Semi-Annual Elkhorn Ranch Update

I want to bring you up to date on the threats to the Elkhorn Ranch, Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch in the North Dakota Badlands, called by many the “Cradle of Conservation,” because it was there that the future President began developing his deep conservation ethic, and later became our greatest conservation president ever.

I’ve mentioned these things a couple of times in previous stories here—the desire by a local Billings County commissioner to build a new bridge across the Little Missouri River north of Medora, which you read about here, and the scheme by a Montana raconteur to dig a big gravel mine directly across from the Elkhorn Ranch site, located here. Both projects have made national headlines, and drawn national as well as local opposition because of the disturbance they would cause to this very special place in the heart of the North Dakota Badlands, and in the hearts of North Dakotans and all conservationists.

The U.S. Forest Service map shows the Goldsberry Crossing location (1), The proposed gravel mine (2), and Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch site (3).

The U.S. Forest Service map shows the Goldsberry Crossing location (1), The proposed gravel mine (2), and Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch site (3). Medora is about 25 miles due south of the Elkhorn Ranch.

Figures no less important than the President’s great-grandson, Tweed Roosevelt, and the past Executive Director of the Boone and Crocket Club, Lowell Baier, have taken up the cause of the ranch, as have state conservation leaders and many of the country’s leading conservation organizations. And they’ve been successful—so far.

But the threats are more immediate now.

As if we haven’t had enough environmental disasters in western North Dakota as a result of the Bakken Boom, the worst of them all is about to start making its way to reality—the bridge over the Little Missouri River, deep in the Badlands, creating a monstrous truck corridor through the remote, fragile valley of the North Dakota’s only designated State Scenic River.

The Billings County website says that a Draft Environmental Impact Statement was scheduled to be released in “late spring-early summer” of 2015. But I just learned in an e-mail that the target date for release of that document is now “early 2016.” In that document, Billings County’s engineering firm will select a proposed route for the road and location for the new bridge. My guess is, that is academic—the bridge location has pretty much been narrowed down to one possibility, a place called the Goldsberry Ranch Crossing, about 30 miles northwest of  Medora, as the crow flies. A lot farther by road.

Earlier, in response to a huge public outcry after public hearings in Bismarck and Medora in 2012, the original idea of putting the bridge beside the Elkhorn Ranch was discarded in favor of two other possible locations. But one of those locations is only about 15 miles north of Medora, where there are already two bridges across the river, and that location makes no sense. That just leaves the Goldsberry site among the options identified earlier as possible locations.

The good news, of course, is that the bridge and resultant “truck freeway” will not be right up against the Elkhorn Ranch, which is part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, as originally proposed. But the Goldsberry Ranch Crossing is just four miles northwest of the Elkhorn, and the prevailing winds will carry the huge clouds of dust and the dull roar of truck traffic down the Little Missouri River Valley as sure as Teddy Roosevelt had “four eyes.”

And while any proposed location has been moved away from Roosevelt’s cabin site, national and state conservation leaders are still concerned about the damage the bridge and accompanying road will do to the Badlands environment. We’ll get a better sense of that, hopefully, from the EIS. If the engineering firm doing the job is honest with us, we’ll have some sense of what building a gravel road and bridge carrying up to 1,000 trucks a day—one of the estimates provided by the Billings County Commissioner heading up the project—might mean to the land and wildlife in the nearby Badlands. And to hunters, hikers, birders, canoers, photographers and others who love to spend recreation time in the Badlands. Not to mention the ranchers whose land the trucks will roar through, day and night.

The threat to the environment is hard to imagine. Putting a thousand trucks a day, if that is what it turns out to be, on Badlands gravel roads, is totally irresponsible. That’s a truck every minute and a half over a 24-hour day, but much of the traffic will likely be daylight traffic, so we’re really talking about bumper to bumper truck traffic all day, every day. Imagine the dust clouds. Imagine the grass along the roads when the dust settles—unfit for deer or ranchers’ cattle to eat. Imagine the cacophony of brakes going down steep Bad Lands ravines. How do you even drive through dust like that? And the truck drivers are going to have to drive at least 35 or 40 miles of gravel to get from Highway 85 to Highway 16, which the county commissioners say is their desired objective. It’s obvious they haven’t thought this through. I hope the engineers doing the EIS have. Personally, I think if this happens, within a year or two there will be a barren, mile-wide, 40-mile long, corridor through some of the most scenic parts of the Badlands.

I’ve spoken to the two ranchers who own the land on either side of the river where the likely proposed crossing is located, and neither has heard a word from the county or the engineering firm. Neither is very excited about the prospects, and hopefully they will show up at public hearings to voice their feelings about the project. Once the Draft EIS is released, a round of public meetings will take place, testimony for and against the project will be given, and a Final EIS will be published sometime next year. Then the wheels will start turning to put the state and federal funds in place to build it. We’ll be watching to see how much of this boondoggle will be paid for by taxpayers outside Billings County. I’ll keep you posted and explain how the project will be funded when I know more about that.

The second threat is the proposed gravel mine directly across the Little Missouri from the Elkhorn site, about a mile from Roosevelt’s cabin site. That land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service as a buffer to protect the ranch site and its viewshed from development, but what are known as “surface minerals”—gravel and scoria as opposed to oil and coal—are owned by kind of a scurrilous fellow from Montana named Roger Lothspeich, who apparently bought them from a trust or estate of a family of former owners of the ranch, and then tried to blackmail the Forest Service into paying him off not to develop the gravel mine. His first asking price was something like $2.5 million, and the Forest Service didn’t bite.

Instead, they told him to go ahead and dig the gravel, and they put him through a rigorous permit process. The result was, a lot of safeguards have been put in place to make sure, as best as is possible, there is not a huge superfund site there when he is done. He’s posted a reclamation bond now, and received his permit to rebuild the access roads and begin mining, but as of August 1, there was still no activity at the site. That could change any day. Forest Service District Ranger Shannon Boehm, who will give the final go-ahead on the project, is still trying to meet with Lothspeich’s engineers to review plans for the road into the gravel mine site. Once Boehm signs off on the plans, road-building can begin. Whether it can be done before winter sets in remains to be seen.

Because mineral ownership trumps surface ownership, the fellow is entitled to dig out his gravel, but the Forest Service says it has done about all it can to make sure the disturbance is temporary. And there will be disturbance, for about the two-year life of the project. For a while, the Elkhorn won’t be the quiet meditative spot it has been for the last 125 years. We can just hope the bond will bring a concerted effort to reclaim the land atop the hill across from the ranch, as best as Badlands can be reclaimed. And hope that the Forest Service monitors the site closely, which will be difficult for them, given the scope of the other oil activity on their million acres in western North Dakota.

The irony in that, of course, is that it was Theodore Roosevelt, when he became President, who created the U.S. Forest Service. The agency that now manages the million acres of the Little Missouri National Grasslands. Roosevelt recalled his days in Dakota when, as the National Park Service points out on its website, “He became increasingly alarmed by the damage that was being done to the land and its wildlife.”

“He witnessed the virtual destruction of some big game species. Overgrazing severely impacted the grasslands, which also affected the habitats of small mammals and songbirds. Conservation increasingly became one of Roosevelt’s main concerns. After he became President in 1901, Roosevelt used his authority to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the U.S. Forest Service and establishing 51 Federal Bird Reservations, 4 National Game Preserves, 150 National Forests, 5 National Parks, and enabling the1906 American Antiquities Act which he used to proclaim 18 National Monuments. During his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt protected approximately 230,000,000 acres of public land,” the NPS website says. “Theodore Roosevelt was the nation’s 26th President and is considered by many to have been our country’s ‘Conservationist President.’ Here in the North Dakota Badlands, where many of his personal concerns first gave rise to his later environmental efforts, Roosevelt is remembered with a national park that bears his name and honors the memory of this great conservationist.”

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources,” Roosevelt once wrote. “But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation . . . We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”

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Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged

This morning’s Bismarck Tribune had a front page story about the Catholic bishop of Bismarck announcing that he would no longer allow Catholic churches in his diocese to sponsor Boy Scout troops. He said in the story that the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to allow gay Scout leaders “prompted him to decide that the diocese, its parishes and schools would end their relationship” with the Boy Scout troops, effective immediately.

Bismarck Bishop David Kagan has done a mean, spiteful thing. The Boy Scouts said that chartered organizations sponsoring Boy Scout troops can use their religious beliefs on sexuality to select leaders. In other words, they do not have to allow troops they sponsor to select gay Scoutmasters. That makes sense. Certainly the Boy Scout organization I know would not require anyone to violate his or her religious beliefs. If sponsoring organizations, like the Catholic Church, teach that homosexuality is wrong, then they should not have to violate that principle. And the Boy Scouts agreed with that, and said so.

Organizations which sponsor Boy Scout troops, one of which sponsored my Boy Scout troop when I was growing up, generally include churches, civic groups like the American Legion,  and schools, which provide some financial help, meeting space and leadership to the volunteer Boy Scout organizations. In North Dakota, Catholic and Lutheran Churches have been leaders in  sponsoring Scout troops.

In my hometown of Hettinger, when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, we had two Scout troops, one sponsored by the Catholic Church and one by the Lutheran Church. Your religious affiliation generally, but not always, dictated which troop you would join. My dad was Scoutmaster of Troop 34, sponsored by the Catholic Church, so I naturally joined that one.

Many of those affiliations persist today. The beauty of this arrangement is, religion generally doesn’t overlap into Scout activities. Scouts aren’t pestered about religion. They learn scouting. In Mandan, for example, the paper this morning pointed out that St. Joseph’s Catholic Church has sponsored a troop for more than 60 years.

No more.

Today, I am so angry at my bishop that I sent him a letter. I’ve never done anything like this before.  But he needs to hear from Catholics, and today he heard from me. He further angered me this week when he had his priests read a letter from the pulpit last Sunday denouncing the Supreme Court’s decision to allow same-sex marriage. The Catholic Church has no dog in that fight. We don’t allow same-sex marriage, but we also should not be judging others who do. Lest we be judged.

So today I wrote to the Bishop. If you are a Catholic, and if you agree with me, I urge you to do the same. One of my friends has already done so. In short, he said “Who was it who said, ‘Who am I to judge?’  Pope Francis.”

Here’s my letter. Father, forgive me, but I must speak out.

Dear Bishop Kagan,

            I am a very sad Catholic today. Your stance on the Boy Scouts is intolerant and unbecoming of a Man of Christ. 

            I am particularly troubled by this sentence:

            “While there are indications that the BSA has a religious organization exemption, which each local troop could invoke, that will provide no protection for any of our parishes and/or schools, which sponsor troops.” 

            Protection from what, Bishop Kagan? Protection from what? 

            I would like an answer to that question: Protection from what? What are you afraid of? I sense a deep, dark, absence of compassion and understanding, and more than a bit of ignorance on this issue. I know I must trust you to lead our diocese’s churches and its priests, but this statement gives me no confidence in your thinking process, which is critical to your ability to lead.

            I grew up in  Boy Scout Troop 34 in Hettinger, sponsored by my parish, Holy Trinity Catholic Church. The troop was started by my father, and he served as Scoutmaster for many years. My three brothers and I all were Scouts and mass servers, and we felt both were part of our growing up process. Actually, it would have been unthinkable for us to not do either of those things. I’m pretty sure I can  speak for my father and my brothers in saying that your dictum is a huge mistake.

            As Scouts we were brought up to follow the Scout Oath: On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Law, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight. 

            And I tried my best to obey the Scout Law, which was which was to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent (and  I didn’t have to look those up–I still remember–that’s how important those things were to me).

            I’m guessing you were not a Boy Scout, Bishop Kagan, or if you were, you have forgotten a lot of what you learned.

            Last Sunday I listened to your equally intolerant letter on gay marriage, read to me by Father Chad Gion, and reacted much the same way as I am reacting today after reading the newspaper story. You, and we as Catholics, have no dog in the gay marriage fight. Gay men and women who choose to marry have no place in my thought process, or in my religious practices or beliefs. It is their business. Not mine. Not yours. 

            It seems to me you’ve picked two unnecessary fights this week, and I am terribly disappointed in you. That’s not leadership. That’s pandering. 

            I am so grateful I have a wonderful compassionate priest in Father Chad. I’ve not seen anyone in my 68 years as a Catholic who better expresses his love for Jesus, and why I should love him, as well as Father Chad does. He may agree with you on these stands, but he doesn’t wear them on his sleeve, and he doesn’t go out of his way to pick a fight. He’s the reason I continue to practice my faith, in spite of the fact I have an intolerant bishop.    

            I hope your days in our diocese are numbered. We need better leadership than you are displaying right now. And I am not just speaking for myself. I have many, many friends who want to see you go away and for the Holy Father to bring us new leadership. True leadership.


Jim Fuglie


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The Ugliest Story Yet From North Dakota’s Oil Patch

According to the man who says he killed Kristopher “K.C.” Clarke, the young oilfield worker who disappeared more than three years ago is buried in one of North Dakota’s Bad Lands parks—likely Little Missouri State Park or the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

That’s one of the apparent confessions made by Timothy Suckow of Spokane, WA, as he attempts to cut a deal to shorten his potential life sentence in prison, by implicating James Henrikson, the man who Suckow says hired him to kill Clarke and another Spokane man, Doug Carlile. Suckow, who’s admitted in the past to being a “devil-worshiper,” spilled his guts—as former North Dakota U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said “He only had one card to play”—and the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington, where Henrikson is being held and is scheduled to stand trial in October, has outlined in detail how and when Clarke and Carlile were killed, in a sometimes gruesome 58-page document released this week by District Judge Salvador Mendoze, Jr. of Spokane. Reading it is not for the faint of heart. These are some bad dudes.

There are four other defendants in the murder case, all associates of Henrikson or Suckow, and they‘ve also apparently told all, judging from the contents of the document. I first wrote about this case in January of 2014, (there are links to those stories here, here and here) just a month after Carlile was killed in his home, allegedly in an ambush by Suckow, although it’s obvious the word “allegedly” can go away in this case now that Suckow has told all. Suckow has pleaded not guilty to the two murders, but it is likely that plea will change as his court date nears, based on the fact he has pretty much admitted to two murders in the employ of Henrikson. The price: $20,000 each.

The Clarke murder has puzzled authorities for more than three years. Here’s how it happened, according to the court documents which are based on testimony from Suckow and the other witnesses and defendants in the case:

Henrikson was operating a trucking and oilfield business on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation under arrangement with then-Tribal Chairman Tex Hall. Henrikson suspected Clarke was about to leave his firm and start his own trucking business and take some customers with him, so he brought Suckow in from Washington to kill Clarke. On the morning of February 22, 2012, Henrikson and two of his employees lured Clarke to the Henrikson’s shop, which may have been owned by Hall and leased to Henrikson—the documents are not clear on that, but they’re clear on the fact the shop was on the reservation—and, while two of Henrikson’s employees stood guard outside the door of the shop to make sure no one could get in, Henrikson distracted Clarke and Suckow bashed in  Clarke’s head with the handle of a floor jack, hitting him four times in the head “until the last hit apparently crushed the skull (Suckow stated that Clark’s head got soft with the last hit).”

Then they put Clarke’s body in a large box, loaded the box in the back of a truck, and, along with another Henrikson employee named George Dennis, who has not been indicted, they drove both the truck and Clarke’s pickup to Watford City, where they left Clarke’s vehicle. They went to a hardware store and bought two shovels, and drove to a place the document calls “Badlands State Park,” where Suckow says he spent about seven hours digging a grave, with Henrikson standing over him with a gun and Dennis waiting in the pickup, and they buried Clarke’s body.

Now, there’s no such place as “Badlands State Park,” but there are two parks in the Bad Lands reasonably close to Watford City—the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, about 15 miles south of town, and Little Missouri State Park, about 40 miles east.

I have asked the state and national parks people if they have been involved in any of the investigation, and both said no.

Wendy Ross, Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent, said “I imagine that there would be something we would have heard about this officially if there were investigations occurring on park land.”

Jesse Hanson with North Dakota State Parks said there hasn’t been any digging—searching for a body—in Little Missouri State Park, that he’s aware of, and if there was, he’d surely know about it.

The document says the body was buried about 5 feet deep in a sitting position, and after that was done—by this time it was pretty late at night—they  all went back to Watford City, got Clarke’s pickup and drove it to Williston, where they abandoned it on a back street with the keys in the ignition, hoping someone would steal it.

Not long after that, Clarke’s family reported him missing. Speculation quickly turned to Henrikson, but no evidence surfaced, and Henrikson’s employees (who have not been charged as accomplices—yet) kept their silence about the events of February 22. Publicly, it remained a mystery until the judge in Spokane released this document last week. Now we know the story has apparently been told by witnesses. What remains is to find the grave.

Henrikson’s employee George Dennis, who drove the truck to the park, has apparently told the story to investigators, and should know at least which park they went to. It’s not clear in the document whether investigators have gone looking for the grave or not. I’m guessing they want to find the body to help with the case against Henrikson and Suckow.

Fast forward almost two years to December of 2013. Somebody else pissed Henrikson off, a business partner named Doug Carlile in Spokane. According to the document, Suckow killed him too. Shot him six times in his own home. But he bungled the job, left behind some evidence, and didn’t count on surveillance cameras at neighbors’ houses and schools and convenience stores.  Police nailed him within a few days, based on DNA evidence found in a glove he left behind.

Carlile had been nervous about Henrikson, to the point he told family members “If I disappear or wake up with bullets in my back, promise me you will let everyone know that James Henrikson did it.”

Good police work tied Henrikson to Suckow after he was arrested. They found Henrikson’s phone number in Suckow’s phone, and put two and two together. Henrikson denied any involvement, but everyone suspected a connection, to the point where, a few months later, North Dakota U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon saw to it that Henrikson was arrested in North Dakota on weapons charges—a felon in possession of firearms—to make sure he didn’t fly the coop.

Eventually, after Suckow and the others started talking, the charge was changed to murder. That was last October. Henrikson was moved from a jail in North Dakota to Washington, although news reports last week said that he had planned an elaborate escape, offering a fellow inmate $500,000 to put together a team to ambush on a van which was taking Henrikson to a courthouse for a hearing. The inmate ratted Henrikson out, and no escape attempt was made.

If you like reading legal documents, here’s a copy of the indictment of the six defendants.

So, here’s how it stands today.

Tex Hall is free, although he is no longer tribal chairman, having lost an election in the middle of all this. Apparently he is, or was, rich, though, because he has accused Henrikson and his former wife of bilking him out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. And he remains forever connected to Henrikson, because his girlfriend’s daughter (it’s not clear whether she is Hall’s daughter as well) bore Henrikson’s child from an illicit affair during the two men’s business relationship.

Henrikson is in jail in Spokane and will probably never set foot free again, even though he never pulled a trigger. He paid people to do that for him.  In addition to the murder charges, he has been charged for his heroin distribution operation, a little (actually not so little) sideline business he ran in western North Dakota when the trucking business got slow. It looks like lots of people are going to testify against him. His trial is set for sometime in October.

Suckow and the other four defendants who helped him on one or the other of the murders are in jail. Suckow pulled the trigger. He’ll go to jail for a good long while, in spite of a probable plea deal. His assistants will likely do time as well.

K.C. Clarke is still missing. There’s a $10,000 reward for information leading to his discovery—dead or alive, I think. K.C.’s mom has maintained a Facebook page all these years, with not much to report. Yesterday she was finally able to put the Spokesman-Review story on the page for her more than 7,500 followers to read. She’s hoping authorities will now be able to find her son.

At least six men, including Jed McClure of Chicago, Tim Scott and Jay Wright of Washington state, Ray Olness of Arizona, and Tex Hall and  Steven Kelly of the Fort Berthold Reservation, are alive, despite efforts by Henrikson to have them killed. Henrikson is charged with conspiracy to murder three of them.

The story has caught the attention of the news media in Spokane and New York, but not much in Bismarck or North Dakota. The Spokane Spokesman-Review has provided ongoing coverage of the whole affair, and their reporter, Kip Hill, has been kind enough to share some of the court documents with me. Hill’s lengthy story on Sunday prompted me to revisit this case. He also wrote this story about the planned jail escape Henrikson was planning, as well as a fascinating account of how detectives use cell phone tracking to put together a criminal case. The New York Times published the most comprehensive story to date, accompanied by a well-produced 18-minute documentary news story, last winter. The story is worth reading and the video is worth watching, if you want to see what good journalism looks like.

Meanwhile, I’m going to try to track down the efforts to find Clarke’s grave in those Bad Lands parks.  I go to those parks and if there’s a body buried there, I want it out of there.

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The Dead Have Risen, For A Weekend, At Least

I’m going to Hettinger, my hometown, today. Class reunion. A chance to see many old friends. But I’d rather be in Chicago. Let me tell you why.

Just about exactly 20 years ago, on the morning of July 8, 1995, I was sitting under the Gateway Arch at the Jefferson National Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, reading the St, Louis Post-Dispatch and sipping coffee, when I noticed a lot of long-haired freaky people in tie-dyed tee shirts and red bandanas wandering around the park. I wondered if this was a normal summer morning in St. Louis which was not noted, in my mind at least, as a real hippie kind of town.

I figured it out as I paged through the paper. A story on one of the inside pages said the Grateful Dead had just concluded a two-concert set there, and these were the remnants of the 50,000 or so “Deadheads” still hanging around town. Further down in the story, I read that they were opening a two-concert set in Chicago that night. Well, the only thing on my agenda for the day was to decide what to do that day. I decided Chicago, just 300 miles north, might be a good place to go.

I was about halfway through a two week driving trip between the end of one job and the start of another, a palate-cleansing exercise I have always performed between employment gigs. I changed jobs pretty frequently during my working years, growing tired of routines or searching for a few more bucks for my travel/concert budget. I’ve always taken a few weeks to make a clean break before starting over. This time I had set out for Hannibal, Missouri, to see Mark Twain’s home, a worn paperback copy of Hucklebery Finn, my book of books, beside me on the seat of a brand new Jeep Grand Cherokee, which was also loaded with a lot of camping gear.

After doing that, and getting a full dose of Huckleberry History, including an overnight sleep near the bank of the Mississippi, I’d headed into St. Louis the night before, arriving in time to eat a late supper and a make decision to take a hotel room for a shower, which I needed badly.

Now, a good night’s sleep under my belt, I checked my maps and realized that Chicago was just 300 miles away, five or six hours at most. I hiked over to my Jeep, took off and headed north on Highway 61, destination Soldier Field, Chicago. Me and hundreds of “Deadheads” in Volkswagon microbuses and various other tie-dye painted jalopies, windows down, driving below the speed limit, clouds of smoke pouring out the windows. I never did figure out how they supported themselves, much less found the money to buy concert tickets, gas, dope and veggie burritos, but thousands of young people, even as late as 1995, traveled around the country, following the band, seeing as many concerts as they could. I was not one of them.

I’d never seen the Grateful Dead. I’d meant to, but the occasion never presented itself. I really wasn’t a huge fan of their music, but they were not just about the music. I’m sure the concerts were great, musically, but it was the spectacle of the band and Jerry Garcia, the larger than life image they projected, that drew their millions of fans. That and all the dope smoke in the air. The Upper Midwest was not really Dead Country. I guess they must have played in Minneapolis or Denver, but I never got there. And right then, in 1995, you never knew how long they would be touring—they’d had a fitful career. So this was my chance.  I guessed there would be tickets on sale for a place as big as Soldier Field when I got there.


I managed to score a hotel room at a Holiday Inn not far from the concert site and walked to Soldier Field. I spent the late afternoon and early evening watching 50,000 or so people troop in through the gates, as I wandered around the parking lots, with hundreds of other Deadheads who were trying to score tickets, muttering “Looking for a miracle, man,” and “A lid for a ticket.” Alas, I had neither, and there were no tickets to be had anywhere near me. As concert time arrived, I sat down in the parking lot, leaning against a lamp post, clouds of marijuana smoke mushrooming around me, and listened from outside, with hundreds, maybe a couple thousand, other disappointed all-aged rockers.

I don’t recall much of the rest of that trip, just that I got home in time to start my new job working as a magazine editor for Lee Enterprises.

“Next time they’re anywhere near me,” I said to myself, “I‘ll catch their gig.”  Everybody needs to see Jerry Garcia once before they die.

Or before HE dies, as turned out to be the case. That concert was the last one the Dead ever did with Garcia as the star. After the concert, Jerry Garcia went to California and checked himself into a rehab facility to get rid of his heroin and cocaine addiction. And of all things, he died there of a heart attack. Not a drug overdose. A heart attack! At age 53.  I guess kicking the habit was just too much for him. My concert list is long, but Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead are not on it.

But, now, 20 years later, almost to the day, the Dead are back together, minus Garcia, and are playing at Soldier Field. Tonight, tomorrow night and Sunday night, July 3rd, 4th and 5th, they’ll be rocking Chicago again, and I will be in Hettinger, North Dakota, attending my 50-year class reunion.  (Go ahead, take a break and do the math. Yep, I’m that old.)

I’ll guarantee you, if they had announced the concert before we planned this reunion, I’d have moved Heaven and Earth to change the dates of the reunion. And I’d have been in Chicago tonight. Maybe. Soldier Field seats about 60,000 for concerts. Ticket prices ranged from $60 to $200 when they went on sale earlier this year. There were 400,000 ticket requests to Ticketmaster. About half were lucky to score a ticket, some just to make a profit. You could buy a ticket for $15,000 today if you knew the right people. Jerry Garcia wouldn’t like that part.

The gig is not without some controversy. There will be plenty of Deadheads there, while others are boycotting, saying it just ain’t the same without Garcia. The New York times has a pretty good story about it.

And if you want to see some of the magic, here’s a link to a rough video of an old concert. First, grab a bottle of Ripple and whatever else you were taking when you listened to music in 1978. Then sit back and enjoy. It’s at least as enjoyable as any other fireworks you might see this weekend. Happy Independence Day.

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Empty Deer Camps

Over the past couple of years I have written several times about the decline in North Dakota’s wildlife population since the Bakken Boom began. It may just be a coincidence that numbers of game species (deer, sage grouse, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn antelope, to name a few) have been decimated at the same time as the big oil boom took place. Or not. There have been a number of factors, including some harsh winters a few years back, disease (including rubber tire disease) and questionable decisions by the Game and Fish Department. The number of deer licenses being issued this year, for example, is about 100,000 fewer than in 2008, just seven years ago, because of sharp declines in the deer population. In an article I wrote recently for Dakota Country magazine, which should appear in the mail and on newsstands this weekend, I talked about one of those questionable decisions and the politics of it. Even if you’re not a deer hunter, you might want to read this anyway, for a good lesson in the politics of game and fish management and hunter management.

At noon on November 6, just about 4 months from now, about 40,000 North Dakotans are going to be doing something other than what they had hoped to be doing. That’s when the North Dakota deer season opens, and that’s how many hunters are not going to be going deer hunting. Because they didn’t draw a license in this year’s deer gun lottery.

In recent years, the Department has had to severely restrict the total number of deer gun tags issued statewide, for a number of reasons we won’t go into here. You’ve all heard the litany. This year, the Department will issue just over 43,000. Of those, about 13,000 will go to landowners who get a gratis license for taking care of the deer herd for us. That leaves about 30,000 licenses to be drawn for in the lottery. About 70,000 people were expected to apply this year. You do the math. But that number of unsuccessful applicants could have been cut substantially if the Department had stuck to its guns late last year.

At a North Dakota Game and Fish Advisory Board meeting in Bismarck last December 2, Director Terry Steinwand was pretty unequivocal about the change he was about to make in the allocation of 2015 deer licenses. After discussing a number of options with his biologists, Steinwand was ready to go ahead with a “One Tag Only” season in 2015. Meaning that if you drew a gun tag in the 2015 lottery, you would not be able to buy a second tag to take a deer with a bow, as in past years.

Traditionally, there’s been no limit on how many bow licenses can be issued, the theory being that generally the number of deer taken by bow hunters is not significant enough to affect the deer population. Each year, somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 licenses are issued to bow hunters. Any North Dakotan who wants to hunt deer with a bow can do that. Bow licenses are issued all year long.

Hunters who want to get a gun tag AND a bow tag apply for the gun tag in the lottery and take their chances just like anyone else. If they are drawn, they can still go get a bow license and hunt with a bow right up until rifle season, and then go out to deer camp with their buddies on November 6 and hunt with a rifle. A lot of them do that. A lot.

Under Steinwand’s proposal last winter, acknowledging that these are hard times requiring some sacrifice by all of us until the deer herd bounces back, the idea was, if someone is a serious bowhunter, and really, really wants to hunt deer with a bow, and doesn’t want to be restricted to a specific unit, they would purchase a bow license and forego the lottery for a rifle license, thereby freeing up that license for someone not interested in bowhunting. It likely would have meant a few thousand—or maybe as many as 10,000—more non-bowhunters would have drawn a rifle tag this year.

So what happened to Steinwand’s “One Tag Only” proposal? It disappeared. Steinwand got run over by the North Dakota Bowhunters Association. Unhappy bow hunters won a political argument. Bowhunters are great sportsmen, but too many of them are also selfish. Bow hunting is not a sport for the timid. It’s hard work, but also, when successful, incredibly stimulating. Problem is, it often does not result in taking a deer. And so, to have the best of both worlds, a lot of bow hunters want the option of being able to go shoot a deer with their rifle at the end of the season to guarantee they’ll have some venison in their freezer.

So how’d they do it? Well, they showed up, and victory often goes to those who just show up. They showed up at Game and Fish Advisory Board meetings last winter, like the one I attended here in Bismarck, where Steinwand argued pretty hard in favor of his “One Tag Only” proposal, saying bowhunters have not had their opportunity to bowhunt reduced, the way gun hunters have. I left that meeting convinced (and pleased) that Steinwand really believed that “One Tag” was the way to go until the deer herd recovers from its current problems, in spite of how noisy the bowhunters were at the meeting. But the bowhunters used another tool. They got political. They wrote letters to people in high places, some even containing threats of political repercussions. It wouldn’t be fair to say there was a flood of letters to the Governor’s office, or to director Steinwand, but there were enough to make a difference. Here’s a sample (the comments in parentheses are mine):

  • “Governor Dalrymple: I am concerned about the ND Game and Fish Department’s proposal to change the deer allocation system . . . This decision is proposed to take a little heat off of the department, even though it will only add about 7000-7500 more people in the field.” (Only?)
  • “Dear Governor Dalrymple: The alternative currently being considered, in my opinion . . . brings too many restrictions upon those who enjoy hunting with multiple types of weapons. Please direct your agency to take no action and CONTINUE TO MANAGE DEER ALLOCATIONS AS THEY TRADITIONALLY HAVE.” (“Direct your agency?” I’m not sure I like the idea of the Governor telling the Game and Fish biologists how to do their job.)
  • “To Governor Dalrymple: I have purchased an archery tag for over 20 years now . . . I am also a landowner and get my gratis tag yearly to hunt my own land on which I have shot several respectable bucks . . . Why not make a new category of license available through the lottery that allows hunting with a bow, rifle and muzzleloader (any weapon, any season) sell it for twice the price of the regular gun lottery license . . .” (This guy gets a free tag AND a bow license. That’s about as good as it gets.)
  • To Governor Dalrymple: “I am writing hoping that I am one of MANY people contacting you in OPPOSITION to the ND one deer tag proposal. Anyone with common sense knows that his makes NO sense. Tell the GnF if they want to do something constructive, ELIMINATE the taking of does.” (That would leave another ten or twenty thousand people at home on November 6.)
  • “To Governor Dalrymple: As the Governor, please ask the director of game and fish to not implement the 1 tag system.” (Once again, asking the Governor to override the Director)
  • “Dear Governor Dalrymple: “I believe this is a kneejerk reaction to the incessant whining of a spoiled populous (sic) . . . SUSPEND DOE KILLING STATEWIDE FOR TWO YEARS . . . PUT A BOUNTY ON COYOTES . . . MANDATE ALL GUNS IN VEHICLES BE ENCASED AND FULLY UNLOADED . . . Our state has gone through a huge transformation in the last several years and it scares the heck out of me when I see who’s driving the roads with loaded guns.” (New gun laws?)
  • “To Governor Dalrymple: I believe that if we are going to make a decision like this, it should be put to a public vote. Then you would know the majority opinion.” (Think Al Jaeger can figure out how to get THAT on the ballot?)
  • “To Governor Dalrymple: This plan punishes land owners because it would force me to choose between gun hunting my own land or bowhunting with my friends across the state . . . It appears the Governor is the only chance to stop this policy. I just want it to be known that I feel strongly enough against this that, if it is enacted, it will decide my vote for Governor in two years.” (Well, I don’t think Jack was really shaking in his boots . . . )
  • “Dear Governor Dalrymple: In general, one tag option is going to suppress the interest of our youth getting into the heritage of hunting, not accomplish the goal that you are trying to achieve, and will require future legislation and changes to correct this problem . . .” (Uh-oh. Calling in the Legislature.)
  • “Dear Director Steinwand (cc: Gov. Dalrymple): The “One Tag Option”, as you proposed, is a terrible idea dreamt up by someone with a short term view of things, and, if implemented, will immediately tarnish and damage the hunting system we have all grown up with. This is our culture and tradition you are meddling with . . . A few ideas to consider – temporarily eliminating non-resident tags . . .” (I’ve been waiting for that “no non-residents” thing to come up.)

The letters to the Governor were given to the Game and Fish Department to respond to. That’s how Governors do things. All the writers got a letter or a phone call from Steinwand or Wildlife Division chief Jeb Williams. I asked to see the letters I quoted from above. They’re public records once the Governor opens them. I didn’t ask to see the responses. And I don’t know how much influence the letters to the Governor, or the Governor himself, had on Steinwand’s decision to just leave things the way they are. I think I don’t want to know that.

I do know that Steinwand has said over and over that his job is not only to manage the wildlife, but to manage the hunters. There’s a customer service element to what he does, and that often plays a role in his decision-making process. It’s a fine line he walks, and as he said at the Advisory Board meeting, “When I make a decision, I will make half the people in this room happy and half the people unhappy.” I’m guessing that among the half that were unhappy with his final decision were his own biologists.

As I read through those letters, though, I saw some things I really didn’t like, as you can see from my comments. For example, the requests for the Governor to step in and override the experts—the biologists—at the Game and Fish Department. I’m trying to imagine, if the Governor did that on any regular basis, how most North Dakota sportsmen and women would feel about that. While technically it is the Governor who issues the annual hunting and fishing proclamations, most often that is just a formality, lending stature to a tradition of hunting and fishing that we hold most dear here on the prairie. Details are left to the biologists. At least we hope so.

It seems to me that the bow hunters who opposed the One Tag Only proposal exhibited a selfishness that has no place in our outdoor heritage. Yes, they want to experience the ruggedness—even primitiveness—of hunting a deer with a bow. But the chances are they won’t get a deer, so they want that gun license, too, as their backup, to insure meat in the freezer. They want to have their cake, and eat it too.

And then there’s the guy who says to create a new “everything” license and double the price. Fine for those wealthy folks, I suppose. But I’m not sure that’s how things are supposed to work—an entitled gentry—in the fields and streams of North Dakota, or America.

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This Summer’s Prize For Tackiness On The Highway

If you head for the Bad Lands this summer, be prepared for some new scenery. All along I-94 from Dickinson to Medora you’re going to see the latest abomination brought to us by the oil industry: “repurposed” semi-trailers painted up with advertising messages parked along the ditches beside the freeway. It’s what happens when greedy, tasteless money-grubbers stretch the law to its very limit, and maybe even beyond its limit, although there’s no one in state government, apparently, willing to challenge these companies who are turning us into another Arkansas/West Virginia.

You’ll recall the 1960s, when Ladybird Johnson persuaded Congress to pass the Highway Beautification Act, putting strict regulations on what can and cannot be parked or built alongside our highways. I’m pretty sure neither Mrs. Johnson nor the members of Congress who voted for this law envisioned these “portable billboards” junking up our highways, especially highways leading to national parks and natural wonders like our Bad Lands.

But the North Dakota Department of Transportation, whose job it is to regulate these kinds of things, says they’re just fine, under a little-used section of our own state laws, which says if someone controls the land alongside the highway, they can put up pretty much any kind of advertising sign, “affixed to the ground or any tree, wall, bush, rock, fence, building, structure, or thing . . .”  Yeah, you can hang a sign on a bush. Or a “thing”—a semi-trailer. You can look it up, Section 24-17-02 of the North Dakota Century Code. Now that is a bad law. Yeah, they might be legal, but it seems to me that good taste would come into play somewhere along the line here. Nope, good taste has no place in the Bakken Oil Boom. This is the Wild, Wild, West. Anything goes.

In a past life I was the State Tourism Director, and I was pretty friendly with the billboard industry, because it was their signs that directed tourists to where they could eat, sleep, play and spend money in North Dakota. I still am, because now I’m one of those tourists, and I rely on billboards a lot. Thing is, the billboard industry does things right, follows the law, and makes sure the advertising is tastefully done. These renegades who are painting up old trailers, or hanging banners from them, give the whole outdoor advertising industry a bad name. I’ve talked to somebody from Newman Signs, which owns most of the billboards in North Dakota, and they are not happy about this. They follow the law, putting their signs, generally pretty nice looking, in commercial or industrial zones, like the federal law dictates.

This is one of he ugliest of the signs hanging alongside the interstate near Medora. It's owned by Dalrymple re-election campaign chairman and Republican mega-donor Jim Arthaud

This is one of he ugliest of the signs hanging alongside the interstate near Medora. It’s owned by Dalrymple re-election campaign chairman and Republican mega-donor Jim Arthaud

So who’s doing this? Well, most of them are companies looking for truck drivers, hanging help wanted signs on trailers or painting them up. Others are selling real estate. But there’s one guy who just seems to like to see his name in big letters, and he is responsible for about a third of these things. His name is Jim Roers, and he has a company called Roers Development, and he’s putting one of his developments on the west edge of Dickinson. His trailers just have his name and his phone number on them, along with the words “Building Success.” Well, good for him. He’s not worried about whether his trailers are legal or not, because he has friends in high places. Like the Governor’s office. Apparently he and Jack Dalrymple are real buddies. They even campaigned together in 2012, when Jack was running for Governor and Jim was running for the State Senate. Jack won. Jim didn’t, becoming what I believe is the first Republican to lose a Legislative race in south Fargo’s heavily Republican District 46. Got beat by now-State Senator George B. Sinner.

A real classy Rolers trailer-sign.Legal or not?

A real classy Roers trailer-sign. Legal or not? Doesn’t matter if you’re friends of the Governor

Campaign buddies Jim and Jack

Campaign buddies Jim and Jack

Did I mention that Jim and Jack campaigned together? Oh, yeah, here’s how I found out. I found this video clip on the Internet of the two of them campaigning together. You can watch it—it’s only 45 seconds—by clicking here. Go ahead, do it. When you get back here, let me know if you saw them leaving a house, and Jack walking right across the lawn instead of using the sidewalk. Back in another past life, when I was conducting Campaigning 101 classes for candidates, I told them the first rule is “Keep Off The Grass!” I’m guessing Jack hasn’t done much door-to-door, so he didn’t know that rule, or else he’s arrogant enough to believe it doesn’t apply to him. Oh, but then I saw the sign behind them that says Vote for Jim. So maybe they were at Jim’s house, staging this for a commercial. And walking on the grass was okay. But go back and look closer, in the driveway  behind them—of all things, the sign is sitting on a trailer! Well, that ties right in with his modus operandi, as Joe Friday would say.

Here’s kind of what I think. I think they were filming a TV commercial at Jim’s house (or maybe the next door neighbors) and the two people standing in front of the house are the film crew. Someone came by and saw what was going on, and pulled out their smart phone and filmed the filmmakers making the film. But what happened next puzzles me.

Did you notice what was interesting about that clip? It was for sale! Yeah, you can buy a low-resolution version of the clip—30 megabytes—for just $19. Sounds like a bargain, if you have any use for a few seconds of Jack Dalrymple walking across somebody’s lawn. But if you want the good stuff—high resolution 76 megabytes—that’ll run you $79. It’s an interesting way to make money, isn’t it? Film the Governor out campaigning, and then sell it. Never miss an opportunity to make a quick buck, taking advantage of a chance encounter with a Governor, albeit across the street. Not sure who would buy it, but . . . I looked around a little more, and found out you can buy a version of it in French. And in German. And in Italian. In Portuguese. And even in Vietnamese! COOL! And it’s the same price on all the foreign versions—240p for the low resolution, 1080p for the high resolution. I don’t know what the “p” stands for—some kind of currency I suppose.

I can’t imagine that Jack and Jim would be selling it themselves and collecting royalties, but you never know. Rich guys never seem to have enough . . . As an instructional video, I’d suggest they could title it “What Not To Do When You Leave Someone’s House During Your Campaign.” Sorry, I don’t have the Portuguese translation for that.

But back to matters at hand—ugly semi-trailers parked alongside I-94 on the road to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Legal or not, they are just plain tasteless, and as someone who is concerned about our state’s image, I think they ought to go away. Gonna be tough, though. Jim Roers, in addition to being a candidate for the Legislature, is a big Republican donor. Another one of the signs is for a company called MBI. That’s Jim Arthaud’s company, and he was Jack’s campaign chairman last time, and gives $10,000 a year to the Republican party and its candidates. I think both of those guys have enough money to put up a real billboard, a legal one, and a little more tasteful. I didn’t look to see if the owners of the rest of them are donors to Dalrymple’s campaign or the Republican Party, but anyone want to hazard a guess?

Aside: In announcing an America the Beautiful initiative in January1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson (D) said :”I want to make sure that the America we see from these major highways is a beautiful America.” America agreed with him. He wouldn’t like to see the road from Dickinson to Medora these days. The Federal Highway Administration, on a page on its website, has an interesting and funny story from the Washington Post titled “How the Highway Beautification Act Became a Law.” You can read it by clicking here.  

A few more nice trailer signs. Thanks to my friend Jerry DeMartin for sharing these photos with me, and for motivating me to get off my butt and write about this. I’ve got another rant about some bad highway signs, but I’ll save it for another day. I feel pretty good after getting this one off my chest.

1E sign

1C sign1d sign

1A Sign

1B sign


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Why My Dad Would Be Thinking Bad Words Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 Minutes Of Fame For Heimdal, Between Harvey And Hamberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Artificiality Of Our Outdoor Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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