Politics and Prairie Literature

When I started this blog half a decade ago, it had a longer name. It was The Prairie Blog: Politics and Prairie Literature.

And that’s what I wrote about. I’d go on rants about politics until my friend Wayne Tanous would send me a message, like “Hey, Jim, it’s Spring. Lighten up.”

And so I would, and I started sharing excerpts from some of my favorite North Dakota and Prairie writers, as part of a series called “The Best Things Ever Written About North Dakota.”

And I was having a good time doing that, until an oil boom came along. And I, along with a lot of others, realized that the boom was being managed, or, rather, mismanaged, by a bunch of thoughtless, greedy, self-aggrandizing politicians, and I began using this blog as my way of adding my voice to the chorus of those thoughtful people who were trying to make some sense out of all that was going on, and talk some sense into the heads of those politicians.

Yeah, well, how’s that working out for us?

Today I’m going to take a little break and write about politics and prairie literature. Because my friend Mike Jacobs has a new book, and I want to talk about it. Mike retired from a 40-some year career in journalism last spring and, once his 2014 garden was harvested and canned, found his keyboard again, and has written a sort of stream-of-consciousness-analysis of the state of affairs in his beloved North Dakota.

It’s called A Birthday Inquiry: North Dakota at 125. It’s a series of essays, and it’s an e-book, available online from Amazon.com for your Kindle or on a Kindle application for your computer or smartphone.

I wrote here about Mike’s last book, One Time Harvest: Reflections on Coal and Our Future about five years ago. You can still read my thoughts about it and an excerpt by going here. The book was triggered by the biggest energy boom to ever hit our state, the coal-to-electricity boom of the 1970s. The coal industry viewed the book as alarmist, but most of us thanked him for a clear, insightful look into an industry that was changing the face of North Dakota in ways we weren’t familiar with.

Not surprisingly, it is another energy boom—this one oil—that has inspired a second book after nearly 40 long years of waiting. Good timing, because it is also changing the face of North Dakota in ways we aren’t familiar with.

Mike has long been recognized as North Dakota’s best journalist. He was in a class of a dozen or so other young journalists back in the 70’s (we even formed an association, the Young Journalists Alliance, which held an annual picnic to discuss the state of things in North Dakota each summer) that really did do real journalism—unlike most of the state’s media today. But he was the one who rose to the top, first as Editor of a major daily newspaper—the Grand Forks Herald—and then past that to Editor AND Publisher. He stuck it out, and rose to the top of his profession, while most of the rest of us rode off into jobs as flacks for somebody or other, at much better salaries than reporters made in those days. Mike, of course, got the last financial laugh by simply proving that good journalism can eventually get recognized and appreciated.  He jokes that he and Suezette are now “among the 2 per cent.”

You’ll recall this excerpt I shared from the introduction to his first book:

On this day, between the harvest and the apple-falling, I am going to write you a book. All summer long I have put off writing this book. Instead, I have occupied myself with a good dose of that desperation which Henry David Thoreau found was the lot of the mass of men.

For those of us who live in and love the land called North Dakota, that desperation has been a little heavier this long, long summer. First came heat and drought, then the awful mess called Watergate, then the heavies, energy conglomerates who have monstrous plans for our land and sky and water, advanced their cause before the state government. Moreover, we learned of the starvation the world faces while we Americans accumulate opulence. While we seek ways to take our pleasure, the world seeks its next breath of good air and its next bite of food.

Indeed, these six months of living in North Dakota, U.S.A., on the planet Earth have convinced me that the only issue worthy of our attention in the last half of the twentieth century is human survival. All other issues relate to this one in one of two ways: in the guts or in the spirit. The guts issue is sustenance. Can we live at all?  And the spirit issue is dignity. Can our lives be worthy?

       These are issues of ultimate concern. They cannot be escaped no matter how we wish to elude them. They must haunt us, dare us to go on, challenge us to find ways to continue. These are the issues which the book addresses.

Well, that’s the quality of writing we have expected and received from Mike ever since. But wait until you read the new book. That introduction could have as easily have been written about it.

The book’s basically divided into two parts: why we should celebrate being 125 years old, and why we should worry about our future. The celebration part is fun, and pretty self-evident, although no one else that I’ve seen has put it down on paper like this.

It’s the worry part, though, that contains the most insight, because Mike is such a careful observer.  And, as Mike says, “Worry comes naturally to North Dakotans . . . ”

In this section, Mike shares his thoughts on all the major topics you’ll find being discussed over coffee in every small town in the state—and pretty soon now in the hearing rooms and hallways of the State Capitol as the Legislature convenes this week for its biennial session. Those include oil, coal, politics, education, wildlife habitat, health care, agriculture, and geography.

Not surprisingly, almost every discussion of those issues relates back, in some way, to the current oil boom. Mike has done a better job of putting this boom into the perspective of our everyday life than anyone else. No matter what’s on our minds, oil is part of the discussion. He sums it up most succinctly at the very end of the book:

Let’s Admit We’re Rich

            So far, North Dakotans have proven remarkably uptight about oil development, including its impact on our well-being.

            This takes three forms, at least. One is the impact on the land. Subsumed here are the myriad and undeniable environmental impacts of oil development. No doubt these will be controversial for generations into the future.

            Another is impact on the people. Change is tough, and few places have changed so significantly so quickly as North Dakota.

            The third is economic. North Dakota has emerged from poverty to extraordinary wealth in less time than it takes a baby to become a toddler. Just as a toddler must assess a new situation, so must the state. Just as a toddler has the enveloping love of its family, so North Dakota has the comfort of its wealth.

            The great question for North Dakotans today is not whether to pump the oil. That decision is out of our hands, probably forever. The question, instead, is how the wealth that oil produces will be used.     

As my friend Clay Jenkinson pointed out in a column in today’s Bismarck Tribune, Mike is one of the most careful observers of his surroundings of anyone I know. This passage, my favorite from the new book if I have to pick one, gives witness to that:

It was strangely quiet in November. The wind still blew. The neighbor’s grain dryer still whined. The trucks went by. On a couple of days there was the noise of combines bringing in the corn. There were geese and there were swans and there were crows . On a couple of days, it was cold enough for the peculiar crunch of boots on snow.

            But there were no gunshots. Because there were so few deer. Less than 10 years ago, the country around our place west of Gilby was overrun with deer. Often, even daily, we would see herds of 100 or more along the road. We quit trying to grow sweet corn because the deer always ate it. They damaged the peas, too. And the beans. We gave up on asparagus. Deer are discriminating grazers. This year, we had a bumper crop of sweet corn. Because there were so few deer.

            In all of November, I’ve seen only two bolt across the highway when I drive to town. All summer we had only a single doe and fawn. No deer. No gunshots. The Game and Fish Department issued only 48,000 permits to take deer during this year’s hunting season, a third of the number five years ago and the fewest since the early 1990s.

            And it’s not just deer. Sharp-tailed grouse were so abundant five years ago that they came to my bird feeders. I saw them daily. I haven’t seen a sharpie all season. This year, I paid particular attention to meadowlarks. I missed them in 2013. This year I searched, and found two pair in four square miles.

The Game and Fish Department added the meadowlark to its list of species of special concern. We’re talking about the state bird here. It used to be that hearing a meadowlark required nothing more than going outside on a summer morning. Not any longer.

            What follows that passage is an amazing analysis of what’s happening to wildlife on the North Dakota Prairie, one that could not come from biologists, or college professors, or politicians or journalists, but only from someone like Mike Jacobs, who knows North Dakota so well. It’s a bit long to include here, but I am going to, although my preference is for you to buy the book so you can put it in the context of all Mike has said about our state and its people, which are relevant to his discussion of what’s happening to our wildlife, what we have tried to do about it, and what we have failed to do. As Clay said in his column this morning, you can read the whole thing in about two hours. You can do it right now. It is cold outside. You can buy it, and read it, right now, without going outside. Today would be a good day to do it. Here’s Mike on North Dakota’s wildlife situation:

            Other species have declined as well. There were no Wilson’s snipe winnowing over the meadow this spring. No sedge wrens. Fewer bobolinks. Wildlife of every kind are at risk these days. It’s been a perfect storm for wildlife. Nature hasn’t helped. The winter of 2013 was tough and the spring tougher. A wet spring is hard on ground-nesting birds, like grouse, meadowlarks and snipe. Harder still though, is loss of habitat, and that’s what’s at the crux of the decline in the numbers of meadowlarks, deer and other wildlife. There’s just less habitat. We’re talking about eastern North Dakota here, 200 miles from the Oil Patch. In much of North Dakota, habitat is being lost to agriculture. There’s just no other way to put it.

            Rising prices, changes in the Conservation Reserve Program, a more generous crop insurance system, ethanol subsidies, bigger equipment — all of these have helped persuade farmers to convert more land to crops. Across the state, wetlands have been drained, tree rows have been removed, ditches have been plowed , stray patches of grass have been burned and plowed under. Each of these decisions made sense for the individual farmer who made them. The problem is, there’s no incentive not to do these things. Landowners interested in conservation have nowhere to turn. And so they turn to ever more intensive farm practices. Wildlife grows scarcer and scarcer.

The situation is different in the Oil Patch. A lot of habitat remains in western North Dakota, which is drier and rougher and more challenging for cropland agriculture. What once were unbroken blocs of prairie have been divided by roads and invaded by trucks. The resulting fragmentation of habitat has disrupted wildlife. The most dramatic example is sage grouse. Sage grouse were never abundant in North Dakota. Historically, they occurred in the far southwestern counties. But sage grouse were secure. The range probably supported 1,000 pair or more. Bowman County, the state’s southwestern most, was sage grouse country. An oil boom there in the early 2000s drove roads across the rugged Badlands Country.  In 2014, the annual sage grouse census found just 31 dancing males in 2014. That’s probably not enough to insure a continued population in the state. We may have seen the last dance of the sage grouse in North Dakota. The sage grouse is a candidate for listing as endangered.

So is Sprague’s pipit. This is a plain brown bird seldom seen and rarely appreciated. Sprague’s pipits favor short grass prairie. John James Audubon discovered these pipits on his trip to Fort Union in 1845. That’s on the Missouri River southwest of Williston. In North Dakota. It’s hard to know the current status of the pipit. They are extraordinarily hard to see. Finding pipits involves climbing a hill and cocking an ear. Their tinkling call notes drift downward as they perform a courtship dance high above the ground. For decades, I heard the pipits every spring on land that Suezette and I own near Blaisdell. I don’t hear pipits now; the landscape has grown too noisy. That doesn’t mean that the pipits are not there. I just don’t know.

            On a visit in August, I was encouraged to find chestnut-collared longspurs, another species endemic to the short grass prairie. And I saw sharp-tails. This was gratifying. We call the place “Sharp-tail Ranch.” A curious thing is happening there. The ranch is part of a study area established by Susan Felege, a wildlife biologist at UND. She’s monitoring sharptail populations within and outside the Oil Patch. Our place is outside. Sharp-tail numbers are down there. Just west of us, on the other side of the “Line of Death,” sharpies are up. At our place, predators are up, which explains the decline in sharp-tails. Across the line, predators are down. Apparently, oil development, with its noise and traffic has scared the predators away. They moved to my place, where they’re enjoying grouse for dinner. These results are preliminary, it’s important to note, but they indicate how fragile is the balance — and how little we know and understand it. All the more reason to worry about it.

            The loss of the conservation amendment, Measure Five, was a setback. The result was extremely one-sided. Only one in five voters favored it. That’s the biggest loss of any of the seven measures that failed. There are a number of reasons. One is that nature is a hard sell in North Dakota. North Dakotans often regard nature as an adversary, and it often is, delivering drought and flood and with a variety of pests thrown in. Much of farming is a fight against nature. Even the word agriculture expresses that. It’s culture, implying human toil. It’s not nature. It wasn’t farmers who defeated Measure Five, however. It was North Dakotans generally, sportsmen included. There are two reasons for that. One is that the measure was poorly conceived. The second is that it was poorly sold. Efforts to improve habitat and protect and promote stable wildlife populations must continue. They are part of the state’s heritage, and they are an important source of recreation and economic activity. They make the state more attractive. Habitat improvement has to involve landowners and there has to be an incentive for landowners to participate. A state program to replace the federal Conservation Reserve Program is the place to start. The Legislature ought to establish some kind of pilot program, test its attractiveness and tweak it in ways that appeal to landowners. In the end, it’s not about parks and it’s not about water, though those are the elements that backers of the amendment stressed the most. It’s about habitat. It’s about survival of wild species. It’s about deer, meadowlarks and grouse. It’s about the nature of North Dakota. (emphasis added)

Measure Five was the so-called “conservation amendment.” It attracted the most attention and the most money. Formally called the “Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks” initiative , this would have set aside 5 percent of oil tax revenues for conservation projects and outdoor recreation. The lopsided result was a surprise. Polls had suggested a much closer contest. In the end, supporters of the initiative spent nearly $5 million to secure about 50,000 votes. That was just 20 percent of votes cast and amounted to an average expenditure of nearly $ 100 a vote.   The result contradicted early polling, which showed that North Dakotans supported conservation by a huge margin, a finding that fetched promises of additional spending on outdoor projects, mostly parks, from Al Carlson, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, and Jack Dalrymple, the governor.

The campaign against the measure was misleading and even malicious. Opponents raised at least three shibboleths: Out-of-state influence, a land grab and diminished money for programs as diverse as public schools and county roads. None of these were true. The petitioners were all North Dakotans, as the law requires. State law forbids sales of private land to non-profit groups. The state treasury is stuffed with money. What’s more, opponents themselves relied heavily on out-of-state money to fund their campaign.

            The conclusion must be that the campaign in support of the measure was inept, and indeed that was the case. Supporters moved from a commanding lead in early poll results to a miserable showing in the election itself. How could such a thing happen? Supporters of the measure ran a misguided milquetoast campaign, consistently failing to answer charges raised against the measure and conspicuously allowing opponents to pretend to be locally funded when the bulk of their cash came from the oil business.

            The people who planned and ran the yes-vote campaign were tone-deaf. They ignored North Dakota political realities in favor of their own conviction that conservation was not just a good thing but a moral imperative. Such a notion led them into a series of political blunders. One of these predated the 2014 election. Two years before, their petitions were thrown out because petition passers, mostly members of North Dakota State University’s football team, had forged signatures. That might not have been fatal to the effort all by its lonesome, but it certainly should have summoned supporters of the measure to a greater sensitivity to North Dakota’s political realities. But it didn’t.

            The pro side sent out the publisher of a hunting and fishing magazine, a school teacher on leave and a hockey player who lived in North Dakota only when he played for UND. T.J. Oshie made himself notorious in Grand Forks by pissing in the elevator of a downtown building and made himself famous nationwide by out-shooting the Russians in a shoot-out at the 2014 Olympic Games.

Both memorable. Neither relevant to a conservation campaign.

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