Where Are The Big Ideas?

When you take a nearly 12,000 mile driving trip, you get a lot of time to think. Lillian and I did that this winter, and we learned a lot about the country we live in. But we learned something else about ourselves: We’re both pretty comfortable in our own skin. And because of that, we were able to go long periods of time without talking. Without the radio playing. Without music. There were days when we drove for hours and the car was just quiet. Those were thinking hours.

We’re also both pretty intense observers of the world around us. We paid attention to the sides of the road, not just the center line. On the sides we saw, variously, woods, water and desert, as well as civilization in the form of cities, signs, and fellow travelers. In driving from Bismarck all the way to the Atlantic coast, then turning right and driving first along the seaboard, then the Gulf of Mexico, then the desert of Texas and New Mexico, and then the Rocky Mountains and the Black Hills as we kept turning right, the circle ending back in our driveway in Bismarck, we saw many things we had not seen before, or had seen but not paid much attention to. And we had time to talk about, and think about, what we were seeing.

Now I’m a pretty North Dakota-focused person, even though I’ve traveled through 49 of the 50 states—well, almost 49. I didn’t drive in Alaska. Yet. I only landed there in an airplane, walked across the tarmac a short distance to a hangar and back on a frigid Alaska winter day. But I have driven in every other state except New Hampshire, somehow missing that state on my several trips to New England. I’ve liked other states, but only as a casual visitor. Even though I enjoy the outdoors immensely, almost all of my participatory activities have been pretty much limited to North Dakota. I’ve never owned a non-resident hunting license, for example. I hunt 30 or 40 days a year, but always in North Dakota. I’m a fisherman, but my out of state fishing experience consists of one time in Montana and three or four times in Canada.

I’m a hiker, but I can count the number of states I’ve taken any substantial hikes in on my fingers, and the number of times I’ve hiked in any one state on one hand. I do like driving around the country and looking, but I really like doing most everything that can be done here, in North Dakota, right here at home, rather than somewhere else.

But my years as a journalist helped me develop a keen eye for observing what is happening in other places. And so I thought, on this trip that Lillian and I just completed, I’d really look for things that people in other states are doing that we could, or should, be doing in North Dakota. I mentioned a couple of them in an earlier blog post from the road—naming things after people, and logo signs on the highway–as examples.

At the same time as I was traveling and observing some of the really cool things other states were doing, I was following the North Dakota Legislature online, and one day this thought struck me: In North Dakota, right now, we are suffering from a lack of really big ideas. We’re just cruising along as a state, reacting to outside forces, the way we always have, minding our business, being generally taken advantage of, just like the days when the railroads and big grain companies dictated to us what we could produce, where we could sell it, and how much we could sell it for.  Not much has changed in that respect in the last 100 years, since the days when the Nonpartisan League led a revolt with some really big ideas. Really. Big. Ideas. Ideas like a state-owned bank, a state-owned mill, state-guaranteed hail insurance, and the passage of initiative and referendum laws which gave the citizens of our state a direct voice in their future when government failed to act on their behalf. The difference between 100 years ago and now is that now it is the mineral extraction industries dictating to us. Lackadaisical government leaders now, as then, do the bidding of those outside forces. Who are we, and who were we then, to fight progress, to not deliver our goods to a needy world at prices set elsewhere? It was our responsibility then to provide wheat for a food-hungry world. It is now our responsibility to provide oil (and gas and coal) to an energy-hungry world.

The big ideas the Nonpartisan League had back then did not completely stop the flow of dollars into big city banks, wheat into Minneapolis elevators and flour into America’s homes. They just made sure that we were treated fairly, that we could see a vision for success in our future, and that we’d be proud of what we contributed to our country. Today, we don’t need big ideas that stop the flow of oil and gas and coal out of North Dakota. We just need to insure we are treated fairly, and, as Art Link said, when the landscape is quiet again, we have a state we can still be proud of.

Right now, our state’s leaders, many of them deeply indebted to an industry that provided the funds to get them elected, are, at worst, just carrying out the wishes of that industry, and at best, nibbling around the edges of a course set forth by others, who don’t answer to us North Dakotans. Or much care about us.

It’s time to pause, step back, take a deep breath, and grab back the reins of leadership of North Dakota with some really big ideas.

I wish I could tell you what those big ideas should be. I wish I was smarter, and younger, and a little less tired, and that the ideas would just flow. While I was driving, I tried to make myself think of things that could happen that would make our grandchildren’s generation pause, 25 or 50 years from now, and say “No shit! They really did that? Wow!”

I tried to think if there are any of those kinds of things happening right now. I thought of a couple. As I walked through spectacular new Clinton Presidential Library, I thought about the fact that, around the end of this year we’re going to open the doors on a new $50 million or so State Heritage Center. That’s something. As I visited some dizzyingly large wildlife refuges and national parks, I thought of the proposal to put five per cent of the oil tax money we’re collecting right now into land and water conservation projects. At a concert in Greenville, NC, I thought of how proud the people of Fargo and Grand Forks must have been when they first saw the Fargodome and the Alerus Center. At almost every national park gate, I thought of Harold Schafer standing on a bluff overlooking a shabby little cattle town named Medora and saying “There is too much here to be lost—let’s save it.” As I stood on the banks of the Rio Grande—the “Big River”—I thought of the idea of first, the Southwest Pipeline Project, and now the Northwest Area Water Supply (NAWS) and the Western Area Water Supply Project (WAWSP) bringing fresh, pure Missouri River water to western North Dakota. As I looked out into the Gulf of Mexico at the drilling platforms, I realized what an amazingly big idea it took by Harold Hamm and others in the oil industry to figure out how to fracture our shale and bring what will be billions of barrels of oil out of the ground that was unreachable just five years ago. And I thought of the leadership of Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, and the North Dakota Farmers Union, AFL-CIO, Education Association and Rural Electric Cooperatives, to go to the people and put a six and a half per cent extraction tax on that oil way back in 1980, thirty years before the Bakken boom, that will now guarantee us a source of funding for our schools, and roads, and our elderly and poor and yes, those water pipeline projects, far, far into the future. And as I drove past huge coalfield spoil piles in northeast Wyoming, I thought of Art Link’s insistence on reclamation laws to make the land, after the coal mines are done, better than it was before.

Big ideas, all.

And then I continued to read news reports of North Dakota getting richer and richer, day by day, and not a single new big idea being proposed by the leadership of our state to take advantage of our newfound wealth. Instead I saw stories about cutting the oil tax we fought so hard for 30 years ago, to put even more gold into the pockets of the oil barons, about granting property tax relief which never seems to find its way into our year-end tax bills, and about government creeping into people’s bedrooms and doctors’ offices. Where, oh where, is our vision?

I don’t even know if I have any big ideas, but I’m thinking, what if we could build more water pipelines heading east, and south, to bring fresh water to the door of every home and farm and business in North Dakota? Every one. We’re pumping water uphill when we take it west from Lake Sakakawea to Williston and Dickinson and Hettinger. But it’s downhill all the way from Garrison to Fargo. How hard could that be—pipelines bringing fresh water, for every North Dakotan, forever? Along the way, we might even return 50 or 60 miles of unused canals back into farmland.

What if we reclaimed every single oil well site in 30 or 40 years, when the oil is gone, covered the scoria roads, planted native grasses and flowers, and turned the entire Bad Lands into America’s most spectacular National Park?

Why don’t we honor our citizens, past and present, like most states do, by naming roads and bridges and buildings, and even rivers and buttes, after them?

And yes (I’m never going to give up on this), what if we chose that wonderful Native American word for “friend”—Dakota—as the name of our state, giving up any extraneous directional adjectives?

We could do all those things, and many more, that you can think of, so our great-grandkids could indeed say “Wow! They really did that?”

In the next few weeks, I’m going to write about those things, to make the case for them, and hope our leaders will begin listening, and thinking. Write to me with your big ideas. I’ll be happy to post them here as well, if you’ll send them to me.

If we could build a skyscraper state capitol in the depths of the depression . . . If a man could make a fortune selling bubble bath . . . If we can drill an oil well sideways for two miles  . . . If we can build an international garden dedicated to peace . . . If a tall, skinny kid from Williston can become the best NBA basketball coach ever . . . Heck, if we can build the world’s largest concrete buffalo . . .

5 thoughts on “Where Are The Big Ideas?

  1. Read and enjoyed your article. I love North Dakota, but the state is cursed with old white Republicans goats whose favorite direction is backwards. Until the young and the liberals unite and fight back it seems hopeless. Our state has the funds to invest in parks, trails, Lake Sakakawea, and make our state outstanding, but instead the old Republican goats sell the guns, gays, god, and abortion to the other old codgers. The net result is the young with any brains get fed up and leave. I know many young people who want to come back, but just will not live in a state run by fundamentalist and Republicans. It is shameful that ND has 24,000 children living in poverty. One of my old goat Republican friends is promoting the multi billion dollar submarine that will be named after North Dakota. (Bill Butcher). What a waste of money, but so typical of how our state gets duped by the military. I could go on all day, but I appreciate your willingness to fight the backwardness the Republicans have cursed us with.


  2. I loved this essay. Thank you for your thinking hours. I’ve been following our legislature from close up. Our smallmindedness and lack of vision is almost too painful to watch.

    We could start with a small idea–funding the school milk-break program.
    Another not-so big idea–we could unite to save some Wilderness in Dakota before it’s too late.


  3. Great article! You hit the nail on the head with your comment ” We’re just cruising along as a state, reacting to outside forces, the way we always have, minding our business, being generally taken advantage of “.


  4. Lots of food for thought here! Would you consider letting me repost this article on Dakotafire.net, as a guest post in our FiredUp blog section? We’d link back to this blog.

    Thank you,
    Heidi Marttila-Losure
    Editor and Program Administrator
    Dakotafire Media


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