Remembering Larry Erickson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?” I asked.

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

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

Larry on the ranch last fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Meet The New “Drilling Permit Review Policy Commentary Analyst”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 3. How much are they payin’ you?

My compensation is $46 per hour

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

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

5. Please describe your job as you understand it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.2 through NDIC-PP 2.04. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

exterior boundary of each site. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Time To Cut Taxes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aha.

Gotcha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

You Can’t Mitigate Greed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trail riders in Little Missouri State Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can’t mitigate greed.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

A Million Barrels A Day

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

A Million Barrels a Day: The Ballad of Jack Dalrymple

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

 

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

A rich Valley farmer and political hack.

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

When up from the ground came a bubblin’ crude.

 

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

 

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

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

No rules or regulations, just like the Wild West,

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

 

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

 

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

And cashing in their paychecks in McKenzie County bars.

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

A couple thousand gas flares lighting up the prairie skies.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

(Hey, rhymes with done and fun.)

 

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

We might be back, Jack. Hear?

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 9, 2014

Dennis Neitzke

Supervisor, Dakota Prairie Grasslands

1200 Missouri Ave.

Bismarck, ND 58504

Dear Dennis;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Sincerely,

 Dave Pieper

Cc:  Tom Tidwell, Chief US Forest Service

Faye Kreuger, R1 Regional Forester

Lowell Baier, President Emeritus Boone and Crockett Club

Previous Posts:

October 6, 2011

October 8, 2011

October 11, 2011 (#1) 

October 11, 2011 (#2)

May 29, 2012

June 1, 2012

June 4, 2012

June 15, 2012

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Finally, A Tax I Don’t Like

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

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

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments