently as the pencil approaches that “No” box on the ballot next Tuesday. But my vote counts even if I don’t stay inside the lines. I hope my friends in Bismarck will join me. And those everywhere else in the Oil Patch who are being asked to raise their own taxes to pay for things the state should pay for with existing taxes.

There is simply no reason that anyone in North Dakota should pay more taxes this year. Ouch! Did I really say that?

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