Elkhorn Ranch Update #2

           Based upon the analysis contained within the Elkhorn Gravel Pit EA, and taking into consideration the applicants private property rights, my regulatory authority, and considering public comment received, I have decided to implement Alternative 2 as described in the EA (pages 23-25) for Elkhorn Minerals LLC’s development of the proposed Elkhorn Gravel Pit. Under this decision the Forest Service will issue to Elkhorn Minerals LLC, special use and road use authorizations for use of the existing road system and a Surface Occupancy Permit for the development of the private mineral rights authorizing surface occupancy on National Forest System (NFS) lands.
          (signed) Karen E. Dunlap, Acting District Ranger
          (dated) January 6, 2015
 

BAM!

 With those words, and that signature, the most imminent threat to the integrity and solitude of Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch site became a reality.

I started writing Saturday about the threats to the Elkhorn, Roosevelt’s home on the Little Missouri River in the North Dakota Bad Lands, now part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The most serious threat is the potential for a bridge across the river adjacent to the ranch. That could happen in the next couple of years.

But the gravel mine across the river from the ranch could happen this spring. In North Dakota, caught up in the most massive industrial explosion in the state’s history, nothing is sacred any more. And so our giddiness over economic prosperity and a sound financial future for our state is tempered by a sense of hopelessness over the sacrifices we’re being forced to make to achieve that prosperity. That makes me sad. And angry.

To review: The Forest Service was given the land directly across the Little Missouri River from Roosevelt’s home site in 2007 by a group of conservation groups that raised the money to buy it from the Eberts Family. The conservation groups would have preferred to make the land part of the National Parks system, but it is a whole lot more complicated to give land to the National Park Service than to the Forest Service. The whole idea was to stop the land from being subdivided into ranchettes serving as summer getaways for rich folks, thereby preserving the viewshed and soundscape from the ranch.

It probably should be noted, somewhat ironically, that Roosevelt was one of those rich folks who came here and built what might have been called, in those days, a ranchette, as a summer getaway. But Roosevelt went on to become one of our most important presidents, certainly the one who can claim to be the true champion of conservation among those who preceded and followed him. He later said he would never have been President if it had not been for his time here. So we’re okay with that.

When the Forest Service got the land, they failed to get the rights to the minerals underneath it—that would have taken more time and money than the conservation groups could afford—so those who own those minerals have the right to develop them. That’s the law. Generally, it’s a law we can live with. The Forest Service owns a million acres in western North Dakota, and many of those have private mineral owners, and the system has worked, as oil has been extracted over the years, regulated by Forest Service rules to protect as much as possible the integrity of the land.

That could have been the case here except for one mineral owner who turned out to be a real asshole. His name is Roger Lothspeich and he owns about a fourth of the surface minerals—gravel, sand and scoria—and he’s discovered that there is a rock layer under the ground on the hill directly across from the Elkhorn Ranch that would make really good gravel if it were mined and crushed up into a size that would work on roads in western North Dakota. Gravel has been in high demand these days because of the oil boom. The oil industry is building thousands of miles of gravel roads and leveling thousands of acres for well sites that need to be covered in gravel. The cost of gravel has gone up more than 500 per cent in the last six or seven years. So a few years ago, Lothspeich filed notice with the Forest Service that he was going to commence a mining operation in full view of the Ranch, unless someone was willing to give him two and a half million dollars not to do that.

Of course, no one was going to do that. So various ideas were tossed around to prevent the mining operation, including trying to find some land or minerals somewhere else that the Forest Service could trade him, but nothing worked. So the Forest Service went ahead and processed his application for a permit to commence mining, and a couple weeks ago, on January 6, they signed the papers giving him permission to start mining this spring. And he says he’s going to do that.

“Alternative 2,” cited above in the excerpt from the Decision Record, is the plan outlined in the Forest Service’s Environmental Assessment of how the mining is going to be done. Briefly, it gives Lothspeich the right to mine 25 acres, 5 acres at a time, reclaiming as he moves from one 5-acre site to the next, and hauling the rocks he mines away from the site to be crushed into gravel off-site. The Forest Service did its best to minimize the impact on both the land to be mined and the surrounding historic site.

Still, there’s this, from the Record of Decision:

             In consultation with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) and North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office (NDSHPO), the DPG defined the undertaking’s composite Area of Potential Effect (APE) as the area of direct effect, the viewshed APE, and the soundscape APE, for the purposes of compliance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Specifically, the area of direct effect is defined as the 24.6 acre gravel operation footprint, associated access roads and a buffer zone. The viewshed APE includes the viewshed equal to or greater than 70 % probability of being seen by an observer located within the general vicinity of the proposed gravel pit. This includes the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Elkhorn Ranchlands NHD. The viewshed analysis was conducted by the National Park Service using standard viewshed analysis protocols.
 
            The coordinated soundscape APE utilized analysis (see Soundscape in Chapter III for further discussion) derived through consultation with the ACHP and NDSHPO. This resulted in a defined two-mile affected area radiating from the center of the proposed gravel pit from all directions.

 

So visitors to the Elkhorn Ranch, the “cradle of conservation,” where Roosevelt developed his conservation ideas, are going to see and hear an ugly and noisy gravel mining operation.  The Forest Service, to its credit, was a little troubled by that. Ranger Dunlap wrote:

          Roosevelt found solace and solitude at his cabin during a very tragic part of his life and this played an important role in his thinking. Visitors to his cabin site may get a glimpse of what Roosevelt saw and heard, but Roosevelt’s soundscape and viewshed did not include modern day noises and intrusions, such as semi-truck traffic on the county and oil gas roads, oil and gas wells drilling and production, and agricultural activity. Gravel pit development may add to these various intrusions.

(If anyone wants to read the whole record of decision, all 19 pages, you can do that by going here.)

So what’s to be done? Well, I hate to say it, but somebody just might have to pay the asshole off. The conservation groups who led the original purchase effort, back in 2007, have made some effort to find a solution without writing a big check. They spent some money to hire a title lawyer in North Dakota to find out who owns the 75 per cent of the minerals that Lothspeich doesn’t own, to see if there might be some solution involving others who own minerals but are not interested in developing them. It took some work, but they’ve all been located. Get this: There are a total of 35 people/parties/businesses who own a part of the minerals.

Lothspeich (actually, he gave the mineral rights to his girlfriend, Peggy Braunberger for “tax purposes” he said in an earlier newspaper story, although  he retains power of attorney—I hope the North Dakota Tax Department and the IRS scrutinize his tax returns pretty carefully) and the Eberts family each own about a fourth of them. The other half are owned by 35 different people with some having as little as two-tenths of one per cent. Back in the 1980’s before the Eberts family owned the ranch, 1400 net mineral acres, including the acres where the proposed gravel pit is going to be located, were sold to some Williston companies owned by the Aafedt family—they were interested in the oil rights, but got the surface minerals, including sand and gravel, along with the oil—and they were re-sold and subdivided many times over the years, with the result being that there are 35 different names on the mineral title.

So far, neither the Eberts family nor any of the other 35 owners have expressed any interest in mining gravel. Nor are they likely to. But if Lothspeich goes ahead, he’ll have to keep good records, because any profits from the gravel will have to be shared with the Eberts and the other 35. I know if I was any of those folks, I’d be keeping a sharp eye on Lothspeich’s books.

But I got distracted. I asked what’s to be done. Well, I hate to say this, but given the state of things today, I can’t imagine but one outcome: someone, perhaps the same conservation groups who paid for the ranch originally, pays off Lothspeich, but a fraction of what he originally asked for. Because the price of oil has dropped drastically, and no one really knows what the ripple effect of that is going to be.

Will there still be a demand for gravel?

Will the price of gravel remain high enough to make the mining operation profitable?

Is that worth the gamble on Lothspeich’s part?

If the answer to any of those questions is “No,” then Lothspeich has spent a lot of money on lawyers and engineers for nothing, at least in the short term. (In the long term, he’s going to have to spend money on accountants too, and they don’t come any cheaper than lawyers and engineers.) He might just be happy to get out with the money he has already invested. With a little something for his trouble.

Or is this all just a big bluff on Lothspeich’s part, as a lot of folks contend, to rip off the federal government? A lot of folks, including many who do business in the Oil Patch, believe that’s the case, and are pretty angry about that. It’s a black eye on the industry, and with all the other problems out west, Lothspeich isn’t going to find a lot of sympathizers.

In fact, a number of the 35 smaller mineral owners are well-known players in the oil industry, who I won’t name here because they are pretty much innocent bystanders in this gambit. I have the list, and I can guarantee you’d recognize at least half a dozen of them.

On second thought, I’m going to name one. Because he stuck his name into this story a week or so ago. His name is Jim Arthaud. He’s the chairman of the Billings County Commission, and he was featured prominently in Saturday’s blog post about the bridge across the Little Missouri River—if you didn’t read that, stop reading this right now and go back and read that one, here, so you get some perspective on who I’m talking about. He’s kind of cut from the same cloth as Lothspeich.

Anyway, in the paper last week, Arthaud, who I assume was being interviewed because of his role as a county commissioner in the county in which the Elkhorn is located, said “Private property rights are a big thing in the United States of America. I have no sympathy for the people that think that they have that right to just condemn people’s mineral (rights) without just compensations. It’s beyond me how people can even think that.”

And then he went on to say, and I am quoting from a Dickinson Press story here, “there are oil minerals under the ranch, and mineral owners have a right to collect income on oil and gas. He said he thinks people will attempt to drill after this decision. ‘It’s right in the middle of an oil field,’ he said. ‘They probably are not going to do it with $40 oil, but when oil prices come back, absolutely.”

You could almost hear the glee in his voice when you read that in the paper. Rightfully so, because Arthaud is one of those mineral owners. Instead of saying “they” will be drilling oil wells on the property, he should have said “I” will be drilling. Oh, he’s just a small owner, just over one per cent, but he’ll be getting royalties from it when someone decides to drill. So it was a pretty disingenuous statement on Arthaud’s part.

Actually, though, there’s a little less concern about the oil part, at least from the perspective of protecting the viewshed of the Elkhorn site. Oil companies have been willing to accommodate those concerned about the viewshed in the past, moving rigs back from the bluff line out of site from the ranch. Despite the fact that the Forest Service approves pretty much every well site location on their property (including the earlier one right up against the gate of the Elkhorn), and the state issues permits to drill any damn place the oil companies want to, the oil companies have shown some responsibility when approached by the Park Service. They don’t want, or need, any bad publicity.

But if your concern is trying to protect the Elkhorn Ranch and the valley of the Little  Missouri River, and the Bad Lands in general, it’s the gravel operation that is troubling. Oil wells are going to happen, we know that. But as more and more of us keep a close eye on the industry and the officials who are supposed to be regulating it, I think, or at least I hope, that we’ll find them more and more accommodating, and a little bit sensitive to “special places.”

Roger Lothspeich has displayed none of that sensitivity. He’s just a bad guy. His gravel mine could be the first place where someone lays down in front of a bulldozer.

Footnote: The Prairie Blog is hosted by Forum Communications and there are links to it from the Forum’s newspapers and TV stations in North Dakota. Until recently the Forum had a pretty good spam filter, but it has somehow been disabled, best I can tell, and so to guard against unwanted scurrilous comments, my blog is no longer accepting comments. Feel free to e-mail me at jimfuglie920@gmail.com if you really need to comment on a blog, and I’ll try to get it posted here by adding it myself. 

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Elkhorn Ranch Update #1

Over the past few years I’ve written a number of stories about the threats to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s a pretty sacred site to a lot of North Dakotans and Americans, and it needs to be protected. Aside from the fact that the 218 acre site in northern Billings County, hard up against the Little Missouri River, is a  tiny protected island in a sea of ongoing oil development, the imminent threats have been three in number. One, a proposed oil well right at the gate of the historic home of our 26th president, has been negotiated to a site two miles away by public pressure and diligent work by the former park superintendent, Valerie Naylor.

Two others, both with what have become long histories now, remain. One is the proposed gravel mine directly across the Little Missouri River from the Elkhorn Ranch. That’s the most imminent—it could happen this spring. It’s a temporary, short-term problem, but pretty serious. I’m looking up some new information on that and will share it with you in a day or two.

However, the biggest long-term threat is a proposed bridge across the Little Missouri State Scenic River right beside Theodore Roosevelt’s historic home site. The bridge is the brainchild of the Billings County Commission and its chairman, a wealthy oilfield contractor named Jim Arthaud. Arthaud’s oilfield business, MBI, mostly involves trucks, and the bridge would accommodate those trucks.

I’ve written about it here before, but not for a good long while, and so I want to summarize and update you on what’s going on there. The project was initiated in the fall of 2006 when a notice was published in the Federal Register.  That notice began an Environmental Impact Statement process because Arthaud wants federal tax dollars to build the bridge and the roads leading to it.

The preferred location was right up against the Elkhorn Ranch site–I mean, within yards of it, not miles. Public workshops, a necessary first step in writing an Environmental Impact Statement, were first held in the spring of 2007, followed by a public comment period. According to a newsletter put out by Kadrmas, Lee and Jackson (KLJ) Engineering, which has had a longstanding contract with the county, 52 comments were received after the public meetings.   The newsletter said “The majority of the comments stated a general opinion on the project, a preference for the no-build alternative, and expressed concern for potential impacts to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Elkhorn Ranchlands.”

The county and KLJ retrenched after those meetings, looking for alternatives somewhere other than the crossing beside the Elkhorn Ranch, and a second round of public meetings was held in the summer of 2008. Then the project went quiet, collapsing under the weight of negative public opinion and the inability to satisfy requirements of the EIS process.

But then came an oil boom. By 2012, Arthaud’s fleet of trucks had grown from a handful to many dozens, with more being added as he could hire drivers. He was joined by many more trucking companies, both from in-state and out-of-state. It takes a lot of trucks to frack a well. If you’ve been anywhere west of New Salem, you’ve seen the trucks. A new EIS process was initiated by the Billings County Commission. New alternatives were identified. A third round of public meetings was held in the summer of 2012, again with most participants expressing opposition to a bridge over the Little Missouri River anywhere in Billings County. Perhaps Arthaud’s mistake this time was that he bragged to the Dickinson Press that 1,000 trucks a day would use the bridge. No sane person could comprehend the impact of 1,000 trucks a day, running 24 hours a day, through the valley of the Little Missouri River on gravel roads, creating huge dust storms and a cacophonous racket, both of which would essentially steal the quiet, contemplative atmosphere that visitors find at the Elkhorn Ranch site. A good number of those trucks would be Arthaud’s, providing him substantial financial benefit, in addition to the slaps on the back he’d get from his oilfield buddies, who will also benefit from the taxpayer dollars—some say as much as $15 million—that will be used to build the bridge and roads.

The new EIS was scheduled to be completed in January of 2013, but it’s dragged. Just recently, the page on the Billings County website maintained by KLJ changed to reflect a new timeline. It now says the draft EIS will be ready for public viewing in “late spring or early summer 2015”–two full years behind schedule. (Incidentally, the cash register keeps on ringing at  KLJ–they’ve now collected somewhere around a million dollars of Billings County Taxpayer money, with no end in sight.)

If they stay on the new schedule, sometime this summer there will be more public meetings, and a final EIS and Record of Decision will be issued by the federal agencies involved this fall. The federal agencies are the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service and, I think, the Environmental Protection Agency. Other agencies with something to say about it, perhaps during the public comment period, are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, and North Dakota’s State Historic Preservation Office.

The most important item in the EIS will be the Federal Highway Administration’s recommended location for the bridge, and the proposed routes of the roads leading to it—if, indeed, the Highway folks agree to authorize the project. There were a handful of possible locations, identified as “alternatives,” including the one beside the National Park site, presented at the public meetings in 2012.

It’s pretty easy to see why it has taken so long: none of the alternatives work. The engineers can’t find a good spot for the crossing. At the public meeting in Medora in 2012, in response to heated criticism, Arthaud said the crossing would not be next to the Elkhorn Ranch. I was at the meeting, and it was obvious he heard the passion of those trying to protect the Elkhorn. Backing that up, the Forest Service spokesman at the meeting said they would not allow it on their land across from the Elkhorn. And in response to a local rancher whose land was included in one of the crossing alternatives, Arthaud said it would be on public land, not private land.

The problem is, of the alternatives being considered by KLJ, none are completely on public land–except at the Elkhorn Ranch site. There is Forest Service land on the east side of the river at a couple of the crossing locations, but not on the west side. So that screws up Arthaud’s promise to keep it on public land. Unless new locations are found. The last time I was in communications with the engineers at KLJ, they told me there had been no new alternatives proposed. But that was a year ago. Maybe the reason for the new timeline, now proposing to “get it done” in 2015, is that they found a new alternative (I’m not sure where that would be—I’m pretty familiar with the crossings on the Little Missouri, and other than the one at the Elkhorn Ranch site, I don’t know of any that have public land on both sides of the river) or they have found a private landowner willing to have the bridge on their land. We’ll know that in “late spring or early summer.” I’ll keep you posted.

Footnote 1: The real need for this bridge anticipates the Bakken Boom moving full blast into the Bad Lands. There’s been some oil activity in the Badlands of Billings County, but nothing like what has been going on up north of Lake Sakakawea. Leases on federal lands are generally for ten years, as opposed to five year leases on the private lands north of Lake Sakakawea, so there’s been no urgency to bring the rigs across the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea. But everyone expected that to start happening in the next year or two. The drop in oil prices might just give the Bad Lands a breather—there probably won’t be a lot of rigs moving south into the Bad Lands for a while, until prices stabilize. The EIS process will proceed, but there’s likely less urgency for construction. 

Footnote 2: A couple of years ago, I asked the Federal Highway guy how this bridge is going to get paid for. He said mostly with Federal Highway funds, with some small state and county match. The bridge was proposed back in the day when Congress earmarked funds for projects like this. But earmarks have disappeared. So, if it gets to that stage, the money for the bridge will have to come from the state’s regular allocation of federal highway funds. Which means money will have to be taken away from some other project somewhere else in the state. Jack Dalrymple can, and will, make that happen. Because Arthaud has taken out an insurance policy. He’s one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, contributors to Jack Dalrymple’s campaign and the state Republican Party. It’s hard to add up, but it’s safe to say that Arthaud and his family members and company executives have given at least $100,000 to North Dakota Republicans since 2010. And Dalrymple’s proven over and over that campaign contributions matter. Pretty good insurance.

Footnote 3: The Prairie Blog is hosted by Forum Communications and there are links to it from the Forum’s newspapers and TV stations in North Dakota. Until recently the Forum had a pretty good spam filter, but it has somehow been disabled, best I can tell, and so to guard against unwanted scurrilous comments, my blog is no longer accepting comments. Feel free to e-mail me at jimfuglie920@gmail.com if you really need to comment on a blog, and I’ll try to get it posted here by adding it myself. 

 

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Next: Canada

            A rerun. I wrote the piece below for a guest editorial in The Bismarck Tribune about ten years ago now. We were at war in Iraq. Now the wars are over. Sort of. I’ve updated it a bit.

Bringing Home The Troops

            Well, the troops are on their way home from Afghanistan. That’s what they said on the six o’clock news this week. The problem with getting out of there right now, of course, is now we have to find someplace else to get tangled up. Here in America, at least in my lifetime, we seem to need our dirty little wars. Just to prove we’re tough enough, I guess. So where would we go next? Here’s my plan: Canada.

It makes so much sense. Just load ‘em all up—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines—on planes and ships, and instead of bringing them here, head for Halifax. And start marching west. Send the National Guard to Vancouver and have them start marching east. They meet in Winnipeg, the new Kabul. It’s the perfect war.

You want to talk about “Mission Accomplished?” This is it. Topple a statue of John Diefenbaker or two, and just keep rolling down the Trans-Canada Highway. I think we could do this without any bloodshed, even. I mean, we’re hitting a country where the police still ride horses. Ever hear of a horse-bomb? I don’t think so. No terrorists there.

It has everything we need in our wars. First, the natives speak a different language, a necessary element for our wars. We’d never go to war with a country that speaks the same language as us. (The Canadians actually speak two languages I don’t understand—French in the east and Canadian out here on the prairie.)

Second, Canada has all these huge oil reserves, almost as great as the Middle East. That also seems to be a requirement for a war these days. We have some pipelines running south, and they keep talking on the news about another one, Keyhole or something like that, which is going to deliver tar and sands, as close as I can tell. Republicans like the idea, they say, but the President doesn’t like either tar or sand, one or the other, so he says might stop it.

Anyway, if we took over Canada, it would end all this bickering about international pipelines, because there’d be no international border. Then maybe they could find something useful to do in Washington. (Actually, if the President wants to send me up to Canada to run things—I live so close I can almost see it from here—I’d just nationalize those dirty Alberta oil mines, send the Koch brothers packing, and shut the whole thing down. But I suppose that’s hoping for a bit too much.)

Third, they’re right next door, so war transportation costs go way down—we can drive to war instead of taking ships and planes. Hitchhike, even.

Some of my best friends are Canadian, but I tell ya, once in a while I think they just maybe have it coming. I’m reminded of the story about the two explorers, one from Canada, the other from the U.S., who spent a few years roaming the world before being captured by terrorist kidnappers. The terrorist leader informed them they were going to die, but offered to honor each of them one request before they died.

The Canadian said “I want to give a speech for you and for my American friend here about how for all these two hundred years our neighbors to the south have been repressing and dominating the good people of Canada, treating us unfairly, polluting our waters, passing unfair trade bills, and devaluing our currency.”

“Fine,” said the leader.

“And what about you?” he asked the U.S. explorer.

“I want you to kill me first. I’d rather die than listen to that damn speech for the four hundredth time,” was the reply.

So that’s my plan. Instead of bringing the troops directly home from Afghanistan, run ‘em through Canada. Meet the Guard in Winnipeg. Go to a hockey game or two.  Claim the western oil fields and pipelines as the spoils of war. And then declare victory and get out. Send everyone home. Cheap. We can drive everything back home. Whole thing shouldn’t take more than six or eight weeks. Just leave 8 or 10 guys behind to keep an eye on our new oil fields, and a couple more to watch for recruits for the UND hockey team.

Good for the North Dakota economy too. From Winnipeg, they’d have to come through here and buy gas and groceries and motel rooms on the way home.

Next: California. Makes sense. Foreign speaking. Even their leader. (Boy, this is sadly out of date. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the California Governor when I wrote this.)

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Politics and Prairie Literature

When I started this blog half a decade ago, it had a longer name. It was The Prairie Blog: Politics and Prairie Literature.

And that’s what I wrote about. I’d go on rants about politics until my friend Wayne Tanous would send me a message, like “Hey, Jim, it’s Spring. Lighten up.”

And so I would, and I started sharing excerpts from some of my favorite North Dakota and Prairie writers, as part of a series called “The Best Things Ever Written About North Dakota.”

And I was having a good time doing that, until an oil boom came along. And I, along with a lot of others, realized that the boom was being managed, or, rather, mismanaged, by a bunch of thoughtless, greedy, self-aggrandizing politicians, and I began using this blog as my way of adding my voice to the chorus of those thoughtful people who were trying to make some sense out of all that was going on, and talk some sense into the heads of those politicians.

Yeah, well, how’s that working out for us?

Today I’m going to take a little break and write about politics and prairie literature. Because my friend Mike Jacobs has a new book, and I want to talk about it. Mike retired from a 40-some year career in journalism last spring and, once his 2014 garden was harvested and canned, found his keyboard again, and has written a sort of stream-of-consciousness-analysis of the state of affairs in his beloved North Dakota.

It’s called A Birthday Inquiry: North Dakota at 125. It’s a series of essays, and it’s an e-book, available online from Amazon.com for your Kindle or on a Kindle application for your computer or smartphone.

I wrote here about Mike’s last book, One Time Harvest: Reflections on Coal and Our Future about five years ago. You can still read my thoughts about it and an excerpt by going here. The book was triggered by the biggest energy boom to ever hit our state, the coal-to-electricity boom of the 1970s. The coal industry viewed the book as alarmist, but most of us thanked him for a clear, insightful look into an industry that was changing the face of North Dakota in ways we weren’t familiar with.

Not surprisingly, it is another energy boom—this one oil—that has inspired a second book after nearly 40 long years of waiting. Good timing, because it is also changing the face of North Dakota in ways we aren’t familiar with.

Mike has long been recognized as North Dakota’s best journalist. He was in a class of a dozen or so other young journalists back in the 70’s (we even formed an association, the Young Journalists Alliance, which held an annual picnic to discuss the state of things in North Dakota each summer) that really did do real journalism—unlike most of the state’s media today. But he was the one who rose to the top, first as Editor of a major daily newspaper—the Grand Forks Herald—and then past that to Editor AND Publisher. He stuck it out, and rose to the top of his profession, while most of the rest of us rode off into jobs as flacks for somebody or other, at much better salaries than reporters made in those days. Mike, of course, got the last financial laugh by simply proving that good journalism can eventually get recognized and appreciated.  He jokes that he and Suezette are now “among the 2 per cent.”

You’ll recall this excerpt I shared from the introduction to his first book:

On this day, between the harvest and the apple-falling, I am going to write you a book. All summer long I have put off writing this book. Instead, I have occupied myself with a good dose of that desperation which Henry David Thoreau found was the lot of the mass of men.

For those of us who live in and love the land called North Dakota, that desperation has been a little heavier this long, long summer. First came heat and drought, then the awful mess called Watergate, then the heavies, energy conglomerates who have monstrous plans for our land and sky and water, advanced their cause before the state government. Moreover, we learned of the starvation the world faces while we Americans accumulate opulence. While we seek ways to take our pleasure, the world seeks its next breath of good air and its next bite of food.

Indeed, these six months of living in North Dakota, U.S.A., on the planet Earth have convinced me that the only issue worthy of our attention in the last half of the twentieth century is human survival. All other issues relate to this one in one of two ways: in the guts or in the spirit. The guts issue is sustenance. Can we live at all?  And the spirit issue is dignity. Can our lives be worthy?

       These are issues of ultimate concern. They cannot be escaped no matter how we wish to elude them. They must haunt us, dare us to go on, challenge us to find ways to continue. These are the issues which the book addresses.

Well, that’s the quality of writing we have expected and received from Mike ever since. But wait until you read the new book. That introduction could have as easily have been written about it.

The book’s basically divided into two parts: why we should celebrate being 125 years old, and why we should worry about our future. The celebration part is fun, and pretty self-evident, although no one else that I’ve seen has put it down on paper like this.

It’s the worry part, though, that contains the most insight, because Mike is such a careful observer.  And, as Mike says, “Worry comes naturally to North Dakotans . . . ”

In this section, Mike shares his thoughts on all the major topics you’ll find being discussed over coffee in every small town in the state—and pretty soon now in the hearing rooms and hallways of the State Capitol as the Legislature convenes this week for its biennial session. Those include oil, coal, politics, education, wildlife habitat, health care, agriculture, and geography.

Not surprisingly, almost every discussion of those issues relates back, in some way, to the current oil boom. Mike has done a better job of putting this boom into the perspective of our everyday life than anyone else. No matter what’s on our minds, oil is part of the discussion. He sums it up most succinctly at the very end of the book:

Let’s Admit We’re Rich

            So far, North Dakotans have proven remarkably uptight about oil development, including its impact on our well-being.

            This takes three forms, at least. One is the impact on the land. Subsumed here are the myriad and undeniable environmental impacts of oil development. No doubt these will be controversial for generations into the future.

            Another is impact on the people. Change is tough, and few places have changed so significantly so quickly as North Dakota.

            The third is economic. North Dakota has emerged from poverty to extraordinary wealth in less time than it takes a baby to become a toddler. Just as a toddler must assess a new situation, so must the state. Just as a toddler has the enveloping love of its family, so North Dakota has the comfort of its wealth.

            The great question for North Dakotans today is not whether to pump the oil. That decision is out of our hands, probably forever. The question, instead, is how the wealth that oil produces will be used.     

As my friend Clay Jenkinson pointed out in a column in today’s Bismarck Tribune, Mike is one of the most careful observers of his surroundings of anyone I know. This passage, my favorite from the new book if I have to pick one, gives witness to that:

It was strangely quiet in November. The wind still blew. The neighbor’s grain dryer still whined. The trucks went by. On a couple of days there was the noise of combines bringing in the corn. There were geese and there were swans and there were crows . On a couple of days, it was cold enough for the peculiar crunch of boots on snow.

            But there were no gunshots. Because there were so few deer. Less than 10 years ago, the country around our place west of Gilby was overrun with deer. Often, even daily, we would see herds of 100 or more along the road. We quit trying to grow sweet corn because the deer always ate it. They damaged the peas, too. And the beans. We gave up on asparagus. Deer are discriminating grazers. This year, we had a bumper crop of sweet corn. Because there were so few deer.

            In all of November, I’ve seen only two bolt across the highway when I drive to town. All summer we had only a single doe and fawn. No deer. No gunshots. The Game and Fish Department issued only 48,000 permits to take deer during this year’s hunting season, a third of the number five years ago and the fewest since the early 1990s.

            And it’s not just deer. Sharp-tailed grouse were so abundant five years ago that they came to my bird feeders. I saw them daily. I haven’t seen a sharpie all season. This year, I paid particular attention to meadowlarks. I missed them in 2013. This year I searched, and found two pair in four square miles.

The Game and Fish Department added the meadowlark to its list of species of special concern. We’re talking about the state bird here. It used to be that hearing a meadowlark required nothing more than going outside on a summer morning. Not any longer.

            What follows that passage is an amazing analysis of what’s happening to wildlife on the North Dakota Prairie, one that could not come from biologists, or college professors, or politicians or journalists, but only from someone like Mike Jacobs, who knows North Dakota so well. It’s a bit long to include here, but I am going to, although my preference is for you to buy the book so you can put it in the context of all Mike has said about our state and its people, which are relevant to his discussion of what’s happening to our wildlife, what we have tried to do about it, and what we have failed to do. As Clay said in his column this morning, you can read the whole thing in about two hours. You can do it right now. It is cold outside. You can buy it, and read it, right now, without going outside. Today would be a good day to do it. Here’s Mike on North Dakota’s wildlife situation:

            Other species have declined as well. There were no Wilson’s snipe winnowing over the meadow this spring. No sedge wrens. Fewer bobolinks. Wildlife of every kind are at risk these days. It’s been a perfect storm for wildlife. Nature hasn’t helped. The winter of 2013 was tough and the spring tougher. A wet spring is hard on ground-nesting birds, like grouse, meadowlarks and snipe. Harder still though, is loss of habitat, and that’s what’s at the crux of the decline in the numbers of meadowlarks, deer and other wildlife. There’s just less habitat. We’re talking about eastern North Dakota here, 200 miles from the Oil Patch. In much of North Dakota, habitat is being lost to agriculture. There’s just no other way to put it.

            Rising prices, changes in the Conservation Reserve Program, a more generous crop insurance system, ethanol subsidies, bigger equipment — all of these have helped persuade farmers to convert more land to crops. Across the state, wetlands have been drained, tree rows have been removed, ditches have been plowed , stray patches of grass have been burned and plowed under. Each of these decisions made sense for the individual farmer who made them. The problem is, there’s no incentive not to do these things. Landowners interested in conservation have nowhere to turn. And so they turn to ever more intensive farm practices. Wildlife grows scarcer and scarcer.

The situation is different in the Oil Patch. A lot of habitat remains in western North Dakota, which is drier and rougher and more challenging for cropland agriculture. What once were unbroken blocs of prairie have been divided by roads and invaded by trucks. The resulting fragmentation of habitat has disrupted wildlife. The most dramatic example is sage grouse. Sage grouse were never abundant in North Dakota. Historically, they occurred in the far southwestern counties. But sage grouse were secure. The range probably supported 1,000 pair or more. Bowman County, the state’s southwestern most, was sage grouse country. An oil boom there in the early 2000s drove roads across the rugged Badlands Country.  In 2014, the annual sage grouse census found just 31 dancing males in 2014. That’s probably not enough to insure a continued population in the state. We may have seen the last dance of the sage grouse in North Dakota. The sage grouse is a candidate for listing as endangered.

So is Sprague’s pipit. This is a plain brown bird seldom seen and rarely appreciated. Sprague’s pipits favor short grass prairie. John James Audubon discovered these pipits on his trip to Fort Union in 1845. That’s on the Missouri River southwest of Williston. In North Dakota. It’s hard to know the current status of the pipit. They are extraordinarily hard to see. Finding pipits involves climbing a hill and cocking an ear. Their tinkling call notes drift downward as they perform a courtship dance high above the ground. For decades, I heard the pipits every spring on land that Suezette and I own near Blaisdell. I don’t hear pipits now; the landscape has grown too noisy. That doesn’t mean that the pipits are not there. I just don’t know.

            On a visit in August, I was encouraged to find chestnut-collared longspurs, another species endemic to the short grass prairie. And I saw sharp-tails. This was gratifying. We call the place “Sharp-tail Ranch.” A curious thing is happening there. The ranch is part of a study area established by Susan Felege, a wildlife biologist at UND. She’s monitoring sharptail populations within and outside the Oil Patch. Our place is outside. Sharp-tail numbers are down there. Just west of us, on the other side of the “Line of Death,” sharpies are up. At our place, predators are up, which explains the decline in sharp-tails. Across the line, predators are down. Apparently, oil development, with its noise and traffic has scared the predators away. They moved to my place, where they’re enjoying grouse for dinner. These results are preliminary, it’s important to note, but they indicate how fragile is the balance — and how little we know and understand it. All the more reason to worry about it.

            The loss of the conservation amendment, Measure Five, was a setback. The result was extremely one-sided. Only one in five voters favored it. That’s the biggest loss of any of the seven measures that failed. There are a number of reasons. One is that nature is a hard sell in North Dakota. North Dakotans often regard nature as an adversary, and it often is, delivering drought and flood and with a variety of pests thrown in. Much of farming is a fight against nature. Even the word agriculture expresses that. It’s culture, implying human toil. It’s not nature. It wasn’t farmers who defeated Measure Five, however. It was North Dakotans generally, sportsmen included. There are two reasons for that. One is that the measure was poorly conceived. The second is that it was poorly sold. Efforts to improve habitat and protect and promote stable wildlife populations must continue. They are part of the state’s heritage, and they are an important source of recreation and economic activity. They make the state more attractive. Habitat improvement has to involve landowners and there has to be an incentive for landowners to participate. A state program to replace the federal Conservation Reserve Program is the place to start. The Legislature ought to establish some kind of pilot program, test its attractiveness and tweak it in ways that appeal to landowners. In the end, it’s not about parks and it’s not about water, though those are the elements that backers of the amendment stressed the most. It’s about habitat. It’s about survival of wild species. It’s about deer, meadowlarks and grouse. It’s about the nature of North Dakota. (emphasis added)

Measure Five was the so-called “conservation amendment.” It attracted the most attention and the most money. Formally called the “Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks” initiative , this would have set aside 5 percent of oil tax revenues for conservation projects and outdoor recreation. The lopsided result was a surprise. Polls had suggested a much closer contest. In the end, supporters of the initiative spent nearly $5 million to secure about 50,000 votes. That was just 20 percent of votes cast and amounted to an average expenditure of nearly $ 100 a vote.   The result contradicted early polling, which showed that North Dakotans supported conservation by a huge margin, a finding that fetched promises of additional spending on outdoor projects, mostly parks, from Al Carlson, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, and Jack Dalrymple, the governor.

The campaign against the measure was misleading and even malicious. Opponents raised at least three shibboleths: Out-of-state influence, a land grab and diminished money for programs as diverse as public schools and county roads. None of these were true. The petitioners were all North Dakotans, as the law requires. State law forbids sales of private land to non-profit groups. The state treasury is stuffed with money. What’s more, opponents themselves relied heavily on out-of-state money to fund their campaign.

            The conclusion must be that the campaign in support of the measure was inept, and indeed that was the case. Supporters moved from a commanding lead in early poll results to a miserable showing in the election itself. How could such a thing happen? Supporters of the measure ran a misguided milquetoast campaign, consistently failing to answer charges raised against the measure and conspicuously allowing opponents to pretend to be locally funded when the bulk of their cash came from the oil business.

            The people who planned and ran the yes-vote campaign were tone-deaf. They ignored North Dakota political realities in favor of their own conviction that conservation was not just a good thing but a moral imperative. Such a notion led them into a series of political blunders. One of these predated the 2014 election. Two years before, their petitions were thrown out because petition passers, mostly members of North Dakota State University’s football team, had forged signatures. That might not have been fatal to the effort all by its lonesome, but it certainly should have summoned supporters of the measure to a greater sensitivity to North Dakota’s political realities. But it didn’t.

            The pro side sent out the publisher of a hunting and fishing magazine, a school teacher on leave and a hockey player who lived in North Dakota only when he played for UND. T.J. Oshie made himself notorious in Grand Forks by pissing in the elevator of a downtown building and made himself famous nationwide by out-shooting the Russians in a shoot-out at the 2014 Olympic Games.

Both memorable. Neither relevant to a conservation campaign.

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A Little Good News For The Bad Lands

Here’s an updated version of an article that I wrote for this month’s issue of Dakota Country magazine:

There’s a new set of eyes behind the desk of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s Wildlife Division Chief, and that spells good news for the Bad Lands.

Jeb Williams, now four months into his job as the man responsible for the well-being of all of North Dakota’s wild critters, was raised in the North Dakota Bad Lands. I don’t know if he is the first Wildlife Division Chief who’s a product of a Bad Lands ranch, but I know if I had to choose a “growing-up place” for the person in that job, I’d choose the valley of the Little Missouri River.

I’m not downplaying the job performance of the man who preceded Williams, Randy Kreil, or any of Randy’s predecessors, but there is a special set of values that comes with growing up on a Bad Lands ranch. I know that because I’m married to a woman who grew up on a ranch there.

“The Department has a high interest in the Bad Lands, because the public has a high interest,” Williams said in a recent interview. “The Bad Lands provide an experience a lot of people like. It’s an important place for the people of North Dakota—and for me personally.”

Wow. Those are words that those of us who love the Bad Lands, and are scared for their future, and the future of the plants and animals that live there, want to hear from the second most important man at our state’s natural resource agency.

Williams acknowledges that the Bad Lands face a unique set of challenges because of rapid oil development in the western third of our state, and he says the Department is taking steps to address that.

“We are continually in discussions with the oil industry,” he says. “We’ve developed a set of critical habitat maps, and we’ve provided them to the oil companies. We’ve spent a lot of time on it.”

Those maps came into play recently when Continental Resources, the state’s largest oil industry presence, requested a drilling permit on land near Lake Sakakawea, on the fringe of the Bad Lands. That triggered a public comment period, because the requested land fell inside the boundaries of one of the state’s unique “areas of interest” identified by the North Dakota Industrial Commission last spring. The Game and Fish Department received a notice from the Department of Mineral Resources that they had ten days to review the drilling permit application and share their thoughts on the request. Agency professionals looked at the area and found there was an existing well in the same area, and recommended, for example, that any new drilling take place on the same pad.

It’s in a flood-prone area, and other industry watchdogs submitted comments as well, calling for a dike around the entire site to prevent problems like those that happened last March, when a flood at ice-out caused an oil storage tank to float away and spill its contents all over a State Game Management Area not far away.  The Department of Mineral Resources has the requests under consideration, and will make a recommendation to Continental soon about the location of their new well.

These are the kind of challenges that the Game and Fish Department didn’t face ten years ago, and they take staff time away from what might be other priorities if there was no massive oil boom out west.

Williams takes over as Wildlife Chief at a critical time for both the resource and the North Dakotans who spend time in the outdoors, especially those who like to hunt deer. We all know that the state’s deer herd is approaching historic lows, as are the number of licenses being issued to hunt them. Williams is going to be the point man in dealing with those issues.

The state has been hit by a “perfect storm” of circumstances affecting the deer population: a huge loss of CRP acres, three recent bad winters, and an oil boom. All have affected the deer herd. In addition, Williams, acknowledges, the state was “very aggressive” in the deer harvest for a few years in the first decade of the 21st century. Because of favorable conditions, the herd population exploded and needed to be thinned, after a public outcry from farmers, whose hay was being eaten in the winter, and from drivers with busted grills and banged-up fenders, from critters who just couldn’t seem to say off the state’s highways.

Now, the state is in a recovery mode.

“Our hunters have high expectations—we’ve been enjoying some very good years, the best we’ve ever seen—so the challenge is getting back there,” Williams says.

Agriculture has changed, and farmers have better options for their land than they did 30 years ago, when CRP first entered the picture. And the federal farm program hasn’t provided the funds for the massive land set-aside we enjoyed here for most of those 30 years.

Still, Williams says, with adequate funding, more habitat could be made.

“A lot of landowners are telling us that they couldn’t get their land back into CRP because of program changes, and they are looking at us, and asking what we can do,” he says.

Ironically, the conservation measure rejected by North Dakota voters in November would have provided enough money to restart the CRP program at the state level, creating a million acres of quality wildlife habitat. I am still pissed off at a whole bunch of people behind the failure of that measure.  Because it would have funded such an important program at such an important time, I’m heartbroken over its failure, and it’s going to take me a very long time to get over my anger at the ineptitude of the measure’s sponsors and the disgusting, dishonest campaign of its opponents. Okay, there, I got that off my chest one more time. (That rant did not appear in the magazine version of this article. But it probably should have.)

Could the state afford to implement its own CRP program anyway? That’s the question that came up at a Game and Fish Advisory Board meeting I attended last month.

“If we had the money, it would still be up to the farmers,” says Williams. “We’d have to look at where we have interest.”

That’s likely not the Bad Lands, where most of the land is used for grazing. But there’s some good news showing through in this year’s surveys for the Bad Lands area of the state. Mule deer reproduction this year was the best since 1999, the Department’s biologists report.

The state’s PLOTS program, once over a million acres, now has about 750,000 acres enrolled, but with the cutback in CRP acres, the quality of the habitat on PLOTS land isn’t what it once was. During the CRP years, most of that million acres was dense nesting and roosting cover. Now a lot of it is just small woody draws, sloughs and grassy waterways surrounded by cropland.

Ironically, the conservation measure rejected by North Dakota voters in November would have provided enough money to restart the CRP program at the state level, creating a million acres of quality wildlife habitat. I am still pissed off at a whole bunch of people behind the failure of that measure.  Because it would have funded such an important program at such an important time, I’m heartbroken over its failure, and it’s going to take me a very long time to get over my anger at the ineptitude of the measure’s sponsors and the disgusting, dishonest campaign of its opponents. Okay, there, I got that off my chest one more time. (That rant did not appear in the magazine version of this article. But it probably should have.)

Out west, the biggest landowner is the U.S. Forest Service, with a million acres of public land, much of it grazing land and home to the mule deer and pronghorn antelope herds. The Department has a “good relationship” with the Forest Service, which manages the land, and the BLM, which manages the minerals.

Unlike the mule deer, though, the antelope aren’t yet emerging from the declining population crisis. This year the state issued just 250 antelope rifle tags, down from more than 6,000 just seven years ago. And sage grouse remain on the critical list. Earlier this year, Department biologists said we may have seen the “last dance of the sage grouse” in North Dakota. The whitetail herd has taken a hit too, but biologists blame that mostly on a chronic disease, EHD.

The elephant in the Game and Fish Department’s room, though, the one all state employees these days find unnerving to discuss, is the change in the Bad Lands landscape from a serene, placid home to cattle and wild critters, to the noisy, clanking arrival of industry in the form of drilling rigs, trucks, and gas flares, which have stolen the quiet of the night from all the residents of the Badlands, wild and tame alike.

Kreil hinted at that very thing in an exit interview with Brad Dokken of the Grand Forks Herald last fall, saying “the state is at a conservation crossroads.”

“I’m worried unless something significant happens in the next two years, we’ll have missed our opportunity to preserve what we value so much as a state,” Kreil said. “This is a watershed moment in the history of this state when it comes to the future of hunting and fishing and outdoor recreation. As a state, we are going to collectively make a decision in the next few years, and I hope we can make the right one.”

Williams worries about that too.

“I’m concerned about the change in the Bad Lands,” the new Wildlife Chief says. “We know change is inevitable. Figuring out our strengths and weaknesses, and adapting to that change, is going to be a challenge. We’re all faced with that challenge—how much is the impact going to be?”

“The Bad Lands mean a lot to me. It’s a unique landscape with a unique resource.”

For those of us who love those Bad Lands, I don’t think we could ask for a better set of eyes behind that Wildlife Chief’s desk.

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A Couple of Christmas Poems

         James W. Foley was North Dakota’s longtime Poet Laureate. He grew up in Medora, where his family served as caretakers for the home built in 1884 by the Marquis
de Mores for the parents of his wife, Medora. The restored home, now known as the  Von Hoffman House, remains open to the public during the summer. 
           Even though Foley has been dead nearly 75 years, there’s a renewed interest in his work, as evidenced by a series of new reprints of some of his 20 books of poetry, and you can now buy most of them in new, paperback editions, for less than $20. Kindle versions are less.
            What’s fun about these books is that they are facsimile reprints of the originals, so, thanks to the magic of 21st century digital reproduction, other than a new cover, the books look just like the editions our grandparents may have read from to our parents at bedtime decades ago. 
            This new spate of reprints is not the first time Foley’s work has been resurrected. Foley died in 1939, and as the years passed after his death, most of his original works were sold out. But in 1963, the members of the Seventh District of North Dakota General Federation of Women’s Clubs decided it was time to make it possible for anyone to buy a copy of his works. In a foreword to their edition, published by The Bismarck Tribune, they said they contacted librarians across the state, who recommended the Book of Boys and Girls as their choice.  By 1971, this too, was sold out, and they published a second volume of his work, entitled Foley’s Poems, a collection selected by a committee of the Women’s Clubs. This edition still shows up from time to time in used book stores and on Amazon’s used book list as a collector’s item.
         Foley loved Christmas, and he loved Children, and he loved Children’s Christmas poems. Here are a couple of his best.  
 
A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS PRAYER
By James W. Foley
 
Dear Lord, be good to Santa Claus,
He’s been so good to me;
I never told him so because
He is so hard to see.
He must love little children so
To come through snow and storm;
Please care for him when cold winds blow
And keep him nice and warm
 
Dear Lord, be good to him and good
To Mary Christmas too.
I’d like to tell them if I could,
The things I’m telling you,
They’ve both been very good to me,
And everywhere they go
They make us glad;–no wonder we
All learn to love them so.
 
Please have him button up his coat
So it will keep him warm;
And wear a scarf about his throat
If it should start to storm.
And when the night is dark, please lend
Him light if stars are dim,
Or maybe sometimes you could send
An angel down with him.
 
Please keep his heart so good and kind
That he will always smile;
And tell him maybe we will find
And thank him after while.
Please keep him safe from harm and keep
Quite near and guard him when
He’s tired and lays down to sleep
Dear Lord, please do! Amen.
 
BILLY PEEBLE’S CHRISTMAS
By James W. Foley
 
Billy Peeble he ain’t got no parents—never had none ‘cause
When he was borned he was an orfunt; an’ he said ‘at Santa Claus
Never didn’t leave him nothin’, ‘cause he was a county charge
An’ the overseer told him that his fambly was too large
To remember orfunt children; so I ast Ma couldn’t we
Have Bill Peeble up to our house, so’s to see our Christmas tree.
An she ast me if he’s dirty; an’ I said I guessed he was,
But I didn’t think it makes no difference with Santa Claus.
 
My his clo’es was awful ragged! Ma, she put him in a tub
An’ she poured it full of water, an’ she gave him such a scrub
‘At he ‘ist sit there an’ shivered; and he tol’ me afterwurds
‘At he never washed all over out to Overseer Bird’s!
‘An she burned his ragged trousies an’ she gave him some of mine;
My! She rubbed him an’ she scrubbed him till she almost made him shine,
Nen he ‘ist looked all around him like he’s scairt for quite a w’ile
An’ even when Ma’d pat his head he wouldn’t hardly smile.
 
“En after w’ile Ma took some flour-sacks an’ ‘en she laid
“Em right down at the fireplace, ‘ist ‘cause she is afraid
Santa Claus’ll soil the carpet when he comes down there, you know
An’ Billy Peeble watcher her, an’ his eyes stuck out—‘ist so!
“En Ma said ‘at in the mornin’ if we’d look down on the sacks
‘At they’d be ‘ist full of soot where Santa Claus had made his tracks;
Billy Peeble stood there lookin’! An’ he told me afterwurds
He was scairt he’d wake up an’ be back at Overseer Bird’s.
 
Well, ‘en she hung our stockin’s up and after w’ile she said:
“Now you and’ Billy Peeble better get right off to bed,
An’ if you hear a noise tonight, don’t you boys make a sound,
‘Cause Santa Claus don’t never come with little boys around!”
So me an’ Billy went to bed, and Billy Peeble, he
Could hardly go to sleep at all—ist tossed an’ tossed. You see
We had such w’ite sheets on the bed an’ he said afterwurds
They never had no sheets at all at Overseer Bird’s.
 
So we ‘ist laid and talked an’ talked. An’ Billy ast me who
Was Santa Claus. An’I said I don’t know if it’s all true,
But people say he’s some old man who ‘ist loves little boys
An’ keeps a store at the North Pole with heaps an’ heaps of toys
W’ich he brings down in a big sleigh, with reindeers for his steeds,
An’ comes right down the chimbly flue an’ leaves ‘ist what you needs.
My! He’s excited w’en I tell him that! An’ afterwurds
He said that they never had no toys at Overseer Bird’s.
 
I’m fallin’ pretty near asleep w’en Billy Peeble said:
“Sh-sh! What’s that noise?” An’ w’en he spoke I sat right up in bed
Till sure enough I heard it in the parlor down below,
An’ Billy Peeble, he set up an’ ‘en he said: “Let’s go!”
So we got up an’ sneaked down stairs, an’ both of us could see
‘At it was surely Santa Claus, ‘ist like Ma said he’d be;
But he must have heard us comin’ down, because he stopped an’ said:
“You, Henry Blake and William Peeble, go right back to bed!”
My goodness, we was awful scairt! An’ both of us was pale,
An’ Billy Peeble said upstairs: “My! Ain’t he ‘ist a whale?”
We didn’t hardly dare to talk and got back into bed
An’ Billy pulled the counterpane clear up above his head,
An’ in the mornin’ w’en we looked down on the flour-sacks,
W’y sure enough we saw the soot where he had made his tracks.
An’ Billy got a suit of clothes, a drum, an’ sled an’ books
Till he ‘ist never said a word, but my, how glad he looks!
 
An’ after w’ile it’s dinner time an Billy Peeble set
Right next to Pa, an’ my! how he ‘ist et an’ et an’ et!
Till he ‘ist puffed an’ had to leave his second piece of pie
Because he couldn’t eat no more, an’ after dinner, w’y
Ma dressed him up in his new clo’es, an Billy Peeble said
He’s sorry he’s an orfunt, an’ Ma Patted Billy’s head.
W’ich made him cry a little bit, an’ he said afterwurds
Nobody ever pats his head at Overseer Bird’s.
 
An’ all day long Pa looked at Ma, an’ Ma she looked at him,
Because Pa said ‘at Billy looked a little bit like Jim
‘At was my brother, but he died oncet, years ago,
An’ ‘at’s why Billy Peeble makes my mother like him so.
She says ‘at Santa brought him as a present, ‘ist instead
Of little Jim ‘at died oncet. So she ‘ist put him to bed
On Christmas Night an’ tucked him in an’ told me afterwurds
‘At he ain’t never going back to Overseer Bird’s. 
 
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It’s Time To Get In Line For Our Wildlife

Soon it will be January of an odd-numbered year. For those who follow politics, and the result of politics—government—it is the beginning of the time when laws are made. They’ll be made in the North Dakotas by the State Legislature. They’ll be made in Washington by the United States Congress. In Washington, there haven’t been many laws made for the last few years, because of a stalemate between the two political parties. Some will argue that making no laws is a good thing, but that’s a cynical argument, because funding for my Social Security check, for repairs to our highways, for paychecks for our sailors and soldiers, for disaster payments and crop insurance for our farmers and for funding the all the federal agencies who watch over our public lands, doesn’t happen unless a law is made, in the form of a piece of legislation called a bill, voted on and approved by members of Congress and signed by our president.

In North Dakota, those of us who enjoy the outdoors and are concerned about the impacts of rapid development on the fragile landscape of western North Dakota, will be watching the North Dakota Legislature.

We’re all aware that a natural resource amendment to the North Dakota Constitution was soundly walloped at the polls by the voters in the November election. One of my part-time gigs these days is writing a monthly article about oil’s impact on the North Dakota Badlands for a magazine called Dakota Country. The editor of that magazine is a fellow named Bill Mitzel. He started it from scratch more than 30 years ago, I think, and it was just a newsprint tabloid for the first few years, but it has grown into a successful glossy monthly magazine of more than hundred pages each issue. It focuses on hunting and fishing and life in the outdoors in North and South Dakota, and Bill is avid at both those sports.

Lately, he has been troubled by what he sees as threats to our wildlife and the places they live. So much so that he added a semi-political column by me to the magazine. The politics in my monthly column is not partisan, it is the politics of, generally, good and evil in the outdoors.

Last month I wrote about the Environmental Protection Agency, and how important it is to North Dakota right now. In the same issue, Mitzel printed several articles urging readers to support Measure 5 on the November ballot. You’ll recall that was the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment to the North Dakota Constitution, which lost at the polls by an 80-20 margin.    Mitzel also appeared in a television ad promoting the measure, which ran on statewide television in September and October. Well, that combination of things set off a firestorm. A number of Mitzel’s readers, mostly a pretty conservative hook and bullet crowd, went nuts on him.

I walked into the Dakota Country office one day in October as the answering machine was spitting out subscription cancellations it had saved up over the lunch hour, people who were punishing the Mitzels for publishing articles in his magazine defending the request to use a small percentage of the state’s oil extraction tax for natural resource conservation. I haven’t yet figured out why readers of his magazine would be opposed to that, but obviously an awful lot of them believed the lies, spread by the oil industry, that the sky would fall if we passed the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment.

The conservation organizations in our state, of which you and I are members, for the most part, do a wonderful job of making habitat and protecting wildlife, but they do a lousy job at politics. And the margin of defeat for their measure gives me cause for some nervousness as we approach the upcoming Legislative Session. It is going to be awfully easy for Legislators to rub that defeat in the face of the conservation lobbyists when bills affecting wildlife come before Legislative committees.

In reality, it is the credibility of the lobbyists for the state’s Chamber of Commerce and North Dakota Petroleum Council that should be called into question, because the men and women wearing Legislators’ badges aren’t stupid—they know how badly those two groups distorted the good intentions of the conservation groups in order to defeat Measure 5. But they also saw how ineffectual the conservation lobbyists were in their defense and promotion of the measure, and frankly, in politics, it is the winners who get served, because politicians love to be on the winning side. At least those I know, including those down the hall from the Legislature, and in the Capitol tower, do.

Big Oil rules in North Dakota politics these days, because oil will provide a good chunk of the money to be appropriated by the 2015 session of the North Dakota Legislature, and oil lobbyists, of which there will be many this year, will be reminding Legislators of that on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

To be sure, Legislators have the chance to do some really good things for our state this year, thanks to that oil money. The Governor came riding in on a white horse last fall and tossed out a $20 million bundle of cash to be added to what is a woefully under-funded state Outdoor Heritage Fund. You can just do that in North Dakota these days. $20 million is just a drop in the state’s $15 billion budget bucket. No one will ever miss it. That’s the kind of change that will just slide right through a hole in the pocket of the Appropriations Committee chairman, and no one will notice. The Governor said he will put that extra $20 million in his budget request to the Legislature. We’ll see how eager those Appropriations Committee chairmen are to keep it there.

Thing is, we really need to do more than that. Much more. Just ask thirty or forty thousand deer hunters who did not get a license this year, because we’ve gone from a high of nearly 150,000 annual deer tags to a near-record low of less than 50,000 in just five years, and they just happen to be the same five years that two very important things happened in our state—the CRP program, which provided much of the habitat and food for our deer population, went into a death spiral, and an oil boom, which fragments what habitat remains, took over management of the western half of our state. Weather, in the form of three bad winters, played a role, as the Game and Fish Department has told us ad nauseum as they try to explain why we’ve gone from an unlimited supply of deer tags to a lottery in which only half the applicants are successful, in just five years. Another example: in 2007, we issued almost 6,100 licenses to hunt antelope in North Dakota. In 2014, just seven years later, we issued just 250. And we all know that antelope range is Oil Country.

The Game and Fish Department would have been the biggest winner if Measure 5 had passed (not those big, bad out-of-state conservations organizations you heard about all fall), and I hope the Governor gives Department and Division heads out there at Game and Fish permission to work closely with the Legislature this year to make sure that AT LEAST $20 million is added to the Outdoor Heritage Fund. Our deer population and its management are in a crisis mode right now, as witnessed by the fact that in 2015 there will still be tens of thousands of hunters who won’t get a deer license. This is the most critical time for our deer population and the men and women who hunt them in our state’s history. And for all the other critters who inhabit the land.

Forever, the state’s Game and Fish Department has existed on a self-sufficiency basis, using license fees to pay for the job they do for us. But the time has come for a boost from the state’s oil tax-rich General Fund. No one can argue that the oil industry has pretty much been given free rein by our state’s elected officials to manage their own growth. The growth has been spectacular, as has the growth to the State General Fund. And no one can argue that the oil industry has not had some impact on wildlife population, particularly big game. So, no one can argue that some of that money should not be used for conservation, to help those critters.

It’s not likely to happen, though, at least in any direct way. At a Game and Fish Advisory Board meeting this week, I asked Terry Steinwand, Director of the Game and Fish Department, if he had considered asking for General Funds to enhance the Department’s budget in the upcoming biennium. It was a question Steinwand did not want to hear, especially in front of 200 hunters in attendance at the meeting, about half of who probably did not get a deer license this year. Steinwand dodged the question with two bad answers:

  • First, he said that the Game and Fish Department had always existed without taking any state General Fund money, and he kind of liked it that way. Well, that’s a stupid answer, because when the state’s wildlife are in crisis mode, you swallow your pride and take whatever money you can get. Especially when there’s plenty of it to go around.
  • Second, he said that was a policy decision and would have to be made by the Legislature. I wanted to just scream at him “Terry, the Legislature is not going to come out to your office and say “Hey, would you like another $50 million or so in your budget?”

But I knew his problem. He works for the Governor and he will have to be happy with what the Governor puts in his budget. Governors hate it when agency heads try to bust their budgets. I know. I did it a few times. Thing is, though, if you’re careful how you do it, and the right Legislators are on your side, it works.

As it stands now, the Game and Fish Department might be able to get its hands on some of the $20 million enhancement the Governor has proposed for the Outdoor Heritage fund, but that is woefully inadequate.

What Steinwand needs is $50 million or so a year to begin a statewide replacement for the CRP program, the federal farm program that brought us all the wildlife habitat that caused us to see record harvests of virtually all species of game in North Dakota, because we had record populations of game to harvest. That program is rapidly going away, and with it the habitat the critters need.

That’s what Measure 5 would have done for us. And so it is going to be easy for the politicians to argue that the people have rejected that idea already. Which just isn’t true. It was the lying liars at the state Chamber of Commerce and the North Dakota Petroleum Council who won the day in November. They managed to convince most of North Dakota, including most of our hunters, that Measure 5 was a bad thing. And the sponsors were so politically inept that they allowed the bad guys to win that one.

So, the same sportsmen and women who voted against Measure 5 (a lot of them because they didn’t believe the idea should be enshrined in the Constitution) need to line up at Legislative Committee meetings and make a case for general funds for the Game and Fish Department.

We’ve had a “perfect storm” of bad winters, loss of CRP and an oil boom, and that has taken its toll. Now we need to use some of these new dollars flowing into the state’s treasury to do what we couldn’t do just a few years ago.

That’s why the conservation organizations put Measure 5 on the ballot. The money exists today to do things we could never have done for our state before. Never. Now, because we can, we should. Problem is, as I said earlier, the organizations which would normally have their lobbyists in front of those committees asking for help in the coming Legislative session are the same ones who took a shellacking at the polls on Measure 5, and their credibility is being called into question.

Sure, they did some things wrong. Maybe their measure wasn’t written well enough for average North Dakotans to understand. Maybe they asked for too much money. Maybe they shouldn’t have tried to put their program into the Constitution, instead of state law. Maybe the opposition waged a disgustingly dishonest campaign. And maybe, as I said earlier, they just aren’t very good at politics. Whatever, they are going to need help at the North Dakota Capitol this session. I hope the people who love the outdoors in North Dakota will be there.

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The Lady Who Bankrupted Herberger’s

It is the third of December and today I finished my Christmas shopping. I didn’t mean to, and I am probably exaggerating, because I will probably get the urge to buy something for somebody, most likely Lillian, in the next three weeks, but technically, I am done, because I accomplished what I set out to do over the next few weeks in just two days. Here’s how.

SPOILER ALERT:  LILLIAN, IF YOU WANT TO BE SURPRISED AT CHRISTMAS, QUIT READING RIGHT NOW.

I had a list of four things I wanted to buy for Lillian this year. It started out as three, but she made a request for something that was not on the list so I added it. I had a hundred bucks in cash that I had salted away, a five dollar bill here, ten there, and a wad of ones, stuffed into a folder I keep beside my desk. Let me point out that we are modest gift shoppers for holidays, birthdays and anniversaries at our house, so generally, if we choose well, we can make each other happy for that amount.  I was pretty sure, when the list only had three things on it, that a hundred bucks would do it. That fourth item had me a little worried that it was going to be a budget-buster, forcing me to salt a little more money away this month, or leave something off the list.

So, yesterday I set off shopping, thinking there might be some post-Black Friday sales going on,  scrounging in an hour between other appointments. I had determined that between JC Penney’s and Herbergers, I could probably find all of these things. Finding them for a hundred bucks was another matter, but I was determined to give it my best shot. I’d have to find some sales.

First stop: Penney’s. We are Penney’s shoppers, generally, because we grew up with Penney’s, and it has always treated us right, and besides, Lillian’s sister is a long-time Penney’s employee and can sometimes get us discounts. There was a JC Penney’s store within two blocks of my house in Hettinger when I was growing up, and I had a crush on the manager’s daughter, this pretty little curly-headed blonde named Pam (her real name), from about the third grade until they moved away when we were just entering high school, and I used to sometimes just kind of hang out there in hopes of seeing her. So I know Penney’s.

Sure enough, I found what I am going to call Present A at Penney’s yesterday. It was, as I expected, one of the more expensive items on my list–$50—but indeed there was a sale on, and I could get it for $29.99 plus tax, so I took it. I paid the nice lady at the counter $31.94, and when she gave me my change, she also gave me a coupon, one of those kind that the cash register spits out after it spits out your receipt, and said “Here, this is good for ten dollars off on your next purchase of twenty five dollars or more.”

Well, I delighted in that, because now I had the $68.06 left from my hundred dollars, plus a ten dollar coupon. I figured I might just be able to pull this off now. So on the way out, while I still had a little time to kill, I walked over to the department where I might find one or more of the other three items. Sure enough, I found two of them, Present B and Present C. Together they cost $56, but they were both on the “25% off” rack, so I did some quick math, and figured out they would come to just $42, and if I used my ten dollars off coupon, just $32. Man, I was In Like Flint. But I was out of time, so I decided to come back today, and headed off to my lunch meeting.

Fast forward to 2 p.m. today. I am back in Penney’s. I grab Presents B and C that I am going to get for just $32 and realize that because of the 25 per cent off on each one, and my ten dollar coupon, I am going to pay just four dollars more for the two of them than the regular cost of one. Wow! I am some kind of shopper! I figure I might even be able to upgrade Present D a little bit. So I went looking. And found it.

There were several different brands, and I couldn’t see much difference among them, so I decided to get the color I like best (never mind that Lillian doesn’t especially like purple—I’m the one who’s going to have to be looking at it, and I do), figuring if she really dislikes it, she can bring it back and trade it in. So I grabbed the purple one, which was about the same as the others. Turns out it was also on sale, 25 per cent off.

At this point, I’ve got more numbers in my head than my English major brain can handle, but I think, with these sale prices and my ten dollars off coupon, I’m well within my budget.  So I head for the cash register.

I casually laid Presents B, C and D on the counter in front of a young girl substantially less than a third my age, and laid my ten dollars off coupon on top of them. She picked up the coupon, looked at it for about three seconds, and said “This is only good in home.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I asked, and she said “It’s good for things in Home.” The second time I realized she was talking about Home with a capital H—the part of the store that sells mixers and bedspreads, neither of which I needed.

Well, I figured I couldn’t add up all those numbers in my head and take 25 per cent off to see if I was under the $78.06 in my budget, and then decide if I should just take two of them, and which two, in the split second I needed to make that decision, with two ladies with arms full of clothing waiting behind me, so I just said “Oh. Well, okay then, thank you, anyway,” and  I just turned away and left Presents A, B and C on the counter. And headed for Herberger’s.

Where I learned something. You can sometimes buy the exact same things at Herberger’s—same brand, same color, same size, and amazingly, at the same 25 per cent off price—as  you can at Penney’s. At least you can buy Presents B, C and D, identical, at both places. The difference was, now I wasn’t standing at the counter with professional shoppers waiting in line behind me, so I had time to do the math. And guess what? It worked. I had $78.06 left in my budget, and Presents B, C, and D came to $82 at the regular price, but only $61.50 at the 25 per cent off price. That left me with $16.56 left over. I decided on the spot my next stop would be Polar Package Place, where I would buy Lillian a real nice bottle of Pinot Noir. Well, kind of nice. Drinkable. But hey, maybe they’d have a 25 per cent off sale going on there too . . .

So I headed for the checkout counter. I was third in line. As the lady in first place paid for her stack of items, I saw the clerk, a wonderfully friendly looking middle-aged woman, hand her a coupon that the cash register had spit out and say “And here’s a coupon good for $10 off your next purchase.”

“Yeah, right,” I thought to myself. “Don’t fall for it lady, unless you need a  mixer or a bedspread from over in Home.”

But this customer was no Jim Fuglie. She was a professional. I could tell, when she asked “Anything in the store?”

“Oh, there’s a few things you can’t use it on, listed right here,” she said as she pointed at the bottom of the coupon, the same place on the Penney’s coupon where it said “Home.” “But it’s good for most things.”

They parted company, and the lady in front of me put her things down on the counter. I looked down at Presents B, C and D in my arms and thought maybe, just maybe, I could get away with something. If I only bought Present B, and I indeed got a ten dollars off coupon, maybe I could come back and apply that to items C and D, and save ten bucks. Worth a try, I thought, so I casually walked away and put items C and D back  on the rack, and came back.

And then it’s my turn. I put Present B on the counter, the wonderfully friendly clerk scans the price, $26, with a 25 per cent ($6.50) discount, making it just $19.50, and then she reaches under the counter and pulls out a yellow coupon and says “It’s Friends and Family Week here at Herberger’s, and I just happen to have a Friends and Family coupon, so you get another $10 off! So that’ll be $10.12, with tax.”

No kidding. Present B, $26 on the rack, cost me $9.50 plus 62 cents tax—a total of $10.12. And she wasn’t done. I handed her eleven dollars, and she handed me back 88 cents, and . . .drum roll . . .a coupon for ten dollars off on my next purchase.

Well, I feigned surprise, and said “Well, my wife really likes (Presents C and D). Could I use this for them?”

With a smile that lit up the aisle all the way down to Home, she said “Sure.”  I told her I’d be back in ten minutes.

And away I went. Right back to the racks where Presents C and were waiting, picked them back up, stalled for a couple of minutes so it wouldn’t look like I had this all planned out, and headed back to the checkout. I was second in line. She looked up while she was helping the lady in front of me, saw me and flashed me a smile. And then I was back in front of her. I laid down my presents and the ten dollars off coupon, and I swear this is what happened next.

She picked up Present C, scanned it, and set Present D off to the side a little bit. And she looked up at me and said “We’ll use your ten dollars off coupon on this one,” and she scanned the coupon. So my $28 present C cost me $11. Then she reached over and grabbed Present D, scanned the price, and then  reached under the counter and, I swear,  pulled out another one of those yellow Friends and Family coupons, and said “We’ll use this on this one,” as she scanned the yellow coupon, which gave me another 25 per cent off. So my $28 present D cost me $15.75.  No kidding.

I paid. She gave me some change, and, yep, another coupon for $10 off my next purchase, and said “See you back here in ten minutes!” I smiled back and said “Maybe tomorrow.”

So here’s what happened. I bought Presents B, C and D. The price for the three of them was $82. But they were 25 per cent off, so that came to $61.50. But with the help of the most wonderful store clerk in America, the lady who singlehandedly is going to bankrupt Herberger’s before Christmas, I paid just $38.61, including tax, for Presents B, C and D, including tax.

Am I a good shopper, or what! Together with the $31.94 I paid for Present A (actually way overpriced for a $50 present, I now realize) I spent a total of just $70.55 for four presents whose price was $132! I was so excited I jumped in the car and drove home, forgetting to stop at Polar Package Place. Tomorrow. Lillian, I know you’re reading this. That’s going to be a pretty good bottle of wine after all. And I hope you like your presents. If not, you can take them back and trade them in. I saved the receipts. But you’re not going to get much for them.

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Let’s Hear It For The Good Guys: The EPA

Well, there probably aren’t a lot of North Dakotans who think they’d like to see a greater presence by the Environmental Protection Agency in our state right now. That’s unfortunate, because there are a lot of environmental problems here that aren’t being addressed. But fortunately, one of those who would welcome it, in the form of Special Agents from the agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, is our United States Attorney, Tim Purdon. Here’s why.

Nearly three years ago now, a company named Halek Operating, after hitting a dry hole in an oil drilling venture southwest of Dickinson, on the fringe of the North Dakota Badlands, turned around and began using the hole to illegally pump toxic saltwater back into the ground. This was no ordinary saltwater. It was flowback water produced by the fracking process, water which contains a host of fracking chemicals and is very, very salty. It is multiple times more salty than sea water, and much more toxic than oil itself, if spilled.

After inspectors from the state’s Oil and Gas Division busted the company, a fellow named Nathan Garber, who had actually done the dumping of the saltwater, was charged in state court with illegally putting more than 800,000 gallons of saltwater into the ground, threatening Dickinson’s drinking water source. Garber had done the dumping on behalf of his boss, Texan Jason Halek, who owns Halek Operating. Halek Operating was fined $1.5 million in a civil suit. Interestingly, during the dumping process, Garber thought it was such a fine way to make money—disposing of unwanted saltwater from other well-drillers’ operations—that he bought the well from Jason Halek for an undisclosed amount of money, so he could keep the profits from the illegal acts for himself. Subsequently, Halek then claimed he didn’t own the well, which is how he avoided a felony charge, and got off with only a fine, which he does not intend to pay.

In state court, the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office negotiated a guilty plea from Garber for “violation of North Dakota Industrial Commission rules,” in return for a two-year suspended sentence and a $2,500 fine. In essence, both Garber and Halek pretty much walked free, in spite of what Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who chairs the Industrial Commission said: “There will not be any exceptions or leniency when these things happen.”
Well, that was a load of manure, because Dalrymple and his fellow Industrial Commission members, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, knew they would never collect the $1.5 million from Halek They knew they were in line behind a Texas court settlement in which Halek owed investors more than $26 million, and Halek had already declared bankruptcy, which earned him the title “flim-flam man” from Texas news media.

Also, it should be noted that this was not Halek’s first run-in with state regulators. A year earlier, the Industrial Commission cited Halek for improperly cleaning up an oil spill, also near Dickinson. Halek faced more than $588,000 in potential fines, but was ordered to pay less than 10 percent of that, with the rest suspended. Well, history has indeed repeated itself. Halek has forfeited $40,000 worth of bonds against his $1,500,000 fine, and that’s it. The Industrial Commission should heed the old saying “Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us.”

What the oil industry has learned from these incidents is that if they keep some pocket change handy to feed the monkey over in the Capitol building, they can pretty much break any of the rules.

But now there’s a new player involved.  The United States Government, through its North Dakota U.S. Attorney’s office, has brought new charges which will send Garber to prison for a good long while, and it’s likely that soon new federal charges will also be filed against Halek. Federal officials were shaking their heads about how Halek had even gotten a drilling permit here, given his past record. But North Dakota is the “Wild, Wild,West” these days, and nothing is a surprise here anymore.

One federal official who was watching all this, and shaking his head, was U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon, our top federal cop in North Dakota.

“This was the largest saltwater-safe drinking water case in the history of the country, in terms of a disposal well incident,” Purdon said in an interview recently. Knowing that the federal government had significantly more resources and expertise in these kinds of cases than the state could provide, Purdon called in reinforcements, in the form of investigators from the Environmental Protection Criminal Investigation Division.

“As oil and natural gas development continues, it must be done in a way that ensures drilling byproducts are disposed of safely and legally,” said Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey Martinez of EPA’s criminal enforcement program in North Dakota. “(Garber’s) disregard of environmental regulation under the (federal) Safe Drinking Water Act put human health and the environment at serious risk.”

Thus the federal charges. And at the completion of Martinez’s investigation, Garber, through his attorney, pleaded guilty this fall to 11 felonies, and faces more than 50 years in prison (as opposed to the probation and $2,500 fine he received from the state). As part of his plea deal, though, the Associated Press reported that he is likely to serve about three years in a federal prison—but that will likely hinge on his willingness to testify against the big fish, Halek.

The timing of all this is interesting. The violations occurred between December 2011 and March 2012. The state first suspected “something fishy” in early February, 2012. The well was shut down on March 5, 2012. By that time, more than 800,000 gallons of toxic saltwater and oilfield waste had been pumped into the ground. It took the state about 16 months to haul Garber into court and Halek in front of the Industrial Commission. It was the end of September, 2013, before the Halek fine was approved by the courts and Garber reached a plea agreement with the state for his fine and probation.

“That’s what the state did, and called it good,” Purdon said. “But this demanded more.”

It didn’t take Purdon long to act. Less than two months later, on November 20, 2013, a search warrant was executed at the well site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division. Investigators found significant evidence that there were at least five violations of the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act and a conspiracy to cover them up—charges a whole lot more serious than the state’s flimsy “violations of the rules” charges.

While it’s the Safe Drinking Water Act violations that will send Garber to federal prison, the conspiracy charge is more interesting, because a conspiracy has to involve more than one person. And that other person is Halek. All Purdon will say about that right now is that the investigation continues, but statements made in Garber’s lengthy plea agreement clearly implicate Halek as the man who told Garber to “keep on pumping” the toxic waste into the ground, even when Garber and Halek both knew what they were doing was illegal.

As for the 800,000 gallons of saltwater lying beneath the ground southwest of Dickinson, well, it is still down there, pending completion of the EPA investigation. The state’s top regulator, Lynn Helms, head of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), has said “It takes many, many years to clean it up, if it can be done at all.” I’ll monitor that and keep you posted. A spokesperson in Helms’ office told me recently “DMR believes the well does not pose any environmental risk in its current status.” We need to hope they are right.

Purdon’s learned a lot from this. Most importantly, he’s learned that he is going to have to stay involved in oilfield work, because the state just doesn’t have the expertise to do what needs to be done out there.

“When there’s a problem, the state sends in inspectors, and in good faith, they do what they can,” Purdon said. “But what’s needed is skilled investigators, trained experts who know what to look for. We solved this case because of the skill and expertise of these investigators. We brought in the first team. The result was a conviction on 11 felony charges.”

Purdon will continue to make his case for a permanent presence of federal investigators here in North Dakota. The nearest office now is Helena Montana, eight hours away. “We need permanent Environmental Protection Agents here in North Dakota,” he says. “We need them to develop a relationship with the state, to handle cases like these.”

Purdon is not critical of the state’s efforts. They do what they can do. But they need more help. The Garber case is clear evidence of that. The Halek case, still to come, will provide more. Purdon needs the Governor’s office to use its clout to pressure the state’s Congressional Delegation—Congressman Kevin Cramer and Senators John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp—to send in federal help. And he needs the Delegation to listen. Heitkamp should be especially attentive and helpful—her first job out of law school was working as an attorney for the EPA, during the Carter administration. She knows how important the agency is.

I think this is the fifth or sixth time I have reported on this story. I’m going to go looking. Okay, here’s the first story–you have to scroll down a ways to find it. Here’s the second story. Scroll down past the raspberries (and notice how naive I was at the time). Here’s number three–scroll down past the bus tour and the wildlife stories. Here’s the fourth one. And number five. You don’t have to go read them all. But you can  bet Tim Purdon has.  And Purdon won’t say it, but I will. The state has been lackadaisical about enforcement of environmental laws. The oil industry pretty much runs amok here, and millions of dollars of political contributions to state officials help ensure that will continue.

This isn’t the first time Purdon has stepped in and provided federal assistance—generally welcomed, I think—to the state. He brought the Attorney General of the United States here earlier this year to talk about the drug and crime problems in the Oil Patch, and it wasn’t long before our Congressional Delegation was announcing federal financial help in those areas—a bit of an irony in the richest state in America. But if the state won’t do it . . .

Purdon was also instrumental in forcing the change in state law banning open waste pits at oil well sites, when he called attention to the problem by charging six oil companies under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act when their waste pits killed 28 ducks back in 2011. It was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that investigated that incident, not the state Game and Fish Department. Although the charges were later dropped, the state moved quickly to ban open waste pits, to solve the problem. What they didn’t anticipate was that the waste material was going to get pumped into the ground by fellows like Garber and Halek.

And Purdon isn’t the first federal official to express concern about what’s going on in the Oil Patch. Just last month, retiring Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said in a Dakota Country magazine article the state “needs to be honest about what is happening in western North Dakota and address the environmental and social problems. The state needs to do more to protect special places that North Dakotans hold dear and that others come to North Dakota to experience. Otherwise, there will be nothing left of North Dakota after the energy boom ends. There has to be a more measured and conscious approach to development.”

Here on the prairie, it’s not popular to defend the actions of federal agencies. There’s an anti-federal culture here, and that’s unfortunate. The EPA, particularly, has been a popular whipping boy for both our state officials and our Congressional Delegation. Recently, all our state and federal elected officials have been blasting the EPA for a new proposed rule which tries to more accurately define “navigable waters.” The EPA is trying to get a handle on pollution of surface waters across the country. That’s the EPA’s job, and men and women who spend time in the outdoors should be cheering the agency on. Instead, all that comes out at public meetings are things like “It’s a clear example of federal government overreach,” from our Governor. And threats from our Attorney General to “sue the federal government” if they enact the rule. It’s time for outdoor enthusiasts to speak up, like U.S. Attorney Purdon, an enthusiastic hunter, has been doing.

This might be an example of what the new EPA Navigable Waters regulations are trying to deal with. The cattle waste from this (temporarily unused) sidehill feedlot in Morton County drains right down into the creek at the bottom of the photo, which, in wet years, eventually drains into the Heart River, and then the Missouri River. The new rule could, eventually, force the feedlot owner to take steps to prevent that. As well it should. There are an awfully lot of these sidehill feedlots in North Dakota.

I remember well the day President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, which created the EPA, and a nation cheered. It was a New Year’s Day bill-signing, and America’s 1970 New Year’s Resolution was to care for our environment. I long for those days, when the EPA officials were seen as the good guys, not the bad guys. I fear for our state when those who are trying to protect us, at a time when we need their help more than ever, are chastised for their work. At a time when our state officials have dollar signs in their eyes, blinding their ability to see how fragile our precious North Dakota outdoors is, in the face of overwhelming development. If it takes the Environmental Protection Agency to do that, well, that’s their job—to protect the environment. If it takes U.S. Attorneys and federal investigators to get the job done, well, then, I’m for ’em.

“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country. Clean air, clean water, open spaces—these should once again be the birthright of every American. If we act now, they can be.”                                                                  –President Richard M. Nixon, January 1970 

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The Best Thanksgiving Meal Ever

When I left home on Thanksgiving Day 2001 I had a shotgun, a box of shells, a game vest, a gallon jug of water, a cooler, a propane stove with a small bottle of propane, a bottle of red wine and a wooden camping box made for me and given to me by my friend Ken Rogers. My camping box had the essentials for cooking a campfire meal—frying pan, paper plates, a coffee pot, a coffee cup, coffee, a boy scout silverware set, a carving knife, plastic cups, paper towels, aluminum foil, a spatula, matches, a big sharp fork and various other campfire cooking thingamabobs.

In the cooler I had ice, a six pack of beer (PBR, I think) a pound of bacon, some already scrambled eggs in a Ziploc bag, a half a pound of hamburger, a potato, some butter, a bottle of orange juice and some oversized Pillsbury biscuits I had made the evening before. All that was neatly tucked into the back of my Jeep alongside a tent, a sleeping bag and a self-inflating air mattress.

My plan was to hunt pheasants way out in western North Dakota, and then spend Thanksgiving night camping at Cottonwood Campground in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The forecast was for daytime temperatures in the 50s and nighttime temperatures in the 20s. Perfect late fall camping weather, if a bit nippy when I crawled out of the sleeping bag in the morning, because I wasn’t hauling firewood and it was illegal to pick it up in the park.

It was to be my first Thanksgiving all alone in some time, and I had spurned a couple of invitations from family members to join them. I didn’t feel like trying to pretend to get into a festive or even remotely thankful mood. I had been a widower for almost two months, I suffered from anxiety attacks—a common symptom of grief, I had been told—and my best hours were when I was off by myself in a place with no walls or ceiling. I was not particularly morose, just subject to fleeting bouts of sadness which I could fend off reasonably well by being somewhere I really liked to be, generally by myself. It was my third escape to the Bad Lands in the two months since Rita had died, and I knew the trip would help me continue the process of healing.

I headed west, crossing the Little Missouri River at Medora, and kept going until I came to the Camels Hump Butte exit, where I headed north into Golden Valley County. There, I drove rather aimlessly along the west edge of the Bad Lands, wheat country with long single row shelter belts. I stopped several times and walked, alongside a shelterbelt, down a shallow coulee, along the edge of a CRP field, mostly for the sheer joy of walking in shirtsleeves on a November day under a mostly-cloudless blue sky. The shotgun was loaded but went unused for much of the afternoon, until a silly rooster pheasant went scooting across a prairie road a couple hundred yards in front of me at the end of a shelterbelt. I walked to where it had entered the ditch, took the shotgun off safe, and stepped into the ditch. The pheasant erupted with a loud cackle not ten yards from me, and I shot it.

After retrieving the pheasant and putting the gun and game vest away in the back of the Jeep, I headed generally east and south on gravel roads, not exactly sure where I was but knowing that I would either run into the Bad Lands or I-94 at some point. Turns out it was the Bad Lands. I came to a T in the road on which I was heading east, and looking ahead I realized I had run right up against the beginning of the Bad Lands. I pulled off on the approach at the T, got out and crossed the fence, and walked about a hundred yards east, and found myself in one of those places where there’s a sheer drop-off right down into a Bad Lands canyon. The prairie continued a bit on my right, but ended in the magnificent ruggedness of the Bad Lands in front of me and to my left, and I realized if I sat down, I could hang my legs right down into the very western beginning—or end—of the multi-millennial work of the wind and the Little Missouri. And so I did.

Behind me, the sun was probably 15 or 20 degrees above the horizon, just low enough to begin casting long shadows across the landscape in front of me, and it was fascinating to watch them move across the Bad Lands floor, changing the shape of the landscape as the sun drooped further and further down, and west. Having cased the gun, I decided to go back to the Jeep and get a beer and relax here a while. But when I popped open the back of the Jeep, there was a pheasant lying on top of a propane stove, between a cooler and a camping box. And I immediately decided this would be an ideal spot to have Thanksgiving dinner.

It was no problem setting up for dinner. It took me two trips from the Jeep to carry the camping box, stove, pheasant, water jug and bottle of wine to the edge of the canyon. I cleaned the pheasant, dropping the entrails over the edge for a coyote or a magpie to have his own Thanksgiving dinner. I washed the bird, split it into four pieces, set the stove on the ground, lit it, scooped some butter into the frying pan, and fried the pheasant. And ate most of it, right out of the pan, dabbing a couple biscuits in the greasy juice in the pan, washing it all down with red wine. With my feet dangling down into the Bad Lands and the rest of me observing from the prairie. I finished as the sun slid behind Camel’s Hump Butte for the night. I tossed the bones and leftovers down with the entrails, wiped the frying pan mostly clean with a couple paper towels, and carted my gear back to the Jeep.

Without a doubt, that was the greatest Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever eaten. That was 13 years ago, and I’ve bored everyone in my family with that story countless times, but they still nod and listen politely each time I ask, about this time of the year, “Have I ever told you about the best Thanksgiving meal I ever ate?”

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