What Would Art Link Do?

It was one of those chance encounters. I was just sitting in a Bad Lands bar on a rainy afternoon having a quiet drink when an old acquaintance happened in and sat down beside me. He was a retired coal company executive, with a friendly face and a firm grip, and we re-introduced ourselves and visited a good long while. Bad Lands bars on rainy afternoons are good for that, especially for two retired geezers with not much else to do or worry about.

Talk, of course, turned to the oil boom pretty quickly, and how different it was from the coal boom of the 1970’s, which we both remember well. And that got me to thinking, later, about how REALLY different it is from those days when coal severance taxes and mined-land reclamation would have started and dominated a similar discussion.

Art Link’s name came up in our discussion. I said I probably can’t count on both hands the number of times I’ve heard in the last year, someone say “Boy, if only Art Link was in charge . . .”  Art was governor of North Dakota from 1973-1980, during energy crisis that set North Dakota off on a mine mouth, coal-fired power plant boom. By the time the boom ended in 1986 we had built five new power plants and were generating almost 4,000 megawatts of electricity using lignite coal to boil Missouri River water to turn the turbines which heated and lighted homes, farms and businesses in all of North Dakota and much of South Dakota and Minnesota.

The “boom” was in construction and mining jobs—building the power plants and digging the coal from massive strip mines in McLean, Oliver and Mercer Counties in west-central North Dakota. Thousands of blue collar workers populated towns like Bismarck, Beulah, Hazen, and Washburn for a dozen years or so, and then the plants were built, and they moved on, electricians and sheet metal workers and plumbers and carpenters finding work in Fargo, Minneapolis and Denver. There was a dip in the housing market with their departure, but these were also the last days of Jimmy Carter and the first days of Ronald Reagan, when home interest rates reached to 18 per cent, so there was a double whammy in the housing industry. It was only a mini-bust.

But the clamor in the 1970s and 80s was over the North Dakota environment—what was the ripping up of the earth and the burning of the coal going to do to our land, our water and our air? The environment was on our minds back then. Congress had passed and Richard Nixon had signed the Clean Air Act, and together they had created the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA in those days enjoyed almost universal support, because it was going to help save our planet—unlike now, when it is viewed by many as a villain which is killing jobs. My, how our priorities have changed!

Link was viewed as the “Go Slow” Governor—his phrase was “cautious, orderly development.” His most famous speech, “When The Landscape Is Quiet Again,” delivered to the 1973 annual meeting of the North Dakota Rural Electric Cooperatives, is revered by many in North Dakota, as Americans revere the Gettysburg Address.

There was a goodness in this dirt farmer with an eighth grade education who had risen to the highest levels of government, representing his state in the U.S Congress before being elected, and re-elected, as its governor. He believed we must be conscious about the state we are leaving to future generations.

Much unlike now, when North Dakota’s elected leaders with Ivy League educations have given carte blanche to another energy industry, the oil companies, to rip and roar at will, with 10,000 wells—6,000 new since 2009—now producing oil and gas and saltwater in the western third of our state, and giving no thought to what we are leaving our grandchildren—except a bankful of money.

The scale is vastly different, of course. Art Link had to regulate just four coal mines, confined to a pretty small geographic area. North American Coal, for example, our largest mine  operator,  has about 150,000 acres under lease, I think, about 225 square miles of North Dakota’s 70,000 square miles—an area the size of five miles on each side of I-94 from Mandan to New Salem.  And they only mine a tiny part of that acreage at a time, perhaps a square mile or so a year, reclaiming it as they go. The oil patch, by comparison, is huge, covering about a third of our state, and we’re drilling up to a thousand new oil wells a year.

But the difference is, Art Link actually DID something. Thanks to Art Link, North Dakota has the best mined-land reclamation laws in the nation. In North Dakota, everything gets put back the way it was before mining started. Oh, the coal companies muttered and sent their lobbyists to the North Dakota Capitol, saying the government was trying to regulate them out of business, and driving up the price of electricity for customers. Somehow, though, they’ve survived all that, and prospered, and they reclaim the land and pay their severance taxes as part of the cost of doing business in a state that cares about its land, it’s water, its clean air, and its future generations.

Or did. Until the Bakken Boom. Those things don’t seem to matter much to our current crop of leaders. All that matters is money now. It is a sad time for those things, even in the midst of the greatest prosperity we’ve ever known. Prosperity has a price tag of its own that can’t be counted in dollars.

Just the other day I visited the North Dakota Century Code, our state’s lawbook. There I found, in Chapter 38, the laws that regulate our energy industry. I looked at Chapter 38-14.1, our coal mine reclamation laws. The first paragraph says this:

The legislative assembly finds and declares that:

Many surface coal mining operations may result in disturbances of surface areas that adversely affect the public welfare by diminishing the utility of land for commercial, industrial, residential, cultural, educational, scientific, recreational, agricultural, and forestry purposes, by causing erosion, by polluting the water, by destroying fish and wildlife habitats, by impairing natural beauty, by damaging the property of citizens, by creating hazards dangerous to life and property, by degrading the quality of life in local communities, and by counteracting governmental programs and efforts to conserve soil, water, other natural resources, and cultural resources.

            Yes, that is actually the wording of a state law, and it is followed by this:

Surface coal mining operations contribute to the economic well-being, security, and general welfare of the state and should be conducted in an environmentally sound manner . . . Surface coal mining and reclamation operations should be so conducted as to aid in maintaining and improving the tax base, to provide for the conservation, development, management, and appropriate use of all the natural resources of affected areas for compatible multiple purposes, and to ensure the restoration of affected lands designated for agricultural purposes to the level of productivity equal to or greater than that which existed in the permit area prior to mining.

There follows 36 pages of a detailed structure for reclaiming coal-mined land, laws written in the 1975 and 1977 sessions of the North Dakota Legislature and signed by Art Link. Indeed, the best reclamation laws in the country.

It goes so far as to say that a mining permit can be denied if our experts determine that the land will not be able to be reclaimed after the mining is done.

It says that no mining will be allowed “on any lands within the boundaries of units of the North Dakota state park system, the national park system, the national wildlife refuge systems, the national system of trails, the national wilderness preservation system, (and) the national wild and scenic rivers system . . .“ (Those sound a lot like Wayne Stenehjem’s “Extraordinary Places, don’t they? Except this is a law. Not an informal “policy.”)

Then I looked at Section 38-8, the laws that regulate the oil industry. Here’s the first paragraph of those laws:

Declaration of policy.

It is hereby declared to be in the public interest to foster, to encourage, and to promote the development, production, and utilization of natural resources of oil and gas in the state in such a manner as will prevent waste; to authorize and to provide for the operation and development of oil and gas properties in such a manner that a greater ultimate recovery of oil and gas be had and that the correlative rights of all owners be fully protected; and to encourage and to authorize cycling, recycling, pressure maintenance, and secondary recovery operations in order that the greatest possible economic recovery of oil and gas be obtained within the state to the end that the landowners, the royalty owners, the producers, and the general public realize and enjoy the greatest possible good from these vital natural resources.

My, what a difference. “The greatest possible good.” Code for “Yeeeehhhaaaawww, we’re all gonna get rich.” And you know what else is different? Nowhere in Section 38.8, or in any other law pertaining to the oil industry, can I find a requirement that well sites be reclaimed when the oil is gone. The only reference to any kind of reclamation at all that I can find is the posting of a bond so the state can clean up the mess when the oil companies move on. “We’re so glad you are here. We hate to see you go. But you guys just leave us a little pocket change and we’ll clean up after you.” It truly is all about money this time around. Screw the environment.

Another difference: The coal-era laws apply to all lands, both private and public, unlike today’s weak “policy” dealing with drilling permits, which applies only to public lands, and exempts private lands from scrutiny before wells are drilled.

And the big difference is the land being affected. Coal is mined below what was once, and will be again, cropland. Oil is mined beneath our state’s most scenic and historic natural resource, our Bad Lands. Coal is lifted from the ground and taken to a nearby power plant where it is burned, hence the term “mine mouth” power plants. Oil requires a network of dirt roads ripping through our Bad Lands, tens of thousands of trucks spewing a fine layer of dust, often making the countryside uninhabitable for humans and critters alike, and hundreds of thousands of potentially explosive rail cars criss-crossing a continent while leaving our farmers’ crops rotting on the ground with no locomotive engines available to haul grain cars to market.

Oh, to be sure, coal has its own problems, creating an air quality crisis many believe is responsible for melting polar ice caps. In spite of everything the coal companies have tried to do right, there will come a day of reckoning for coal. Solutions to the problems created by coal will be national, global. But here in North Dakota, in Bakken Boom times, we could indeed benefit from Art Link’s “Go Slow” policy today.

What would Art Link do today? I think he has already provided us the answer, in his words from that 1973 speech:

When The Landscape Is Quiet Again          

            We do not want to halt progress.

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

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

            And when we are through with that, and the landscape is quiet again,

            When the draglines, the blasting rigs, the power shovels and the huge gondolas cease to rip and roar

            And when the last bulldozer has pushed the last spoil pile into place

            And the last patch of barren earth has been seeded to grass or grain

            Let those who follow and repopulate the land be able to say

            “Our grandparents did their job well. This land is as good as, and, in some cases, better than, before.”

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

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Tracy and Bob

I’ve got two friends running for the state Legislature in my Legislative district, one a Democrat, Tracy Potter, and one a Republican, Bob Martinson. This isn’t the first rodeo for either one of them, and I have voted for them both in previous elections, but they weren’t running against each other then. So now what do I do?

Tracy is one of my best longtime friends. We have worked together politically since the 1970s, and shared an office in the State Tourism Department for almost eight years. Lillian and I socialize with Tracy and Laura, and we ask each other’s advice on things we need advice on. While I’ve never shared his desire to hold political office, I have worked on each of his campaigns in some capacity. To think that I would not support him in his effort to go back to the Legislature is out of the question.

I began voting for Bob back in the 1980’s after I was able to get out of my partisan blinders and recognize what an effective Legislator he is, not just for my district, but for Bismarck and all of southwest North Dakota. What’s he done for us lately? Just go to the grand opening of the new $50 million North Dakota Heritage Center in November. Bob did that. And a whole lot more. And he and Jodi are also personal friends of Lillian and me.

Well, it was a no-brainer, deciding who to vote for. The ballot will say “Vote for two names.” I will vote for Bob and Tracy. But that’s not enough, because I want to help get them elected, somehow. Because the Legislature will be a better place if these two, who both started their careers as pretty loyal party partisans but have mellowed as the first number in their ages turned to 3, and then 4, and then 5, and now 6, get elected. Partisanship is not part of their vocabularies any more.

I watched Tracy earn the respect from both Republicans and Democrats as one of the smartest guys on the floor during his two sessions in the state Senate. He’d talk to, and work with, anybody who’d listen, and didn’t care what party they were from. The bills he sponsored contained little hint of his party politics. He’s the guy I want leading the charge on tax reform in North Dakota right now.

Bob frustrates his GOP House-mates from time to time because, even after all these years, he just doesn’t seem to understand you’re supposed to vote the way your party leader says. Or that you’re supposed to vote with your fellow legislators from your own district when they introduce crazy abortion bills. He does understand he represents a fairly conservative district, and he’s sincerely interested in how your (and my) tax dollars get spent. He really doesn’t like to get sidetracked by the social issues some Legislators seem to live for these days.

So, the other day, Tracy brought over one of his yard signs to put in my yard, just like I have in past elections. I thanked him. And then I called an artist friend down at United Printing and had him make me a yard sign of my own, white letters on a purple background, saying “Elect Tracy Potter and Bob Martinson to the House of Representatives.” I taped it over the top of the one Tracy had brought. Bet there isn’t another one like that in town. And I put it out in front of our house.

That was on Tuesday. Wednesday I came out and found the tape all pulled loose and the sign flopping around. There was no wind blowing, so obviously someone had done it. I chuckled. Somebody just wanted to see what was underneath, I guess. There’s a sign the same size just down the block from me with all three Republican Legislators names on it, so I kind of guessed it was some Republican operative looking to see if I had covered up one of their signs. Not sure what they were going to do if it had been one of theirs—report me to Republican headquarters? Then again, maybe it was a Democrat and I’ve been reported to Democrat headquarters. Haven’t heard from them yet.

I’m pretty sure Tracy doesn’t mind. I sure don’t have anything against Tracy’s running mate, Darrell Miller, but I can’t vote for three people. Sorry, Darrell. Bob’s running mates are probably not real happy with him, but as far as I am concerned, the best team for District 35 is Bob Martinson and Tracy Potter, and Bob is taking one for the team here. He’s not going to lose an election by being on a sign with Tracy. He’s going to be my Legislator as long as he wants to be.

Since it went up, I’ve gotten a request from someone else who wanted one. I did have a couple extra made up. I guess I can make some more if anyone wants one. Here’s what they look like.

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Ice Cream And South American Sauce (And An Apology)

When I was a little kid growing up in Hettinger, North Dakota, my seven favorite words from my Dad were “Anybody want to go for a ride?” That question came usually on a soft summer evening, and it meant we were all going to pile into the station wagon and Dad was just going to drive us around town, and probably on the loop road around Mirror Lake, a whole bunch of blonde heads hanging out the car windows.

See, in those days, “going for a ride” was a big deal. In Hettinger, we were able to, and expected to, walk or ride our bikes everywhere we went. The town was only ten blocks long, from north to South, and about 12 blocks wide, east to west. We walked to school. We walked to church. Even in winter. We rode our bikes to baseball practice or down to the lake to catch sunfish and bluegills. Heck, there were times when we kids went days, even weeks, without getting into the car.

My dad, the wisest man I ever knew, could just tell when us kids had been rambunctious all day long and my mom was at her wits end, needing a break from us. So however many of us there were at the time (there would eventually be seven of us) would jump in the station wagon and we’d just drive around town. And make one special stop: at the Knotty Pine Drive-In.

The Knotty Pine was like a small town Hollywood set for a movie about the 1950’s, complete with speakers on poles between the cars for ordering and car hops delivering trays to us, which propped against a half-open driver’s side window. It was open from about the time school got out in the Spring until it started again in the Fall, generally Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend. (And yes, I am supporting the measure on the ballot here this fall to start school after Labor Day. They did it when I was a kid, and I turned out all right, I think.) If the weather stayed nice in the fall, I remember, the Knotty Pine would remain open into September, but you had to walk up to the window to order during the day, because all of the car hops had gone back to school. There were car hops only in the evenings and on weekends in September. And then a cold spell would hit, and the drive-in would close abruptly, with only a day or two notice.

My favorite treats on those summer nights with Dad were root beer in frosty mugs, chocolate milk shakes, or ice cream cones with cinnamon-sugar flakes somehow mixed  right into the ice cream itself in a special machine inside the drive–in. We only got one thing, and it was hard to choose.

The drive-in was owned and run by a couple of what we considered middle aged “spinsters” named Evy and Julie, who lived together in a house on the east side of town all summer and mysteriously disappeared in the fall, to somewhere in the south, I think. We didn’t know it or even think it at the time (although I suspect our parents did) that they might have been a lesbian couple, and if they were, they were the first, and only, for a long, long time, lesbians I knew. All I knew was, they made life happy at that drive-in for hundreds of kids growing up in Hettinger (and hundreds of moms who shooshed the kids out of the house for a half hour or so in the evening after tending to them all day long). Most moms in Hettinger didn’t have jobs outside the home, and needed a break about 7 on a summer evening.

I was thinking about the Knotty Pine this week when I read of the problems some of the hospitality industry people here in Bismarck are having in trying to find help. Now there’s a problem caused by the oil boom we never counted on.

Just a few weeks ago, on one of those perfect summer evenings, about two hours after supper, Lillian and I decided we’d like a treat from Dairy Queen. I volunteered to go. We live about a 15 minute walk, or a 90-second drive, from the iconic home of the Buster Bar and Hot Fudge Sundaes at the corner of Broadway and Washington. It’s very convenient, but we don’t abuse the privilege more than four or five times a summer. That night was one of them. Lillian ordered a hot fudge sundae, I had my heart set on a Buster Bar, and I hopped in the car, and less than two minutes later I was staring at a sign that said “Closed. No Workforce.”

The sign on the service window said they were still open at their Highway 83 location.  Too far. Lillian’s Hot Fudge Sundae would be mush by the time I got home from there. So I drove to the grocery store up the street and got a carton of chocolate gelato. Craving satisfied. But it was a sad night, knowing there would be no more evening walks or drives to the DQ. (I tried the Highway 83 store a week later—it had a sign that said “Closed for the season August 24.”)

The next night on TV there was a story about the DQ being closed, and also an interview with the owner of Bismarck’s famed Peacock Alley Restaurant. The oil boom has not been a good thing for him, he said. “Low unemployment is a good statistic for politicians to brag about, but it is not a good statistic for business people,” Dale Zimmerman told KX News. In spite of doubling wages over the past four years, Zimmerman has had to cut his hours of operation because he can’t find enough people to serve his customers. He doesn’t want anyone leaving there complaining about poor service. Better to restrict hours. He says he’d hire 20 more people if he could, right now. 20 jobs going wanting. At one restaurant. In Bismarck, North Dakota. Go figure.

This week, it got worse. Mandan’s Seven Seas Hotel and Conference Center owner, Shannon Gangl, announced he was closing  the hotel’s restaurant, Montana Mike’s, due to lack of staff. Not cutting hours. Completely closing. That is a worst case scenario.

Dairy Queen closed for the season before summer’s end. Seven Seas restaurant closed permanently. Two Bismarck-Mandan institutions. Long before there was Peacock Alley, or Pirogue, or Kobe, years before Taco John and Arby’s, there were the Seven Seas and Dairy Queen. Two or three generations of Bismarck kids made that kitty-corner trip across Washington from the Elks Pool on a hot summer day before their bike ride home. And for my generation, the Seven Seas Dining Room and the Gourmet House were the top two fine dining restaurants in the two cities. Bob and Eileen Clifford closed the Gourmet House twenty years ago now, and Barry and Esther Davis sold the Seven Seas not long after, with the new owners renting out the dining room and kitchen space to a chain which served pretty good food.

For my friends and I who came here in the 1970’s, young and poor, the Seven Seas was our place to splurge, for the famous Seven Seas South American Steak, on anniversaries and New Year’s Eve, and a regular place to just go and have a drink and order garlic toast and the best liver pate’ in America and listen to Barry play the piano on a Saturday night. Now, there’s no food at the Seven Seas. Unthinkable. (Although you can still buy Essie’s famous South American sauce at the grocery store—good for you, Esther.)

I sent the story from the local paper to Esther this week (Barry’s been gone a few years now) and she responded “I cannot believe this! How very sad, as we all spent so many fun times with guests who were friends or soon became friends. With the hotel you would think they would have to have food. What awful changes in N.D.” Esther’s two sons, who grew up working behind the scenes at the Seven Seas, chimed in with their disappointment as well.

That’s the downside of the oil boom. More jobs than people, in spite of the huge influx of new residents. The employment crunch has hit here later than most places in the Oil Patch, but for those of us who live in the state capital, the downside of the boom has hit home.

To be sure, there are upsides to the boom here. We went from having no Japanese restaurants in town to three, which is a treat, because we had the least diverse restaurant choices of any major city in the Midwest just a couple years ago. The service is good there, because they have all brought their own staff to town with them. Not only can we get good Japanese food now, but we can hear the workers conversing in languages we don’t understand.  My guess is if they couldn’t do that, the restaurants wouldn’t be here.

North Dakota’s top tourist destination, Medora, has hired foreign workers for years, college-age kids who are here on temporary visas. Without them, Medora wouldn’t be open at all. Last winter, in fact, what is arguably the state’s best restaurant, Theodore’s in the Rough Riders Hotel, was closed for six months because of a lack of help. We’ll see if it is open this winter. I hope so, I love going there in the winter.

So, to all my friends with whom I spent many an evening at the Seven Seas, raise your glasses in a toast to days gone by. To anybody who wants a Buster Bar from the Bismarck DQ, (and it was the only place I know of where you could get a shrimpburger, too) sorry, you’ll have to wait to see what happens next spring. Two fine institutions, victims of too much success. It’s a brave new world in North Dakota. Get used to it.

I Apologize    

A note to all my readers: My blog is hosted by the Forum Communications Company and appears on the website of their North Dakota newspapers in Fargo, Grand Forks, Jamestown and Dickinson. I appreciate their willingness to do that. Sometimes the readers of my blog make a comment on the end of one of my articles. In order to try to keep these comments clean, the Forum does not let them show up until I have approved them. Ever since I started writing this blog, each time someone made a comment on one of my posts, it triggered a switch at Forum headquarters somewhere, and that switch sent me an e-mail telling me there was a comment waiting for me to approve. So I’d rush right in there and approve it, acknowledging to my readers/commenters that I had seen their comment.

For a couple of months now, I haven’t been getting any comments. I never gave it much thought until today, when I was wandering around in the bowels of the Forum blogosphere, and found a whole string of unapproved comments. Damn, those Forum people, I thought to myself, they were supposed to be notifying me when I got comments. So I quickly began approving them, and posting them to the appropriate blog article. Took most of my morning. Still cussing.   Then I got to the bottom and found a comment from my site administrator asking me for my new e-mail address. Duh, of course, when I got hacked so many times I closed my e-mail account, and neglected to tell the guy at the Forum. So of course, all those e-mails that said “There is a new comment on your post waiting to be approved . . .” were just going into cyberspace somewhere, without me knowing about it.
Well, damn. I apologize to all of you who were good enough to post a comment to my blog and then wondered why it did not show up. Some important people, including Earl Pomeroy, and some good friends of mine, have been silently calling me an a-hole for ignoring their comments. The good news is, I finally gave my guy at the Forum my new e-mail address so he (his computer, actually) can let me know when you comment on my blog. Sorry. Old dog. New tricks.

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Celebrate Today!

Fifty years ago today, on September 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law The Wilderness Act. I think it may be the best law ever signed by a President. The Wilderness Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System, which today includes more than 750 wilderness areas in the United States, encompassing more than 109 million acres, including four Federal Wilderness Areas in North Dakota.

Last night at supper, Lillian said “We should celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act by going to a wilderness area and going for a hike.” Done. As the sun rises in the east this morning, we will be headed west to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where we will get out of the car and hike into one of North Dakota’s four small wilderness areas—the others are in the South Unit of the Park, the Lostwood Wildlife Refuge and the Chase Lake Wildlife Refuge. I hope there will be people at all of them, celebrating this morning. But not too many.

I am lucky enough to be married to a woman who has dedicated her life to Wilderness. Lillian was raised on a Bad Lands ranch, and, through her mother, who was raised on that same ranch, has the Bad Lands in her blood. It was the idea of preservation of some of those Bad Lands that brought us together—you’ve read about the famous “Bullion Butte Topo Map” on this blog before. Here’s a refresher if you’ve forgotten.

Fifteen years ago, Lillian and a friend founded an organization seeking to expand the federal wilderness area in North Dakota, and named it the Badlands Conservation Alliance. They incorporated it as a 501 C 3 non-profit organization and set to work. They understood that North Dakota needs more Wilderness. There are four more areas, in our Bad Lands, which are still roadless and are classified federally as “suitable for wilderness.” I’ve written about them before. You can read more about them here. BCA’s work has shifted from one of promotion of formal Wilderness designation to one of survival for the “suitable for wilderness” designation, as a result of the Bakken Blitz. But someday . . .

As I sat at my computer last night, I wanted to write my thoughts about the importance of wilderness. And then I thought of Wallace Stegner’s famous Wilderness Letter and decided I could not do better. I’ll share an excerpt from it here, some of the greatest words ever written, and provide a link to the entire text of the letter. I hope today you will take the time to read it, and thank the Congress of the United States—those were the days, the 1960’s, when Congress actually did good things—and President Lyndon Johnson, for giving us this marvelous gift.

Here’s the excerpt from Stegner’s letter. You can read the whole thing by going here.

            Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last  virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; If we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.

            Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there–important, that is, simply as an idea.

The Wilderness Act itself is a marvelous piece of work. I don’t know who actually wrote the words, probably some Congressional staffer with help from an environmental lobbyist, but it was good enough to inspire a Congress, a President, and then a Nation, to act.Here’s how it starts:

Section 2.(a) In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness. For this purpose there is hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System to be composed of federally owned areas designated by Congress as ”wilderness areas”, and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness, and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, the preservation of their wilderness character, and for the gathering and dissemination of information regarding their use and enjoyment as wilderness; and no Federal lands shall be designated as ”wilderness areas” except as provided for in this Act or by a subsequent Act.

And then it contains this magnificent definition of what Wilderness is:

(c) A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

         “Untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor . . . ” Doesn’t that sound like a place you’d want to go to? Today?  Well, the coffee is made, there’s a hint of false dawn in the east, and there are some wild things in some wild places calling to my partner and me. We will drive both directions today with the sun in our rear view mirror. In between, we will spend this day, with a water bottle in one hand and a walking stick in the other, with those wild things in those wild places. What could be better than that?

If you want to know more about Wilderness and how you can get involved, visit the Wilderness Society’s website. It has a wonderful domain name: www.wilderness.org. And if you want to see what good government can provide, something we’v e not seen much of lately, here’s a link to the actual Wilderness Act itself.

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Hacked. Again.

Somebody doesn’t like me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until this week, that is.

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

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

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

Sup Lillian


Jim Fuglie

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

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

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

Hi (Friend)


Jim Fuglie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Protecting ALL Public Lands–A Modest Proposal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Loophole Big Enough To Drive A Fracking Truck Through

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Remembering Larry Erickson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?” I asked.

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

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

Larry on the ranch last fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Meet The New “Drilling Permit Review Policy Commentary Analyst”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 3. How much are they payin’ you?

My compensation is $46 per hour

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

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

5. Please describe your job as you understand it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.2 through NDIC-PP 2.04. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

exterior boundary of each site. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Time To Cut Taxes?

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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