Last Dance of the Sage Grouse

Note: This article appears in the current issue of Dakota Country magazine, a monthly outdoors publication headquartered in Bismarck. I write a regular monthly article for the magazine focusing on the oil industry’s impact on the North Dakota Badlands. You can find subscription information on the magazine’s website, www.dakotacountrymagazine.com.

I’ve shot probably half a dozen, or maybe as many as ten, sage grouse in my life. I’m likely among a small group of North Dakotans alive today who can say that. And that group is not going to get any bigger. Ever. Because there’s an awfully good chance we’ll never have another sage grouse season in North Dakota. In fact, I’ve had a wildlife biologist tell me flat out this spring that he thinks within the next three years the sage grouse will be gone from the prairie in North Dakota. Completely gone. Here’s their story.

I grew up in southwest North Dakota, in a hunting family. Sometime when I was in my late teens, my dad befriended a rancher from the Rhame area in Slope County, who invited us to come and hunt sage grouse at his place. We did. (In an incredible coincidental set of circumstances, I later married that rancher’s daughter. But that’s another story. I told it a year or so ago. You can read it here if you missed it.) I don’t remember a lot of details of that first sage grouse hunt, other than it was the biggest bird I had ever shot—we didn’t have a huntable population of geese in our area in those days, and I wasn’t a turkey hunter then. We hunted sage grouse off and on over the next ten or so years. Those were my first real experiences with the North Dakota Badlands. I’ve been hooked ever since, not so much for hunting, but for the appreciation of the fragile ecosystem that provides such a wide range of outdoor experiences.

I had another one of those experiences this spring, when I traveled back to that same area to watch the sage grouse perform their Spring mating rituals. I had never seen that before. I can hardly find words to describe it. It’s one of those things you have to see to believe and understand. I got to see the ritual early one morning, thanks to the biologists at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, who were willing to share a lek location with me and a couple of my friends.

We call it a “dance,” but it’s not so much a dance, as sharptail grouse do, but a “strut.” Males gather in early morning and perform for their hoped-for mates, spreading their spikey tails and puffing up the air-sacs in their chests to almost unbelievable volumes. I have never seen such a prideful display—pride well-deserved—in any other outdoor experience I’ve ever witnessed.

It’s a good thing I saw it. Because this spring the mood of biologists doing the annual Spring Sage Grouse Count was gloomy, and it may portend the unthinkable—the disappearance of another species from the North Dakota prairie.

Each year, in April, the Game and Fish biologists set up camp in Slope County, north of Marmarth, and spend most of a week visiting known leks to check on the population and condition of sage grouse. They’ve been doing it for 50 years. This year they counted just 31 male sage grouse. An all-time low. Down from a peak of more than 500 many years ago, down from counts of 50 to 75 in recent years.

The biologists had to halt sage grouse hunting in the state 2008 after the birds suffered a two-year bout with West Nile Virus. Prior to that, the season was a brief one, a week at most, sometimes just one weekend as I recall, with a limit of one bird per hunter per year, restrictions so limiting that few hunters actually took advantage of the opportunity to hunt.

Too bad, because it was a great hunt. It happened early in the fall, around Labor Day, when the weather was pleasant for an early morning hike in the Badlands. If you knew a friendly rancher, or had a good Grasslands map, and had done a little scouting, you could pick a dry creek bed or two to walk through, with or without a pointing dog, take a bird, and be back in Rhame for a late breakfast at the café.

Now, the population is so low that it may have gone beyond the birds’ ability to rebound. Because it wasn’t just West Nile decimating the bird numbers. It was the combination of the disease and massive oil development in the critical habitat range of the birds that led to a “perfect storm.” I spoke with both federal and state biologists after my return from my trip, and both said the same thing: West Nile Virus hit the population hard in 2007 and 2008, but at the same time, the fragmentation of their habitat range created huge reproductive problems for the birds.

“West Nile comes and goes, but the population recovers from that,” one biologist told me. “But when you destroy the habitat, they can’t recover from that.” He used the example of cutting your arm versus cutting your arm off. If you cut your arm, it will eventually heal, but if you cut your arm off, it’s gone forever.

Both state and federal biologists (I’m not going to use their names here, because they have jobs to look out for and families to feed, even though they all gave me permission do so) told me the critical problems now are fragmentation of the habitat and loss of habitat, caused by oil and gas exploration. One said that the sage grouse might be able to withstand one oil well per square mile, but in the critical habitat area of Bowman County, in many places there are three or four wells per square mile. The impact once you get beyond one well per square mile is exponential, he said. And then he surprised me with this: “Go ahead and use my name. I’m sick and tired of everyone walking on eggshells. This massive oil and gas development is bad for wildlife, and not just sage grouse. There are other species suffering just as bad.” Pronghorn antelope. Mule deer. Sharptail grouse. He didn’t mention them. He didn’t have to. We all know that.

I can verify his claims about the loss of sage grouse habitat and fragmentation. I drove for a couple of hours through the area I used to hunt, 50 or so miles of gravel roads. Once there was only one main road through that area, and no one used it at that time of the day but me, ranchers out checking cows, and the critters.  Today it is criss-crossed with dozens and dozens of roads and home to an almost unbelievable number of oil well and tank battery sites. It’s the area mostly south of U.S. Highway 12 in Bowman and Slope Counties. It’s the southern end of our Badlands, and it is well-hidden from the highway, so no one really realizes the massive—and I do mean massive—scale of the development. We drove past a wastewater recovery site the size of a small town, as big as the town of Marmarth, where we spent a couple nights. The truck traffic is beyond comprehension. It is no wonder the birds cannot survive there.

To their credit, the biologists are not giving up on the birds. The State Game and Fish Department has written plans to try to save them. The plans have two focuses: First, to try to conserve the remaining population and its habitat—survival—and second, to try to improve the conditions the birds need to grow in numbers—recovery. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with landowners to improve habitat in nearby areas away from the intensive oil development, trying to lure the birds to a more wildlife-friendly area where they might be able to survive, and even thrive.

There is much talk of listing the birds as an endangered species. That’s freaking everybody out—the state wildlife agencies, the ranchers, the energy industry, the chambers of commerce, and the elected officials in the states the birds call home. State wildlife agencies believe they are better equipped to deal with the problem on a state-by-state basis, rather than have a bunch of federal regulations slapped on them. Ranchers don’t welcome restrictions on what they may or may not be able to do on their own land, and especially on land they lease from the Forest Service and BLM. The energy industry and the industry’s allies in the chamber of commerce offices fear intrusive regulation of the oil and gas industry—and well they should, because that’s who’s causing most of the problems. And the politicians in these western states generally take up the side of the industry. Indeed, our own North Dakota Game and Fish Department director recently attended a meeting in Denver, a “governor’s-level meeting,” to discuss strategy that can be used by the states to avoid listing the bird as endangered.

In spite of all that, the ones we need to listen to are the biologists. But at this point, either because of, or in spite of, everything man does, the biologists say, “It’s up to the birds.” We’ll have to see if they can adapt to a new environment. Disease will continue to take a toll from time to time, and so will predators, although almost everyone told me that disease issues are fleeting, and predation is overrated as a problem for the birds. Fragmentation of habitat, and loss of habitat, will continue to be the biggest problems. Oil and gas development.

There’s a new normal. And the birds are going to have to adapt to that. If they can, they will survive and perhaps, someday, thrive. More likely, one biologist told me, “Within three years, we’ll see the last dance of the sage grouse in North Dakota.”

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Happy Syttende Mai

Two hundred years ago today, on May 17, 1814 (Syttende Mai in the Norwegian language), a young couple, Mons Olson Fuglen, and his wife, Ragnhild Knudsdatter, likely sat across the table from each other and toasted the newfound freedom and independence of their country. They may have toasted with a glass of aquavit, a traditional Scandinavian liquor (aqua vitae—the water of life).

Their table was on a small farm near the town of Ron, in Valdres, southern Norway. Their celebration was of a casting off of a longtime, unholy alliance with Denmark, as a result of the defeat of Napoleon, and entering into a new alliance with Sweden, which had been smart enough to ally itself with the English during the Napoleonic Wars. The Danes had chosen Napoleon. The Norwegians, ever a peace-loving people, had kind of shimmied along for the ride, since they were subject to the Danish king.

But as a result of the Treaty of Kiel, Sweden got Norway from Denmark. Until they asked the Norwegians if that was what they wanted. They said, well, yeah, kind of, we’ll maintain an informal union with you, but we’re going to elect our own king and write our own constitution. That happened two hundred years ago today, and that is what those of us of Norwegian descent celebrate on Syttende Mai. Norway never really did get around to electing its own king, and remained allied with Sweden, subject to the Swedish king, until 1905, when they finally dissolved their relationship.  Having no royalty of their own, they then borrowed a prince from Denmark, elected him king, who became King Haakon VII, a revered ruler who led Norway through two world wars and served 52 years,until he died in 1957.  That’s my fractured history lesson for the day. I’m a blogger, not a historian or a geographer. I think my version is pretty close to being right. It’s the way I remember my Norwegian grandfather telling it.

(Note, perhaps if you are not named Fuglie, or surely if you are not at least of Norwegian ancestry, you might want to quit reading now, because the rest of this is pretty much family and Norwegian history.)

My grandfather’s name was Ole Dekko Fuglie. He was the great grandson of Mons Olson Fuglen and Ragnhild Knudsdatter, mentioned above. He was a first-generation American. His grandmother, Ambjor Monsdotter Fuglei, was the daughter of Mons and Ragnhild. She emigrated to America in 1870 and changed the spelling of the name from Fuglen to Fuglei. There are still Fugleis in the Midwest, but my branch of the family changed it to Fuglie. I like it better that way (I before E, except after C, you know).

Ambjor came with her husband, Ole Arneson, and four children, to America in the spring of 1870. Ambor was 45 years old. Ole was 35 years old. Their three children were aged 10, 8 and 6. And there was also Knut, an older son of Ambjor’s, from some kind of mysterious previous relationship. Knut was 20 at the time they came here. Knut married and fathered my Grandpa Ole. More about him in a minute.

The family left Oslo on a steamship on April 23, 1870. The disembarked in Quebec City, and rode in a cattle car on a train to Wisconsin, headed for Minnesota, where Ambjor’s brother, who had emigrated earlier, lived. In Wisconsin just a few days, Ole and Knut took jobs cutting hay to get some money for the final leg of the trip to Minnesota. Ole died of sunstroke in a hayfield on June 30, 1870, just a few days after arriving in the U.S.

Ambjor was a strong woman, and had the help of 20-year-old Knut, and they made their way to Minnesota, where most of the family has lived since.

I know all this because our family has a resident genealogist, Winton Fuglie, a second or third cousin of mine. He’s been to Norway, knows the Fuglies who still live there, and searched church and courthouse records to trace the family back to—get this—740 AD. Really. He published the family history in a 200-page book. He shared it with us back in the late 1990’s at a family reunion. My copy is well-worn. It shows that I am the 43rd generation of the family he was able to trace, and he shows a direct link from generation 1 to generation 43, although there’s some question about a little gap in the 15th century I haven’t been able to figure out.

Here’s what he says about Generation 1: “Halvdan Olavson “Hvitbein” (Whiteleg) – King of Toten, Romerike, Hadaland, Vestfold and Soler. He died of old age in 740 and was buried in a mound at Skiringssal in Vestfold. He married Aasa’, the daughter of Oystein “The Severe,” the king of Hedemark and Opplandene, Norway.”

Yes, I am descended from royalty.

I don’t let it go to my head, though. I’m not a student of Norwegian history (although I should be) but I think Norway had a lot of little kings (my family’s branch was called the Yingling kings and they go on as royalty until well into the 13th century—I have not figured out when we drifted away from royalty—records are incomplete and my guess is that some naughty daughter married a commoner, and the rest of the family is descended from her). My guess is that they were a little more like county commissioners, and that they simply were the owners of large tracts of land which they called kingdoms.

Anyway, the book quits using the word kings in about the 21st generation in the 13th century, but the family is traced right up until Ragnhild, born October 10, 1793. She’s the direct link to royalty. Then she married a Fuglie (Mons)and that shit came to an end for sure.

But back to Knut. Mons and Ragnhild had Ambjor, and she had a child, named him Knut, in 1850, at age 25. Winton’s book is silent on the father, although the book refers to him as Knut Knutson at one point, offering a hint of parentage—he assumed the Fuglei (Fuglie) family name when he came to America. At a family reunion some years back, a group of us were sitting around a picnic table at a park in Minnesota, discussing which of Ambjor’s four sons we were descended from. Knut, of course, was my great grandfather, and I was the only one at the reunion descended from him. So I asked Winton what he thought about Knut’s parentage. There had been some speculation that Ambjor may have been a sort of concubine in her younger years, and had perhaps borne a child out of wedlock. As I recall the conversation, Winton said he didn’t know, but he thought he would go back to Norway and do a little more investigating. At which point one of my elderly great-aunts, sitting beside the table in a wheelchair, said “Winton, I think that is a bad idea. I think you have dug a little bit too deep already.”

There are some things you just don’t want to know, I guess. I don’t know if Winton ever went back. I have not seen him in many years. I wouldn’t mind knowing who my great-great-grandfather was, though. I mean, I know my royal ancestors, so it would be good, I suppose, to know the rogue who knocked up my great-great-grandmother Ambjor.

Well, anyway, that’s the brief Norwegian Fuglen-Fuglei-Fuglie family history. Fuglen, I am told is a Norwegian word for “The place where birds live, or bird-home.” I like that. The Fuglen farm still exists. I have distant relatives there. No kings or queens though. And if they knew I was descended from Knut, they might not claim me.

As for the rest of my lineage, well, I am at least half Norwegian. Grandpa Ole married a lady named Sadie Wurm. She’s of Bohemian (that could explain some of my less desirable traits) and Dutch-German ancestry. But she threw four kids with blonde hair and blue eyes so Grandpa Ole apparently had strong genes. My maternal grandmother was Sophia Aaberg, as Norwegian as you can get, but she married a German, Peter Boehmer. My mother always said she was half Norwegian (the best half, I thought) and so did my dad, so I guess I am too.

Which gives me enough reason to celebrate Syttende Mai. I’m going to a party tonight hosted by a fellow named Rolf. There ought to be plenty of good karma at that party. And maybe even a little aquavit.

Happy Syttende Mai to all my Norwegian friends, and those who wish they were.

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Sons of the Fathers

Okay I’m going to get a little preachy again. It’s about the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment (you can read the text of the proposed amendment here). You’ll remember I said I was going to sit this one out this year because I have some differences with the measure’s authors. But at least they’re doing SOMETHING, and something needs  to be done. And they seem to be running a good campaign, and I like good campaigns. What I don’t like is what the other side is doing—running a dishonest campaign.  The other side is the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce and the North Dakota Petroleum Council, doing the bidding of Jack Dalrymple, trying to stifle any serious effort to provide real conservation initiatives in our increasingly degraded state. And doing it in a dishonest way, by using the Big Lie strategy: if you’re going to lie, lie big, and do it over and over, and soon people will come to accept it as truth. Frankly, they’re shameless.

So the Big Oil boys and the Chamber have trotted out various spokespersons using the same phrases over and over in letters to the editor, press releases, interviews and talk show conversations. Most recently, they duped the new Farmers Union president, Mark Watne, into believing they were friends of his, and handed him a letter which he unwittingly signed and sent to all the newspapers. I don’t know what they promised him in return, but it better be big, because Mark made a giant screwup by signing that letter. Still, Mark’s a big boy, responsible for his own actions, so he needs to be called to task for what he’s done.

The letter Mark sent was so bad that it is causing concern among Mark’s friends and mentors inside the Farmers Union. One of them told me this week “Mark’s letter is truly terrible. It reads like it was from a political unit of the Koch brothers. I can’t figure out why he’d sign such crap and blatant misinformation.” He went on to say that the Farmers Union is “dirtying their good reputation for being a reasoned voice for farmers by acting as a mouthpiece for fear mongering misinformation.  I’m deeply concerned about this.”

I’m concerned too. And so I wrote another letter to the editor of my own, one I’m going to send this time. You may recall I wrote one a few weeks ago about the same issue, responding to the same kind of letter, which I didn’t send, because the writer’s father, James Odermann, is a friend of mine. Well, history is repeating itself. Turns out Mark’s dad, Gene, is a friend of mine too. But there’s a difference this time. Mark is a public figure by virtue of his statewide office. He needs to accept responsibility for what he’s doing as president of the Farmers Union.

So I sent my letter off to the ten daily newspapers yesterday, asking them to print it if they printed Mark’s. I expect it will start showing up this week. I thought I’d share it with you first. So here it is, along with Mark’s letter, so you can see what it is I am upset about. Marks’s is first.

Dear Editor,

As a longtime farmer, I’m a big believer in protecting our state’s great outdoors and natural resources. North Dakota’s farmers and ranchers were our state’s first conservationists going back to statehood. But the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment wildly misses the mark in trying to accomplish that.

Under the amendment, 5 percent of North Dakota’s oil extraction tax would be set aside in a new conservation fund. The amendment requires that between 75 and 90 percent of this fund be spent each year.

The only conservation spending specifically outlined in the measure is that these massive funds — anywhere from $300 million to $400 million per biennium, based on current oil production projections — could be used to acquire farm land.

If nonprofit groups are given millions of dollars every year that they can use to acquire land, it won’t be long before we will see them buying and removing land from production agriculture, driving up land prices and making it harder for agriculture to compete, especially new farmers and ranchers.

The measure also is troubling because the groups supporting this amendment have a history of being hostile toward the ag industry, which still is our state’s largest industry. Imagine the impact to our state’s economy and workforce if these groups suddenly have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend to undermine the agriculture industry in the name of conservation.

Let’s be clear, folks: The out-of-state groups financially behind this measure would like to change our way of life here in North Dakota, and they see the creation of this private fund in our state constitution as their way to do just that.

The truths behind this amendment are loud and clear, and that’s why farm and ranch groups have come together in the North Dakotans for Common Sense Conservation coalition to oppose it.

Mark Watne

* * * * *

Dear Editor,

I am saddened that less than six months into his new job as North Dakota Farmers Union President, Mark Watne has really damaged his credibility and sullied the reputation of North Dakota’s most prestigious farm organization.

As a nearly lifelong Farmers Union member, I want to reassure members of the conservation community that his recent letter about the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment does not reflect the feelings of most rank and file Farmers Union members. And I want to correct a few misstatements Mark made.

Mark charges that “out of state groups” are trying to undermine agriculture. That’s not true. In addition to being a Farmers Union member, I’ve been a member of two of the major sponsors of this measure, Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited, throughout many of my years as a hunter and conservationist, as have more than 10,000 current North Dakota members of those organizations. We’re not from out of state, and we’re not “hostile to the ag industry” as Mark says. We know that farmers, who make habitat for the birds we hunt, are our best friends. We’d hardly want to undermine them.

Pheasants Forever, to my knowledge, doesn’t own any farmland. Ducks Unlimited from time to time buys small pieces of wetlands, mostly unproductive farmland, on a willing-seller basis, although not so much in North Dakota because of our state’s anti-corporation farming laws. Mark knows full well that those laws, of which the Farmers Union is the staunchest defender (one of the reasons I am proud to be a member), prevent those groups from even owning farmland here.

Mark says that the measure will create a “private fund” in our constitution and give nonprofit groups hundreds of millions of dollars to buy land. Again, that’s not true, and Mark knows it. All funds that go into the new program are controlled by a committee made up of the governor, the attorney general and the agriculture commissioner. They have to approve every penny that is spent from that fund. I’m pretty sure they are not going to allow it to be used to compete for land with farmers.

As president of Farmers Union, it is okay for Mark to have his own opinion on these things, but he represents the members of an organization, and he can’t just make up his own facts. At last fall’s state Farmers Union Convention, delegates voted to reject a statement opposing this measure. In fact, I expect there is pretty broad general support from Farmers Union members for this measure. And I would think there is a lesson to be learned from the actions of the state’s other farm organization, the Farm Bureau, when its leaders got too far out ahead of their members at the recent state Republican convention. They turned around and found no one was following them.

Most farmers, and most Farmers Union members, don’t hold the hostile attitude towards conservation organizations reflected in the recent letter. Many of them are members of those organizations. And most sportsmen and women know that farmers are our best friends. It’s their land we hunt on. We’d never get behind any measure designed to hurt agriculture. The facts are, that much of the money generated for this Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks fund (the N.D. Office of Management and Budget says it will be about $150 million, not the made-up $300-400 million figure Mark and other opponents of the amendment have been using) will likely find its way back to farmers to help them make habitat for wildlife, much as the CRP and PLOTS programs have been doing here for years. In that case, everyone wins—farmers, hunters and critters.

Jim Fuglie

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Next: Planting Potatoes

I’m pissed off about so many things this week I don’t know where to start. That’s what I get for taking a few weeks off to play. Things pile up. I’m about to go on a rant that will surely get me another admonishment from my friend Wayne Tanous: “Jim, lighten up. It’s spring.” Okay. So I’m going to get all this off my chest. And then lighten up and plant potatoes.

FLARING REGULATIONS

First, I’m pissed off at Conoco-Phillips, WPX Energy, Whiting Petroleum, Continental Resources, and the North Dakota Petroleum Council. They’re the ones whining about the discussion of restricting their ability to flare natural gas instead of capturing it. Most North Dakota daily papers reported on it this week. Oil companies are threatening to pull out of North Dakota and take their drilling rigs elsewhere if we try to regulate them. Cripes sake, western North Dakota is lit up like a centenarian’s birthday cake—from space it looks like New York City. Everyone in North Dakota knows we need to stop flaring a third of all the natural gas we’re taking out of the ground. Everyone except those who are putting the match to the flare spouts—the oil companies.

According to a story in yesterday’s Forum chain of newspapers, “Industry officials resisted the idea of curtailing production, cautioning that it could discourage oil and gas development and result in less tax revenue for North Dakota, which has collected billions from the industry on its way to becoming the No. 2 oil-producing state behind Texas . . . Imposing broad limits on drilling permits and production as a means to curb flaring is unnecessary and could force oil companies and third-party investors to think twice about doing business in North Dakota’s Bakken and Three Forks oil formations.” Here are some examples of the spouting off at the Industrial Commission hearing this week on implementing new rules to try to get a handle on flaring:

  • Continental Resources: “The state must give individual companies flexibility to meet flaring targets. Exemptions should be given for production restrictions on a case-by-case basis . . .  when midstream companies are unable to meet system gas capture plan capacity or if landowners or federal regulations hinder infrastructure buildout.” (Translation:  “It’s not our fault we’re flaring. Those darned laws that prevent us from running a pipeline through those uncooperative farmers’ back yards are to blame.”)
    • Conoco-Phillips: “It may cause an adjustment to our oil and gas development strategy in the Bakken.” (Translation A: We’d have to slow down a bit and get some pipelines built to haul away our gas,” or Translation B: “We’re out of here.” You pick.)
    • Whiting Petroleum: “Curtailments are not the answer. That cuts into our cash flow and the economics of each well we drill. That could prompt companies to decide to invest elsewhere.” (Translation: our enormous profits are way more important than your stupid clean air.)
    • WPX Energy: “Restrictions on production could be counterproductive.” (Translation: WTF does that even MEAN?)

Well, here’s my response: Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out of the state, boys. Just pick up your toys and go home.

Oh, but wait, there’s a little problem here. All those companies have invested substantial amounts of money in mineral leases. If they pack up and go home, they’ve just wasted their money. A lot of their money.

  • Conoco-Phillips has more than 600,000 acres under lease. Let’s say they paid an average of a thousand dollars an acre for those leases. That would not be out of line today. In fact, it is probably low. But let’s just say it was a thousand.  That would mean they’ve invested about $600 million in those leases. Huh. Not likely to go home without developing them.
  • Whiting has almost 700,000 acres. $700 million.
  • WPX is just a little guy, doing most of its drilling on the 90,000 leased acres on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Knowing what the white guys have done to the Indians over the years, they may have paid less for their leases, but at a thousand an acre, that’s $90 million.
  • And then there’s the big guy, Harold Hamm’s Continental. He’s the biggest leaseholder in the state, with at least a million acres. At least a billion-dollar investment.

So, okay, if we restrict their ability to flare their gas, they’re all threatening to go home. And leave a couple of billion dollars worth of leases laying on their empty office desks? Yeah, right.

I suppose they could try to sell those leases to some companies who are not complaining about the new flaring regulations, but most of them probably have all they can handle right now, and those leases are getting closer and closer to their five-year expiration date, so trying to dump a couple million acres of leases on the market right now doesn’t seem like a good business decision either.

So, y’know what? They’re bluffing. They aren’t going anywhere. They’re just, as one of my Facebook friends said, trying to bully the state into letting them keep on wasting gas and polluting our air. Well, boys, the jig is up. You’re busted. If we decide (that’s a mighty big IF) to try to keep our air clean and dark, you are going to just have to live with that.

Of course, we all know why you were at that hearing Monday. Not to protest. But to remind Jack Dalrynmple, the chairman of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, whose staff routinely grants you exemptions from our flaring regulations now, that you were big contributors to his re-election campaign a couple years ago. That you and your oil company buddies pumped almost $450,000 into the Dalrymple campaign to keep him in office, so his staff can keep granting you exemptions from our flaring regulations—and to keep him from imposing new regulations.

Well, you’re probably gonna get your way. Any new flaring regulations are going to include generous new exemption provisions, and you’re gonna get to keep on flaring a third of all the gas you’re taking out of the ground. It was all a big show for the media. Nothing is going to change. Unless Jack Dalrymple and Doug Goehring, the new ruling majority on the Industrial Commission, grow a pair of balls. Not likely.

FIGHTING THE EPA?

Here’s something that really pissed me off last week, and it’s been stewing in me for a week. I picked up a copy of The Dickinson Press and the banner headline all across the front page read “Dalrymple: ND to use ‘every tool available’ to fight EPA.”

WTF? Fight EPA? Hey, do you remember what the acronym EPA stands for? It’s the Environmental Protection Agency. And you’re going to use the resources of the state, my tax dollars, to fight AGAINST environmental protection?  Excuse me, but I think I’m FOR environmental protection.  Me and about 670,000 other North Dakotans, And 300 million Americans. And most of the people in the civilized world. But not Jack Dalrymple. And not those unfortunate people who happen to work for him.

Take Dave Glatt, for example. Dave is the head of the Environmental Health Division of our State Health Department. He’s North Dakota’s chief environmental protector. But the story I read about Dalrymple and the EPA said Glatt, our chief environmental regulator, had convened a “summit” to bring together other state health department officials and the energy industry—read Basin Electric—to talk about fighting FOR the right to burn coal, which fouls our air, and fight AGAINST the EPA, which wants to keep our air clean.

At issue is the new set of standards for greenhouse gas pollution from coal fired energy plants. Dave Glatt—the man in charge of keeping our air clean—apparently is opposed to standards that might keep our air clean. Good God Gertie. People who know Dave Glatt—I’m not among them—say he’s a good guy. He just happens to work for a bad guy. I do know the bad guy. Name’s Dalrymple.

And this Dalrymple fellow has got the head of his environmental health division organizing summit conferences to fight against steps being taken to keep our air clean. WTF is the matter with that picture?

I was around in the 1970’s. We had a governor who wasn’t afraid to tell the coal industry they had to clean up their act. They did. But now we know a whole lot more about what is happening to our planet. And we need new regulations. That 1970’s governor didn’t have his health department trying to figure out how to do an end run around federal regulations.  Wish we had a governor like him around these days.

COLLECTING ENORMOUS FINES

Then I got home from a few days in the Bad Lands last week and saw the front page story in The Bismarck Tribune about a company from Wyoming that could be fined more than $1 million by the state of North Dakota (that was the figure used in the great big headline on the front page) for dumping saltwater from an oil well on a road in Williams County. Yeah, right.

I remember the headline from last summer, too, that the Industrial Commission levied a $1.5 million fine against a company called Halek Operating, another salt water disposal violator. So, seeing there’s another big fine about to be levied, I thought I’d check and see how collection of that other one was going. A spokesman for the Attorney General told me almost breathlessly in her excitement that, with only half a year gone by, they had already cashed and deposited two bonds posted by the company which had illegally dumped hundreds of thousands of a gallons of saltwater down a well south of Dickinson. Total take: $40,000. Wow, good start, eh? Only $1,460,000 to go. Let’s see, at the rate of $40,000 every six months . . . except there aren’t any more bonds. They have to get the rest in cash. Good luck with that.

I don’t have the paper in front of me, but I remember that big banner headline saying the Industrial Commission had fined Halek $1.5 million. Well, turns out the company had filed bankruptcy, didn’t have $1.5 million, and had no intention of paying it. Worse, the members of the Industrial Commission knew that, and went ahead and levied the fine anyway, because they knew the big headlines were going to be great for them. No mention that the state never had any intention of collecting that money—they were just collecting a big headline.

So, who wants to bet this headline—“Penalty may top $1M”—will turn out the same way?

This crime by a fellow named Leo Slemin has been charged out in Williams County District Court in Williston. Slemin is charged with a Class C felony, violating the rules and regulations of the North Dakota Industrial Commission under section 38-08-16 of the North Dakota Century Code, specifically opening up the valves on the bottom of his Black Hills Trucking Company water tanker truck and dumping his poison water all over a road in southwest Williams County. A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for June 3 at 11:30 a.m. at the Williston Court House. And here’s something else that pisses me off more than a little bit: he has applied for and will be granted a public defender. So instead of his company paying for his lawyer, you and I, the taxpayers of North Dakota, will pay for his lawyer. Makes his bosses at Black Hills Trucking look a little sleazy. They are quickly putting as much distance between him and their company as possible. According to a story in the Williston Herald, Dave Glatt, referenced above, told the Associated Press that the company has been operating here since 2008 without a license. The Attorney General has instigated civil charges against them, and operating without a license is subject to a penalty of a thousand dollars a day. That could add up to somewhere around $2 million, not just one million. I wonder if they’ll apply for a public defender too? More about that in a minute.

Another interesting sidelight is that, unlike most cases of a bad guy being caught in the act of committing a crime, this case is being prosecuted by the North Dakota Attorney General, not the County State’s Attorney. Generally, State’s Attorneys are responsible for prosecuting crimes in their county. That was the case in an earlier instance, when Mountrail County (next door to Williams county) State’s Attorney Wade Enget won a conviction on a guy who did the same thing. Just a couple weeks ago. Fined the dude $3,000 and put him on probation for a year. No big headlines—just a local sheriff and state’s attorney doing their jobs.

In this case, I suppose we can excuse Attorney general Wayne Stenehjem for jumping in and taking charge of this case. I mean, it’s an election year, and the state has been under fire for being a bit too lax with the oil industry, and this seemed like an open invitation to make a big deal out of what seems to have become routine in the oil patch—leaky vales on water trucks (Honest, your honor, I took the truck in to get those darned leaky vales fixed right away, as soon as your Oil and Gas Division guy told me there was a problem). Sock it to ‘em. A headline with the number $1,000,000 in it is just too good to pass up.

But I’m not buying this bullshit about using the big headlines to set an example for the rest of the industry to “toe the line.”  Because, like in the Halek case, I’m guessing nobody is going to pay a million-dollar-plus fine for violating an Industrial Commission rule (the same charge was brought in both cases). Although there is a difference between Halek Operating and Black Hills Trucking.

Unlike the fly-by-night Halek company, Black Hills trucking is a wholly-owned subsidiary of a respected Wyoming company named True Oil. True Oil, and its founder, Dave True, who died in 1994, are a big deal in Wyoming. Dave True was Wyoming’s most famous wildcatter who built an oil and gas empire from a one-rig operation to a business of more than ten companies operating in about half of all the states in the country (shades of Harold Hamm—but way before Harold came on the scene). He was one of the original inductees into the Wyoming Business Hall of Fame when it was founded last year. I met him a couple of times through his involvement in the Old West Trail Foundation. He actually reminded me a lot of Harold Schafer, and he and Schafer were great friends, and the Trues were regular visitors to Medora. The company is now managed by his sons and grandsons, and the Black Hills Trucking Company website lists Dave True, son of the founder, as president of the trucking company.

Integrity seemed to be a word associated with True Oil, so it is a bit surprising to think  that they would be operating here without a license for six or seven years, although I don’t know if they’re still doing business—that would involve applying for a license.  I can’t imagine they would allow their drivers to pull such shenanigans. I’ve got to think somebody at the top was not minding the store.

Jason Halek is long gone, but so far, Black Hills Trucking is still around. I called their office in Williston (the number is 774-0011) and a female answered the phone “Black Hills Trucking” in a clipped voice. I said I was calling to see if they were still in business and she said “No comment.” I asked if there was anyone there who would comment and she said “No.”  I asked again if they were still operating in North Dakota, and she repeated “No comment.” I thanked her for her time and hung up. I actually kind of felt sorry for her, because I could tell from the tone of just those two words she was just a functionary doing what she was told, with a lot of misgivings.

So maybe Wayne Stenehjem has a “live one” here. He’s certainly not saying “No comment.” He said in a press release “The state will not hesitate to bring criminal and civil actions when we learn of instances of illegal dumping. Those who blatantly disregard rules designed to protect the environment and keep our citizens safe will be held accountable for their actions.”

Read that again.  “Blatantly disregard the rules designed to protect the environment and keep our citizens safe.” Hmmmm. Hey, Wayne, send that message across the hall to the guy in this headline: “Dalrymple: ND to use ‘every tool available’ to fight EPA.” Oh, yeah, that EPA. The one that writes those “rules designed to protect the environment and keep our citizens safe.”

Okay, Tanous, I’m done. Time to lighten up and plant potatoes.

Oh, one more thing. Just to prove to Tanous I am lightening up, I present the image below. You may remember a month or so ago I wrote about my dad, the optometrist,  and his business card. Wayne Tanous was a particular subject of my dad’s attention (as I was of his), so he’ll appreciate this. Rummaging through some old boxes the other night, I found one of the cards I had mentioned in my blog post about my dad. Here it is.

 

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Getting The Facts Straight

You may be reading in the papers this week a letter to the editor from a young man named Jacob Odermann.  If you haven’t read it, go here. It’s about the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment headed for the ballot this fall if all goes right. I don’t know Jacob, but his dad, James, has been a friend of mine in passing for more than 40 years. At different times we held the same job at the Dickinson Press and respected each other’s work.

Now most of my friends know I am not totally sold on the proposed amendment, precisely because it is just that—a constitutional amendment. I wished it had been handled differently, and I don’t like all the details in it, but it is what we’ve got, so I am going to support it. We need to do SOMETHING. I just hope the sponsors know what they are doing. I signed their petition last week.

But back to Jacob’s letter. I was disappointed that he used a bunch of the hyperbole and misinformation that the Petroleum Council and Chamber of Commerce (now there are two good reasons to take a position on this measure, I guess) have been spreading. Since I knew it was bullshit, I decided to write a response. But then I thought about my friendship of all these years with his dad, and decided not to send it. I don’t have a son, but if I did, I would not like someone, especially a friend, publicly humiliating him, even if he deserved it. Still, I had invested some time in it, and I don’t want that to go to waste, so I thought I’d put it here on my blog, which almost no one reads. And maybe someone else who reads this will use the information in it to send a letter refuting Jacob’s letter. It needs to be corrected. And I’m sure it will be, in the ongoing “letters to the editor war.” The proponents of the measure have been doing a good job of responding to inaccurate portrayals of their measure. Maybe I’ll help them later on, after they’ve gotten the signatures and its place on the ballot is insured. Meanwhile, I thought I’d share with my few readers what I wrote, so all of you are armed with correct information if you need to be. I wrote:

Dear Editor,

Young Mr. Odermann should get his facts right. And it wouldn’t hurt for newspaper editors to do a little fact-checking before printing letters like the one Jacob sent to your newspaper. I don’t know this young fellow, but I do know his dad, and his dad was a journalist of high caliber. Maybe Jacob just needs to run his letters by his dad before sending them.

Let’s start at the top. First, Jacob says there will be $300 million per biennium in the new Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks fund. The correct number, from everything I can read is $150 million. That number comes from the North Dakota Office of Management and Budget.

One farmer or rancher? Well, the measure guarantees at least one farmer or rancher, but there could be as many as 7 or 8, depending on who the Governor and the Legislature want to appoint. They are given broad flexibility to appoint farmers or non-farmers, as they please. So blame the Governor and the Legislature if there is only one farmer on the advisory board.

The fund will not be managed by that volunteer board, as Jacob says. The measure clearly states that “There is created a clean water, wildlife and parks commission that shall be comprised of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner. The commission shall govern the fund in accord with this section.” The “citizen accountability board” which Jacob speaks of simply provides grant recommendations to the commission. All spending and granting decisions are made by our elected officials, who answer to the voters at the ballot box every 4 years.

Young Jacob is concerned that conservation organizations like Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited will use government money to “compete against a private citizen interested in purchasing land.” Well, I suppose so, but only if the Governor, the Attorney General and the Agriculture Commissioner approve that. They control the money.  Run that up Doug Goehring and Jack Dalrymple’s flagpoles and see how it flies.

And then young Jacob talks about “another commission of 13 bureaucrats in Bismarck.” Well, he’s got all the buzzwords down. Except my dictionary defines bureaucrat as “a person who is one of the people who runs a government or big company . . .” Hardly the definition of a volunteer citizens’ advisory committee. Bureaucrats is a word used to incite animosity, but it is not appropriate here. Deceitful, Jacob.

Jacob concludes with “Why don’t we increase the monetary incentive to landowners to participate in programs like the Conservation Reserve Program or North Dakota’s Private Lands Open To Sportsmen?”

Well, if Jacob had done his homework, he would know that this is exactly what the sponsors of this amendment have in mind, and he would have appeared a little less greedy to get his hands on this government money for himself.  I’m a member of Pheasants Forever, and our organization doesn’t own any land that I know of. We work with farmers to make habitat. Ducks Unlimited, as far as I know, wants to provide nesting habitat for waterfowl. It prefers to work in partnership with landowners, not become one. If this amendment passes, my guess is that much of the money will go to farmers to help them create habitat for wildlife. Not to purchase land. For a conservation organization, owning land to make habitat is a pain in the ass. Paying farmers to make habitat (and provide hunting access) is the best way to make that happen. Everyone wins.

Jacob comes from a journalism family. He should know better than to pass off hyperbole as fact. In the end, it will just prove embarrassing.

Jim Fuglie

Bismarck, ND

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Right Off The Cliff

Okay, History/Current Events/Sports Quiz.

Do you recognize the name Private Frazier? No? Well how about if it was on a list with Sergeant Pryor and Privates Goodrich, Gibson, and Hall?  Aha. Lillian Crook and David Borlaug and Tracy Potter think they know. As do Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs and Clay Jenkinson. Well, then, for the rest of you, what if I add the names Gass, Ordway and York? And Lewis. And Clark. Okay, now we’re all there. All members of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, which spent the winter of 1804-1805 here in North Dakota, right?

Well, yeah, but that’s history. 200 years ago. There’s a 21st century connection among all those names. You know who knows what that connection is? I bet Lynn Helms does. See, Lynn is the director of the North Dakota Oil and Gas (one s) Division. And those are all names of oil wells in the Bakken. Boom! Gotcha!

Credit Zavanna, LLC, a Colorado oil company which, by the end of this year, will own 100 producing oil wells in the Bakken. Now, I never really paid attention to the fact that oil wells had names, but some creative production manager at Zavanna has forsaken the traditional way of naming oil wells, which generally consists of an operator name, a well number, and a lease name, and has taken to picking colorful names from groups like members of the Corps of Discovery (in addition to the ones above, they also have wells named Sakakawea, Charbonneau, Pompey and Jean Baptiste).

They also have another group of wells, with names like Bunning, Hunter, Martinez, Koufax, Young, Witt, Browning and Larsen. Tracy will probably get that one too. And Tom Gerhardt and Jeff Weispfenning. Clue: They’re all major league baseball pitchers who have thrown perfect games.

Even the name of the company is creative: Zavanna. Where did that come from? Well, according to their website, the word Zavanna came from the word “savanna” and its reference in Bernard DeVoto’s book Across the Wide Missouri. “It was a word of poetry and power. A savanna was of the mind only, of the mind’s edge, of fantasy. It suggested meadows in sunlight, groves beside streams, something lovely and rich and distant.”

Yeah, right. Gag. Somehow, I don’t think old Bernard envisioned the Missouri River, in the heart of the Bakken, as it looks today, all dammed up and surrounded by oil wells. And I’m not sure he’d appreciate being quoted on their website. Before you get all misty-eyed about savannas and expeditions and perfect games, you should know that, as oil companies go, Zavanna is something of a bad actor. Actions speak a whole lot louder than words. Here’s a line from a news story from last week:

“The Big Oxbow Wildlife Management Area is not clean until I say it’s clean.”

Those are the words of Kent Luttschwager, the Williston District Supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. On March 20, Luttschwager discovered that the vegetation on three-quarters of a mile of shoreline on Four Mile Creek, which runs through the Big Oxbow Wildlife Management Area, southwest of Williston, ND, was coated with oil.

The discovery came in the aftermath of one of the stupidest of all oil spills yet recorded in the Bakken Boom (and there have been some doozies). So stupid, so egregious, that somebody ought to go to the pokey. Somebody who works for, or owns, a company called Zavanna. Zavanna’s oil well named Pvt. Frazier 1-34H (as a Lewis and Clark nut myself, it was the name that caught my attention, and sent me looking at Zavanna’s website for all those other well names) sits on a section of land in the flood plain adjacent to the wildlife management area, whose northern boundary is the Missouri River, just below its confluence with the Yellowstone River. As the ice was going out on the two rivers a couple weeks ago, the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division began notifying companies with wells in the flood plain that the potential existed for flooding from ice jams near Williston, and that the companies ought to make sure that everything was secure, in case their well sites got flooded. (Conveniently, the Oil and Gas Division knew who all those companies were, because they had issued more than 50 drilling permits to those companies, allowing them to put those oil wells in the flood plain. Some might argue that was pretty stupid too—another pokey possibility.)

Well, Zavanna (they of the “meadows in sunlight”) didn’t pay much attention. So when the flood waters from the Missouri backed up through the game management area onto their well site, one of their nearly empty oil tanks, parked on the ground with no anchor, went floating away, with a leaking valve trailing a steady stream—at least 1,400 gallons, maybe more—of Bakken Crude. Bakken Crude which found its way into Four Mile Creek, through the game management area, and likely into the Missouri River. Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the ND Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the ND Department of Health are monitoring the spill right now. The FWS employees in their boats are pulling dead critters out of the water and off the shoreline and will check to see how they died. Wanna guess? I expect we’ll be reading a lot more about this one.

It takes a little work, but if you page through the Health Department’s new website on environmental accidents in the Oil Patch, you’ll find Zavanna is a pretty frequent contributor. Just last month, on Feb. 12, Zavanna reported a 12,600 gallon crude oil spill at a well named Neils 32-29 1-H (I can’t find a gimmick for that name, except it is one of a long line of men’s first names Zavanna has assigned to wells), located just north of Lake Sakakawea in Williams County, which flowed onto private property beyond their well lease.  The Health Department’s incident report said “The oil sprayed out as far as 200 yards across the pasture to the west.” This was the second spill at this well in two weeks. An earlier, smaller spill was reported there Jan. 29.

The Feb. 12 spill was actually pretty small, though, compared to one in August of 2012 at a Zavanna well named Nelson 3-10 1H, in the same neighborhood on the north side of Lake Sakakawea, where Zavanna had a blowout on a windy day which sprayed almost 35,000 gallons of oil and saltwater mist over an area stretching more than two miles from north to south. Here are some of the notes from the Health Department’s Incident Report, as reported by Health Department staffer Kris Roberts.

August 16, 2012

Fair amount of issues.

  • Due to wind direction changes and high pressures during the release, what didn’t land on the pad went in two directions – NW and SE. More oil in the mist to the NW, and more water to the SE. 
  • Both mist plumes went ¾ to a mile from the location.
  • Both directions dropped mist across drainages that merge and flow to the E-NE and end up in Long Creek and then the lake (that would be LAKE SAKAKAWEA—emphasis added).
  • Crop land in both directions. Oats and wheat to the SE, and I think hay field(?) to the NW.
  • Misted wheat and oats will likely not be viable for either sale or feed.

August 17, 2012

  • Basic Work Plan in and approved.
  • Absorbent booms set in drainages as precaution against rain washing oil off vegetation/soil and running.
  • Vegetation cutting and collection beginning.
  • Still working on plan for final stabilization of the well (very little risk, as the well is under control).
  • Initial delineation of mist impact area complete, but expansion possible/likely (emphasis added).

August 18, 2012

  • Mist impact delineation expanded (emphasis added) due to wilting/browning of vegetation
  • Transferable oil has been removed from approximately 2.5 miles of fence line.
  • 30 round bales of vegetation have been removed from property south of pad—approximately 30,000-36,000 pounds.
  • 120 bags of vegetation were recovered from hand work.

August 20, 2012

  • Vegetation removal going well. Some areas had sparse vegetation and may need amendments after sampling results come in.
  • Well was formally finally shut in this afternoon after the rods were removed. It was well under control with valving before, but now the rods are out and they can go about repairs and re-working for production.
  • Reporter met me there this pm from the Forum (out of Williston). Photos and story. Hope she was impressed as I am with the speed and willingness to move clean up along fast on the part of Zavana. (emphasis added)

August 21, 2012

  • Some areas yet to cut, due to rocky conditions. They will be using a brush-hog on a skid steer, then a side delivery rake before baling.
  • Although very minimal, wipe sample shows mist extent as far as 1.4 miles to the south. Grain bin there left recognizable, but very faint oil/dust residue on paper wipe. Will not expand vegetation disposal area beyond what they have now, as the fields beyond current area are either pasture or already harvested.
  • Some expansion of vegetation removal to the NW is possible, but waiting to see if vegetation wilts. 
  • Land owner is concerned and watching. Mist to NW was reported as far as 1 mile (oil specks on pickup windshield on first day.

End of Incident Report entries for 2012. Fast forward to next entry on August 7, 2013.

  • 10:30 telephone call with Zavanna and landowner. Gillian (Zavanna employee) reported that she had sent a remediation binder with all information from cleanup to landowner in March, but management had vetoed copy to DoH (emphasis added) unless specifically requested. Request now in, and advised that this type of report is required in the future.
  • Spoke with landowner by phone this date. He is unsatisfied with a couple issues left over from the response work. Apparently absorbent booms were never changed out, and are now overgrown. Soil stockpiles were brought in and placed on his property and are still there. He requested additional soil samples collected from northern portion of impact property and was denied. He requested that he be notified when contractors wanted access to his property and though he was called, they just wanted to go on even when he was not available to accompany them.
  • Gillian is in ND this week, and is willing to meet with both myself and landowner on location. Plan is for Thursday 8/8/13.

August 20, 2013

            On 8/8/13 – 08:30, on location for meeting with adjacent, impacted landowner and his daughter, Gillian and Andrew from Zavanna, and Chris Rodgers from Absorbent and Safety Solutions to address concerns and issues not completed from the blowout impacts. Landowner’s concerns:

  • He wants to be there when anyone is on his property, otherwise he feels it is trespassing.
  • The topsoil brought in last year was; A) not weed free, and B) not spread, but left in belly-dump rows, and C) has large rocks in it.
  • Lath marking sampling locations were not removed from his field.

Negotiated solutions:

  • Absorbent will make appointments to meet landowner anytime they need access.
  • Spray the indicated 4 acre parcel and soil windrows with Roundup to address the weed problem (either Absorbent, or a contractor of landowner’s choice).
  • Spread the windrows out, and 
  • Remove rocks.
  • Re-seed to alfalfa either this fall and spray for weeds next spring, or wait and seed in the spring after a pre-emergent herbicide is put down. Chris Rodgers and landowner’s daughter will work together to determine the best option and get buy-off from landowner. Zavanna and Absorbent will keep DoH informed of progress, and landowner will contact me if he has any further concerns.

That’s the end of the incident reports for that spill. You can draw your own conclusions. I’m guessing this is a pretty typical response to a pretty typical incident. Only God and the Health Department know how many more spills of this magnitude, or greater, are on that website. I’m not going to bother Kris Roberts at the Health Department to see if anything else has taken place. He has enough on his plate right now without being bothered by a blogger. I will check back on the Incident Report from time to time to see if there are any new entries. If you want to look at it yourself, click here.

I can tell you that a cursory look at the website reveals that between March 25, 2013 and March 24, 2014, 365 days, there were 2,002 reported spills, about a fourth of which, 468, were uncontained, meaning oil or salt water ran across the land or into a waterway. Some specific examples, from the Health Department’s Incident Reports:

  • 6,000 gallons of oil and saltwater mist “sprayed across the snow on a cultivated field” in Dunn County on March 14 of this year.
  • On the same day, almost 7,000 gallons of oil leaked from a pump at a well site next to a slough in Divide County. The company has been trying to contain it before it gets into the wetland, likely a nesting site for mallards this spring.
  • On November 25 last year, 714,000 gallons of saltwater leaked from a Denbury Resources pipeline just inside the Montana state line and ran into Big Gumbo Creek in Bowman County, North Dakota. Big Gumbo is a tributary of the Little Missouri River, which is a tributary of the Missouri River. Remediation? Here’s what the Health Department’s incident report said: “. . . the environment is too fragile to do more than flush the drainage/creek with fresh water . . .” Wonderin’ why we don’t have a sage grouse season any more?
  • And of course everyone remembers the 860,000 gallon oil pipeline leak near Tioga last September. They’re still cleaning that one up.

What this all adds up to, I’m afraid, is that we are doing some terrible things to our land and water. I think the Health Department is probably doing what it can—which is not enough. Instead of monitoring clean-ups of spills after they happen, we need to move into a prevention mode. Kind of like what the Highway Patrol does when it puts out its “saturation patrols” on holiday weekends. If people know they’re twice as likely to get busted, they are probably going to be twice as careful not to break the law. At least those with half a brain are. And I can’t believe these people who are in the oil business here are stupid. I think they are either careless or willing to gamble they won’t get caught, or both.

So our Legislature has to give the Health Department fifty, or a hundred, or two hundred, inspectors—however many it takes—who will do constant checking on pipelines and well sites, surprise inspections, to make sure oil companies are doing everything possible, every day, to prevent these environmental disasters. We as North Dakotans who love our state and want to protect it should demand nothing less than that. We’re going to vote this year. Let’s vote for people who will promise to do that. It certainly hasn’t gotten done by those who are in office now.

Meanwhile, back to Zavanna. In keeping with their “savanna” theme, they have a whole group of websites named for big cats:  Lynx, Bobcat, Ocelot, Cougar, Tiger, Lion, Jaguar, Puma, Bengal, Sabertooth, Panther, Leopard and Cheetah. Cute. And then there’s my two favorites that they have chosen for well names: Thelma and Louise. Yep. Appropriate. As they lead us right off the cliff.

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Art Link: “Consider Continuing The Prairie Lifestyle”

While going through some old papers this weekend, I came across a speech given by former Governor Art Link at the 4-H camp near Washburn in the Summer of 1977. Here are some excerpts.

“You, as young people, are the vital and important basis for our state’s future. Your personal growth can certainly have an effect on our state’s future. I hope that each of you will consider remaining in North Dakota, or returning here after completing work or education experiences elsewhere. Many of you in this room will be facing these decisions of future growth in a very short while, if you have not already been involved in such planning.

“You and I share the experiences of a prairie lifestyle. Here in North Dakota our lifestyle has remained relatively simple. The way we live is far less complicated than our big city neighbors. I believe there is more neighborliness here and a greater emphasis on the values which have been important to generations of North Dakotans. You are the future generation of North Dakota and it is now time to begin thinking and talking about the kind of lifestyle which you may want as you enter adult life.

“Here let me make a request of you. You can do much to contribute to North Dakota’s prairie lifestyle. Conversely, what you don’t do can also contribute to our lifestyle. Let me explain.

“I hope that each of you will be responsible stewards of all our state’s and our country’s resources. You have a good start on this through the stewardship emphasized in 4-H. Our nation has unfortunately become one in which bigger always seems to mean better. We use and abuse our resources. Most of us have more than we really need of nearly every commodity, whether it be clothing, food, cars, televisions, or other products. We use the lion’s share of the world’s energy resources.

“As 4-H’ers, I believe you are beginning a firm base of thinking regarding the tools, educationally or otherwise, which can prepare you to contribute to society, rather than setting a list of material goods such as a large house, a large car, and so on.

“Of course we do need some material goods to live comfortably. Good judgment can be utilized in the choices we make about material goods. For example, I would rather see the goal of a young person about to purchase a car, to find the most economical and inexpensive sturdy vehicle suitable to his or her needs, rather than hoping to buy the largest, most gas-consuming, fastest automobile on the road.

“Each of us must become more conscious of the miles of driving we do, for work or pleasure, in the country or in town. We must ask ourselves, is this trip really necessary right now or can this errand or business contact be combined with another and thus save one trip?

“Life will be a continual presentation of choices for each of you. I hope you will make the choices which are most responsible in terms of our global environment. You people must begin thinking in these terms.

“It is important to know that we can take charge, and I underline, take charge, of our own lives.

“It is important to stop and think of the forces working upon us to make decisions. There is the force of advertising, of comparison with our neighbor, and of what other people expect and think of us. However, each of you can take charge of your own life and decide what is best for you.

“By making the correct choices, you can help our state continue to offer a fine quality of life. Each of you can develop standards and self-discipline that will set the patterns for your entire life. Set your goals and standards and stick with them. This is the kind of growth that is positive and can have life-long effects on you. The 4-H organization is providing you with important experiences and information to facilitate positive growth.

“I indicated to you that you are growing with our state. In 12 years, North Dakota will celebrate its 100th birthday.  We are a very young state, not even a century old. Through the North Dakota 100 Program, my administration has been involving citizens of the state, through survey and committee means, in planning for North Dakota’s second century. This kind of citizen input and contribution for our second 100 years is vital.

“You can have a lot to do with what our state will be like for its second century. You and your children will be the beneficiaries of what we plan now.

“Now, on an individual basis, I ask that each of you take charge of your own lives. I urge you to make your decisions based on what is best for you as an individual, and not as a robot molded by the television tube or other people’s tastes.

“I ask that you consider continuing the prairie lifestyle we enjoy in North Dakota by being less consumptive and more supportive of the environment in which we live.”

That was Governor Art Link. Can you imagine any current or recent Governor giving a speech like that?

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The Price of Politics

So, George B. Sinner is running for Congress. Good for him. I wish him well. Remember this: George B. Sinner is the State Senator from Fargo. He’s about 60 years old. His father is George A. Sinner, also from Fargo. He’s the former Governor. He’s about 85. Remember that. A = 85. B = 60.  It’s how I remember to keep them, both longtime friends of mine, straight.

George B. starts out pretty late for a race for a seat in the U.S. Congress. By that I mean that his opponent, incumbent Republican Kevin Cramer (for whom I voted two years ago but will not vote for this time, because, while I always choose friends over politics on election day, George B. has been a friend longer than Kevin, so George B. gets the nod) has already got a three hundred thousand dollar fundraising advantage. In a race where each candidate might be expected to spend a million dollars or so, that’s a significant edge. But not one that can’t be overcome, if he gets to work. Pam Gulleson, who ran against Cramer two years ago, raised just over a million dollars, a significant sum for an unknown from North Dakota. Given George B.’s family roots and his presence in the Fargo banking and business community, you’d have to think his fundraising opportunity would be at least as good as, or better than, Gulleson’s.  But he needs to get after it, fast. I think he’s going to need $1.5 million to win. He has 231 days to raise that. That means he has to raise $6,500 a day between now and November 4. Counting today. If he doesn’t raise $6,500 today, he has to raise $13,000 tomorrow to catch up. And if he doesn’t raise $13,000 tomorrow, well, you get the picture. I don’t care how good a candidate he is, if he doesn’t raise at least $1.5 million, he‘s probably going to lose.

Speaking of money, I thought I might just do a little checking on how the other candidates in this year’s election are doing in that arena. They’ve all had to file end-of-year fundraising reports if they were raising money in 2013. They’re all available, state candidates here, federal candidates here.

Cramer tops the ticket for the Republicans this year, and he tops the fundraising list as well. In 2013, he raised $461,000. Not bad. But he spent $192,000 of it already, much of that on fundraising. One unique thing about Kevin’s FEC report is the payments from his campaign committee to himself and his wife, Kris. Kevin Pays Kris about $1,500 a month to work as his off-season campaign assistant and scheduler, from campaign funds, a little over $16,000 in 2013. I’m not sure, but I think she works out of their home, but maybe she goes to Republican headquarters part of the time. I don’t guess there’s anything wrong with that, it is just unusual for a Congressman to have his wife on the payroll. And Kevin keeps real good track of his own expenses while he’s on the road, mostly back here in North Dakota. He reimbursed himself a little over $16,000 for “per diem” and travel expenses from his campaign fund. That, too, is unusual. I’m not sure if this is a new phenomenon, or if it reflects on Cramer’s personal financial situation. I looked through campaign disclosure reports for “reimbursements” in their campaign committees’ spending for former and current Senators and Congressmen. Neither Byron Dorgan, Kent Conrad, nor Earl Pomeroy generally reimbursed themselves for anything from their campaign accounts during their time in office, although I know Earl had a campaign committee credit card he used to pay some personal expenses while he was on the road. Rick Berg did reimburse himself, about $15,000, but it was all for use of his personal airplane, or perhaps one owned by his company, a corporation, from which he could not take a free ride under Congressional rules. John Hoeven didn’t list any reimbursements for anything from his campaign committee, but he’s rich. Heidi Heitkamp, on the other hand, was reimbursed about nine thousand for unspecified expenses during the past year. Not sure what that’s about. Her disclosure form just says “reimbursement.” Cramer’s is a bit more specific. It lists items such as “mileage reimbursement” and “per diem” numerous times. Not sure what his per diem rate is or where he was at, or what he was doing, when he claimed it. What I know is, Cramer needs the money. He reportedly lives in his Congressional office, sleeping on an air mattress, because he can’t afford to maintain both a Bismarck and a Washington residence. So I guess we can forgive him for tapping into his campaign funds to subsidize his family’s income. As long as he keeps it legal, which I’m guessing he does. He’s pretty careful. Legal, but ethically questionable, I’d say.

But back to matters at hand. Cramer had almost $300,000 in his campaign bank account as of the beginning of the year. And now I’m guessing the fundraising gets serious. George B. better get going.

What about the rest of the ticket? Well, incumbent Republicans standing for election this year have all had some success. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem leads the pack with $211,000 raised in 2013 and about $230,000 in the bank. But Stenehjem’s numbers are misleading. Almost three-fourths of his money came from one source—a $150,000 check from the Republican State Leadership committee. Stenehjem has been criticized for taking these kinds of gifts before. The RSLC is a 527 Committee which accepts corporate funds and spreads them out to candidates across the country. So, although North Dakota law prohibits candidates and political parties from taking corporate donations, once they are “washed” through groups like the RSLC, they apparently become legal. Trust me, Stenehjem knows the law—he’s the Attorney General—but like Cramer’s “reimbursements” and payments to his wife, there is something ethically questionable here. Especially this year. Previous gifts to Stenehjem’s campaigns were $25,000 in each of his 2006 and 2010 campaigns. But the RSLC upped the ante, way, way up, to $150,000 this year. Not sure what’s up with that.

Of note is the fact that Stenehjem might have trouble raising funds from more traditional Republican sources this year (read: The Oil Industry) because of his effort to put some restrictions on how oil wells are drilled in  or near “extraordinary places” in western North Dakota. Stenehjem’s 2013 contributors list contains just a couple small gifts from the oil industry, as opposed to a pretty substantial volume of checks to other Republican officials and candidates last year (more about that in a minute).  And it is a bit ironic that on December 19, 2013, the day he introduced his “extraordinary places” proposal at a North Dakota Industrial commission meeting, his $150,000 check from the RSLC arrived in the mail. I’m not going to go so far as to say he was emboldened to take on the oil industry that day, but hey, a $150,000 insurance policy is a nice thing to have.

On the other hand, Jack Dalrymple, who goes by the title of Governor but who is not running for re-election this year, or maybe ever, continues his cozy relationship with the oil boys. Even though he’s two and a half years away from what would be his re-election effort, the oil industry ponied up more than $30,000 to Dalrymple’s campaign committee this year. Just “staying in touch” with the guy who could (and did) kill the “extraordinary places” proposal.

The third member of the Industrial Commission, Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, wasn’t quite as successful as his fellow Commission members. Goehring raised only $20,000, just $3,000 of it from Oil industry PACs, but he did get a $12,500 check from the Republican Agriculture Commissioner’s Committee, a group that brags on its website “Individuals, corporations, PACs and foundations contribute to the RACC. Contribution amounts are unlimited.”  More “washed” corporate money, in spite of North Dakota’s laws banning it. Makes me almost wish the Democrats could figure out how to tap into that kind of money. Maybe they’d win once in a while.

Of the other Republicans on the ballot, Tax Commissioner Ryan Rauschenberger raised $134,000 (almost $50,000 of that from the oil industry), Public Service Commisioners Julie Fedorchak and Brian Kalk raised $80,000 and $52,000 respectively, and Al Jaeger, who almost never raises much money, received $7,000, with $5,000 of it coming from the Realtors PAC.

Our U.S. Senators were in the fundraising game as well. John Hoeven, who has almost three years to go before his term ends, raised just over $100,000 last year, but only $5,000 from the oil industry. I guess they know where he stands on things already, and will be there for him in 2016. He does have almost $700,000 in the bank, much of it left over from his first Senate race in 2010.

Heidi Heitkamp has been more active. In her first year in office, she snagged more than half a million dollars for her campaign account. But she spent more than $450,000 of that, leaving her only $175,000 in the bank, counting money she had left from her 2012 campaign. Most of her money came from PACs during a very active Washington, D.C. fundraising year. Oil was good to her though, working to keep her faithful, pumping almost $75,000 into her bank account. I was puzzled about how she could spend so much money in a non-campaign year, so I looked through her campaign expenditures list pretty carefully. Turns out she spent about half her income raising that money. She lists expenditures of $49,000 to Anne Lewis Strategies, $92,000 to Schimanski and Associates and $68,000 to the Southpaw Group, all Democrat fundraising companies. In addition, there are tens of thousands of dollars worth of catering bills in Washington, North Dakota and Minnesota, likely for fundraising receptions. The result is, after raising $513,000 for her campaign account in 2013, she’s left with just $175,000 in the bank. But she has almost five years left in her term, so she’s in no hurry. Still, spending that much money to raise that much money leaves a bad taste in my mouth (not that any of it was my money). I wish she wasn’t doing it that way. Making the fundraising companies rich.

Which reminds me of my old Friend Duane Sand. You’ve read about him here before. He’s been running the greatest political fundraising scam in America for years. In fact if you Google him, you’ll find the top two links are to stories about his fundraising scams on this blog and Rob Port’s Say Anything blog. Suppose old Duane is done now? Nope. His front man in Washington, Scott Mackenzie, filed an FEC report for Duane in January of this year, reporting that he raised almost $18,000 in 2013, and paid it all to his fundraising firm. In other words, the D.C. shop Duane uses is just raising money for itself using Duane’s name. Duane can’t do much about it, because he still owes them $126,000 from his ill-fated 2012 U.S. Senate Primary Election campaign against Rick Berg. So he just lets them keep on sending fundraising pitches to dupeable conservatives who like writing checks in response to fire-breathing fundraising letters purportedly signed by a candidate.

Well, okay, I’ve taken enough of your time and mine on this subject. It’s always good to catch up with our politicians though, to see who’s buying, er, supporting them. I think I started out by telling George B. Sinner he needs to get out and raise money. Hope you got a few ideas here, George. Good luck. The day’s almost over. Did you raise $6,500 today? 

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The Greatest Man I Ever Knew

The United States entered World War II shortly after the bombing at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Just a few months later, in the Spring of 1942, at the close of the Devils Lake Junior College school year, a handful of young men from Devils Lake, the nucleus of the school’s hockey team,  finished their two-year stint at the college, joined the U.S. Navy and headed off to fight the war.

Newspaper clipping from the summer of 1944, shortly before Carlyle was killed. Note the paper referred to Oliver as “Whitey.”

All but one of them—Carlyle James Fuglie, my namesake and my father’s brother, who was killed when a kamikaze pilot struck the deck of his ship—survived the war. Gathering back in Devils Lake at the end of 1945, at the conclusion of the war, they discussed among themselves what to do with their lives. The one thing they were sure of is that they wanted to spend those lives in North Dakota. One of them mentioned that North Dakota had a shortage of eye doctors–optometrists. Small towns, and even medium sized ones like Dickinson, Valley City, and Jamestown, were clamoring for the services of optometrists. So, with their GI Bill of Rights paperwork in hand, they set out for Chicago, where they all enrolled at Northern Illinois College of Optometry.

In Chicago they shared rooms and apartments, found part-time jobs, rode the el or the bus to and from school, and once a year or so rode a real train back to North Dakota to see their families and girlfriends. A few married, to high school sweethearts or girls they had met when they returned home from the war. They all eventually married North Dakota girls. By now these young men were approaching their late 20’s, time to start a family. Working wives supplemented the income from the GI bill and part-time jobs. By the spring of 1950, they arrived back in North Dakota, diplomas in hand, all wearing the title Doctor of Optometry. And they set about deciding where they were going to live, and practice their new profession.

One of them was my dad, by then Dr. O.J. Fuglie. His parents, Ole and Sadie Fuglie, had named him Oliver Joseph, a name he never used once he left home. His mother called him Ollie until the day she died, but she was the only one. Born with a shock of very blonde, almost white, hair, he earned the nickname “Whitey” as a young boy, and it stuck with him his entire life. I never heard my mother call him anything else. A faded newspaper clipping from the 1930’s, describing an act of heroism he performed as a teen-ager, rescuing a young boy from drowning and using his Boy Scout training to perform artificial respiration, saving the boy’s life, called him Whitey Fuglie

Whitey Fuglie arrived back in North Dakota in the spring of 1950 with a wife and two young children. My sister was an infant and I was two and a half years old. He and his Navy/college buddies, all still very close, had been in touch with the North Dakota Optometric Association. They knew which towns in North Dakota were seeking optometrists. They set out exploring, separately now, to see where they might set up a practice.

Whitey borrowed his brother-in-law’s car (he didn’t own one of his own) and he and my mom drove to three towns: Grafton, Ellendale and Hettinger, leaving the grandmas in charge of the kids for a few days. In Hettinger they were greeted by the president of the Chamber of Commerce, a local carpenter named Floyd Peterson. He showed them around town, pointing out that half of Main Street was now paved, and the other half would be before another winter arrived. And once that was done, they would be starting on the rest of the streets in town. Hettinger was bustling in the post-war economy, farming was good, jobs were available, houses were being built. Hettinger had a population of about 1,700, but there were another four or five hundred farm families within a 30 miles radius or so, who did their business in Hettinger. Hettinger had two doctors and two dentists, but no optometrist, and the town was about to begin building what would become Hettinger Community Memorial Hospital, actually paid for, built and owned by the community. That appealed to my mother, who had finished nurse’s training at Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Devils Lake before she married my dad in 1946.

Hettinger was a thriving town, a tourist town in the summer because of its location on U.S. Highway 12, the most popular route from Minneapolis to Seattle before the construction of the Interstate Highway system. It had seven gas stations, five of them right on the highway within about four blocks of each other, and two drugstores which sold postcards with scenes of the town printed on them.  There were three restaurants, two hotels, five car dealerships, two women’s clothing stores, a men’s store, a shoe store, three hardware stores, a dry cleaners, a two-lane bowling alley, a movie theater, and four grocery stores. It also had a nine-hole, sand green golf course and a lake on the south edge of town, backed up behind a dam built on Flat Creek by the railroad 40 years earlier to provide water for the steam engines. The lake had panfish in it. My dad was both a golfer and a fisherman, so the town had some appeal. But most importantly, Hettinger sat in prime pheasant country, and my dad was a hunter. A pheasant hunter.

Hettinger had a newspaper, and the publisher had prospered a bit, and owned a building on Main Street where his newspaper was located on the ground floor, and there were a couple of offices upstairs. One of the offices was home to a dentist. The other was vacant in that fall of 1950.

“Dr. Fuglie,” said D.J. Shults, the newspaper publisher, “you can use that office, and don’t worry about paying me now—you can pay me when you get going.” Well, that was one problem solved, if Dr. Fuglie was to choose Hettinger. The second problem was, where to live.

“We can help with that too,” said Chamber President Peterson. “Ed Arnold, who has the Oldsmobile dealership, has an apartment in his basement that no one is living in right now. Let’s go see him.” Second problem solved.

“What kind of car are you driving?” Ed asked young Dr. Fuglie as they were standing outside the house, just a block from Arnold’s Garage, where he sold his Oldsmobiles. Dr. Fuglie explained that he had just gotten out of college, and didn’t own a car yet. “Well, we can fix that,” Ed said. “When you get here, you can just use one of mine until you get on your feet.”

An office. An apartment. A car. Just about enough to close the deal. Hettinger desperately wanted an optometrist. An optometrist was just one more family in town, but it would save people a trip to Bowman or Lemmon when they had vision problems, and an optometrist was one more reason for farmers to come to town, and when they came, they would shop. They’d buy groceries, and clothes, and hardware, and yes, Oldsmobiles. This, in 1950, was how economic development was done.

I never learned what the folks in Grafton and Ellendale offered. I can only guess it was something similar. But I know what they did not offer: Pheasants. It was pheasants that closed the deal. Everything else being equal, pheasant hunting won. Young Dr. Fuglie borrowed ten thousand dollars from a relative to set up his optometric practice, loaded what few possessions he and his wife had into his brother-in-law’s pickup truck, moved to Hettinger, hauled his equipment up the steps to his new office above D.J. Shults’ newspaper shop, and planted his wife and two children and a bit of furniture in Ed Arnold’s basement. I remember a picture of him standing beside that new borrowed Oldsmobile, grinning ear to ear. He could afford to buy it six months later.

My dad kept this eye chart hanging on a wall in his examination room with a coat over it. When one of his male patients came in (not the Baptists) he’d uncover it and ask them to read it, as a joke. I still have it hanging in my house.

His business card read “Dr. O.J. Fuglie, Optometrist.” Under his name, he had the printer run his little advertising pitch through the press twice, the second time offsetting it just a tiny bit so the letters appeared fuzzy. It read “If this appears blurred and hard to read, hurry in and have your eyes examined.”  Then, under that, in clear type, it said “We get more darned patients this way.” His new Hettinger friends, or course, wanted to know what O.J. stood for. He said to forget it, just call me Whitey. Later, he became better known as “Doc.” Never O.J. or Ollie or Oliver. Just Doc or Whitey.

The result of all that, of course, is that I got to grow up in southwest North Dakota, where there were pheasants aplenty. I grew up golfing, and hunting, and fishing, and still do. Each fall, some of Dad’s high school/junior college/U.S. Navy/optometry school buddies, having become successful practicing optometrists scattered around the state, showed up to hunt pheasants with their buddy Whitey, who had landed in the best place of all. They maintained their friendships all their lives. Eventually they brought their sons with them, and I had hunting partners of my own age.

Like my dad, who died 30 years ago today, I’m pretty sure they are all gone now. But they all lived good lives, and raised good families, in places they chose to live, thanks to that day in 1945 when they sat down and decided to become optometrists. As professionals, they became community leaders.

My dad repaid the kindness of the town a hundredfold. He was commander of the American Legion Post, first president of the brand new Eagles Lodge in Hettinger, Chamber of Commerce president, a scoutmaster for more than 20 years (he was awarded the Silver Beaver, Scouting’s highest award, late in his life for a lifetime devoted to Boy Scouts), president of the Park Board, a volunteer fireman (I can’t tell you how many suits he ruined, dashing from his office to the fire hall without changing—those were the days I’m sure my mom called him something other than Whitey), and a town constable (there were several volunteer constables to help the police chief when he needed it—I remember the night my dad had to help arrest a friend and deer hunting buddy of his who, in a fit of rage, had shot his wife when he caught her cheating on him, and it was my dad’s presence that allowed the arrest to take place peaceably).  During his tenure on the Park Board, he oversaw the draining and dredging of Mirror Lake and restocking it with fish. He helped design and build the new golf course. He was president of the Rod and Gun Club, the local sportsman’s organization. He was blessed with type O blood, and thus was a universal donor, and was awakened many nights to come to the hospital to give blood to an accident victim or a surgery patient who needed blood, earning a “gallon donor” badge many times over.

Whitey Fuglie was a remarkable man. I will never forget the horror of that morning, March 16, 1984, when my sister called to say he had died in his sleep at just 62 yeas old. And I will never forget the stoicism of my mother, who outlived him by 25 years. Phyllis Fuglie was an independent woman, a Registered Nurse who worked all her life while raising seven children (well, she had a lot of help raising them from her amazing husband) and who carried on after being widowed at 59, ever grateful to that husband who had led her to southwest North Dakota.

He’s been gone 30 years today, and I still think of him often. I talked of him with Jeff this week when we were ice fishing, remembering how much I hated freezing out there on those lakes when I was a kid, because my dad would never leave until the sun went down—he loved winter sunsets (and also that last bite of the day at twilight, I later realized when I came to actually like ice fishing myself). But I can’t forget to this day how he would stand there and look across the frozen tundra as the sun dipped below the hills and say “Isn’t that beautiful, Jim?” and I would say “Brrrrr. Let’s go home, Dad.”

I could tell Doc Fuglie stories ‘til the cows come home. Maybe someday I will. Today, I’m just going to drink a can or two of Old Milwaukee, his favorite beer, and remember the greatest man I ever knew.

 

Footnote: One Doc Fuglie story.

I came home from my own stint in the Navy in the Spring of 1972 to discover that my dad had already signed me up for membership in the American Legion. I was visiting my folks in Hettinger, not long after I arrived back here, and Dad said there was a Legion meeting that night and I should come and meet the fellow Legionnaires. I said sure. The meeting was at the Legion Club, which had two rooms—a large meeting room, and a bar room. As the meeting was winding down, that year’s commander introduced me as Johnson Melary Post 115’s newest member, and asked if I wanted to say a few words. I said sure. This was the spring of 1972. George McGovern was running for President of the United States. He had just issued a call for amnesty for draft dodgers who had gone to Canada to avoid the draft. I rose to my feet and launched into a little speech about why we should bring them back and offer amnesty. Future doctors and lawyers and optometrists and maybe even a future President of the United States. Bring them back and make them productive members of our society. I was pretty passionate. I had just done four years in the Navy, including two tours of Vietnam, and thought I had a platform on which to stand to justify my position. I was wrong.

About two minutes in, I began to hear noises. First feet stamping, then some quiet boos, then louder, then “Sit down and shut up.” Chagrined, I stopped, politely thanked them for their time, and walked out of the meeting room, into the barroom, sat down at the end of the bar, and ordered a beer. Shortly, the meeting ended and Legionnaires, men of my father’s generation, men I had known all my life, my father’s friends, began trickling out of the meeting room into the bar. Every one of them walked by me silently, to the other end of the bar, and began drinking and visiting. Except my dad. He stopped where I was and sat down beside me. We were the only two at that end of the bar, a good gap separating us from the rest of the crowd. He ordered a beer. Then he turned to me, put his arm around my shoulders, and said “Well, son, that was a pretty dumb thing to do.” I said I realized that, and apologized. “Don’t apologize,” my father, a lifelong Democrat (yes, that’s where I got it), said. “You’re right. You just picked the wrong audience.”

We finished our beers, alone, just the two of us, and went home.

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Special Places? It’s All Over Except The Drilling

Is half a loaf better than none? Put another way, does protecting half of Pretty Butte from oil development do any damn good at all?

That’s what happened at the North Dakota Industrial Commission meeting Monday. Passing up a chance to display real leadership in the face of overwhelming pressure from the oil industry to frack every single section of western North Dakota, the Commission caved. Despite Wayne Stenehjem’s best arguments, which fell on the deaf ears of Jack Dalrymple and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, and despite nearly a year’s worth of effort, the Attorney General was forced to accept a pretty significant change to his Extraordinary Places proposal in order to get any movement at all toward protection of some of North Dakota’s most valuable pieces of real estate Monday.

In the end, he really didn’t get much. The Commission voted to restrict itself from considering the value of any privately owned land in or near Stenehjem’s proposed list of 18 Extraordinary Places. Tossing the words “constitutional rights” around as carelessly as a hockey puck in the Ralph Engelstad Arena (you can bet if that site had been on Stenehjem’s list, it would’ve gotten protection), Dalrymple and Goehring chose their phony patriotism (the last refuge of scoundrels—thank you Samuel Johnson) over Stenehjem’s logic (“I think I understand  what constitutional rights are,” the state’s top lawyer offered to his two farmer friends) in tearing the heart out of what might have been our state government’s first real display of leadership since the beginning of the Bakken Boom.

I report this because I’ve followed this issue since the beginning and you need to know what the outcome of it was. I’ll quit after this. Promise.

So the outcome of it is this: The Department of Mineral Resources will review all drilling permit applications, and if they find any in areas that are listed in this policy that aims to offer some protection to a list of 18 “special places” in western North Dakota, the applicant will have to work with state and federal experts to find the best possible location for their wells, which do the least damage to the nearby landscape and the environment and the wildlife and the cultural, historical and recreational resources.

Unless the application is to drill on private land. Like private land on the south half of Pretty Butte.  Or private land adjacent to the Elkhorn Ranch. Or private land in the middle of Little Missouri State Park. Or private land inside the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site. Or private land a hundred yards from the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, or the Lake Sakakawea shoreline. Or private land right smack on top of White Butte, our state’s highest point. Or private land anywhere on the bank of the river that created our Bad Lands, the Little Missouri, all 275 miles of it. Those places get no protection at all.

All Stenehjem was asking for was that the Commission’s staff take a look at applications that came in for drilling in those places, and try to work with the oil industry and the landowner and the mineral owner to find the best possible location for the well. He was not asking to stop a well from being drilled. He was offering the help of the state’s best experts to the industry and the owners, to find the best place to put a well, causing the least disruption possible—not no disruption at all—to whatever it was that made these places “extraordinary.”

The industry responded with furor, pulling out all the stops, calling in all the chits it had given Dalrymple in the last election, and undoubtedly writing a bunch of new ones for Goehring’s upcoming re-election campaign.

So because the policy only applies to publicly owned lands, it will have little impact, since most of the publicly owned land on this list of extraordinary places is already protected. You can’t drill an oil well in a national park, or on a national wildlife refuge, but as a result of this new policy, you can drill that well ten feet outside the boundary. Stenehjem’s proposal would have helped to find a place to put that well behind a hill, or around a bend in a creek, out of sight. Or wildlife experts would have helped find the best side of a woody draw, that the deer like to use for romantic activities or winter refuge, on which to place a well.

Nuh uh. Not going to happen. In fact, because they are mostly on private land, some of Stenehjem’s 18 places are going to actually come off the list completely. And that’s unfortunate, because, as the Attorney General pointed out, 8 out of 10 landowners in the oil patch don’t own the minerals under their land, and they will have no protection from greedy out of state mineral owners and oil companies who are going to put their wells any place they damn well please. It’s that “constitutional right” that the two farmers on the Industrial Commission voted to protect. Not the right of North Dakota’s farmers who want to be good neighbors and work with the Attorney general to  protect these “special places.”              Here’s the list Stenehjem proposed. And here’s how each will be affected by what happened today. You decide if you got your money’s worth out of the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s wages today.

  • Black Butte: About half the butte is owned by the Forest Service, but the rest, including much of the surface of the top, and most of the land around it, which would have been in the two-mile buffer zone, is privately owned. That part gets no protection.
  • Bullion Butte: Almost all of Bullion Butte, the state’s most majestic butte, is owned by the Forest Service and is in an area already designated as roadless, so the policy will have no effect on it.
  • Camel’s Hump Butte: It is all privately owned, so it gets no protection.
  • Sentinel Butte: All privately owned.
  • Pretty Butte: Half privately owned, half Forest Service, same for the buffer zone.
  • White Butte: Privately owned, including the buffer, except for a school section on the south face.
  • West Twin Butte: Privately owned, including the buffer, except for a section of Forest Service land a mile to the east.
  • The Columnar Junipers/Burning Coal Vein area, aka the Old Dakota National Forest: This is the Ponderosa Pine area of the Little Missouri River, south of Bullion Butte, and with the exception of the actual Burning Coal Vein site itself, it is mostly privately owned.
  • The Missouri-Yellowstone River Confluence: This is all privately owned except for the actual shoreline.
  • The Elkhorn Ranch: This is a national park so it is already protected from development. The two-mile buffer around it is about half private, but the owner does not own the minerals, so there could be additional wells alongside the site with no restrictions.
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park: Already protected because it is a national park, but there is much private ownership on its boundaries, in the proposed buffer zone around both units.
  • Forest Service back country recreation areas: Already protected because of roadless designation by the Forest Service.
  • Little Missouri State Park: Most of the park itself is privately owned and leased to the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, and its minerals are already heavily leased for oil development. The only protection offered by this policy is the on shoreline of Lake Sakakawea inside the park, up to normal lake level, 1854 feet above sea level.
  • The Little Missouri River: Most of the river valley is privately owned, making this the biggest loser as a result of Monday’s changes to the policy which excludes private land. Ironically, most of the ranchers do not own the minerals under their privately owned acres, so they will have no say in well placement.
  • Lake Sakakawea: Because of the changes to the policy made by Dalrymple Monday, only the shoreline of the lake will be protected. Stenehjem’s proposal would have put a half-mile buffer zone around it. That buffer zone land is either privately owned or tribally owned. But most of the landowners do not own the minerals under their land, so they will have no say in well placement.
  • Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site: Privately owned.
  • Tracy Mountain: About half privately owned, half Forest Service, including the buffer zone
  • Wildlife Management Areas: All the state game management areas, federal waterfowl production areas and national wildlife refuges contained in this category already have some protection, although there are privately owned mineral acres under many of them, which could trump public ownership. Most of these are tiny islands of land which would have benefited greatly from the buffer zones around them, since wildlife generally don’t stop and read the boundary signs very often. In most cases, those buffer zones are privately owned.
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