These are the three things I enjoy most about North Dakota’s outdoors:
- Wading across the Little Missouri River with my hiking shoes slung over my shoulder, on my way to a silent day hiking in the Bad Lands wilderness.
- Watching my dog lean into a patch of brush, just a glimpse of red feathers under her nose, her nostrils flaring so wide you think her lungs must be about to explode.
- Watching a little red and white bobber disappear down an 8-inch hole in the ice.
The rush of anticipation that accompanies each of those things is sometimes almost more than I can bear. And the outcome is never certain. Even though, in most cases, I have done everything I could do to prepare for what happens next, I’m still not sure, and the joy caused by that uncertainty is the same today as it was the first time it happened—long, long ago.
I am an old man now, by the calendar, and I’ve been lucky enough to live in a time when all three of those things were not only possible, but as readily available as I would want them to be. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. It’s possible we live in the very best place to be an outdoors person right now, but we must do what we can to make that possible for generations to follow us. As generations before us did for us, and as we have done for ourselves.
Because that perch at the end of my bobber on West Lake last winter was not put there by the Big Bang, or by Charles Darwin, or even by Noah. It’s there because of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s fish stocking program.
Likewise, that pheasant under Lizzie’s nose last fall was there because the U.S. Department of Agriculture paid a farmer to take his land out of production and plant grass where pheasants could build their nests, rear their young, and hide from predators. Maybe that rooster wasn’t hatched in a CRP field, but for sure his great granddaddy was.
That wilderness I hiked into last summer was there because the National Park Service set aside a place where no roads can go. My hike was interrupted only by an encounter with a buffalo, and the Golden eagles circled their nests on short hunting excursions at midday, but Lillian and I neither saw nor heard any human for six hours that day, deep inside Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Yes, I am lucky. Because, as I have said all my life, timing is everything. I was taught to hunt and fish and love the outdoors by my dad, but he was not lucky enough to enjoy the last 30 years like I have. He loved to chase roosters down a roadside ditch and set the hook on a walleye and punch holes in the ice as much as I do, but his timing was just not as good as mine. He never experienced CRP pheasants, or the hundreds of perch lakes stocked by what has been, over the years, the best Game and Fish Department in the nation.
His was a more natural North Dakota than mine. But not as natural as HIS father’s. Each generation, the artificiality of our outdoor experiences increases. Each generation, it seems to me, it takes more human intervention to provide the same quality of life that the preceding generation enjoyed. Often, the result is an even better experience. I’m sad it has come to that, but I’m happy we can do it.
My dad was raised on the shore of North Dakota’s largest natural lake, Devils Lake, but it wasn’t a lake then. It was a salt marsh and cattail slough, but it provided him his first hunting experiences: green-headed Mallard ducks. And he never tired of shooting them.
Dad missed many of North Dakota’s prime pheasant years of the 1940s because of a war and college, but when it came time to choose a place to raise a family, in 1950, he chose Hettinger, North Dakota, because of pheasants. Then, as now, Adams County, in the extreme southwest corner of the state, was Pheasant Country. It had everything a pheasant wanted: shelterbelts planted in the Dirty Thirties, 40 and 80 acre corn fields to feed the dairy cows, and weedy roadside ditches for pheasants to nest in.
We lived there because my dad wanted to hunt pheasants, and to teach is kids to do that too, but he also taught us to hunt ducks by jumping over the top of little WPA impoundments, built during the 30s for farmers to water their cows. I could drive you to every one of those Adams County WPA dams today, in the dark, because that’s what we did in the fall, pulling up behind the dam and sneaking over the top to shoot the ducks that were sitting out of the wind. We could bag a couple Mallards and be in school for our 9 o’clock class. That was duck hunting in Adams County in the 1950s and 60s.
As for fishing, Adams and neighboring counties had a number of small CCC-era dams stocked occasionally with panfish by the Game and Fish Department. (Aside: when I was a boy, the Game and Fish Commissioner was from Hettinger—Russell Stuart—and in years there were funds for a stocking program, and fingerlings to stock, I like to think Russ saw that we got an extra scoop or two.)
Dad was mostly a fly fisherman, as a young man, but then . . . but then, in the early 1950s, came Shade Hill Dam, a remnant of the Roosevelt-era make-work mentality, part of the Pick-Sloan project. Shade Hill Dam was located about 30 miles southeast of Hettinger, in northwestern South Dakota, and that dam was the largest thing I had ever seen—more than a quarter mile across, almost 200 feet high, backing up the Grand River (a tributary of the Missouri) into a 5,000 acre sportsman’s paradise. It was awesome, and I made my dad drive over the top of it every time we went there, an unnecessary trip because our favorite fishing spot was on the north side. But he humored me.
I caught my first walleye in that lake, and I also caught my biggest one there—even to this day. We went there on Thursday afternoons and after church on Sunday, because those were Dad’s days off.
In the fall we hunted pheasants, and it was okay, but not great (the limit was two most years and it often took quite a bit of driving section line roads and hopping out of the car when one popped its head up in the ditch to get them). But then . . . but then, in the late 1950s came Soil Bank. In response to post-war crop overproduction and sagging prices, the government paid farmers to convert crop land to conservation acres by planting grass where corn and wheat once grew.
My first year of actual hunting, after tagging along with the men for several years, was 1961, the year I turned 14 and got my first shotgun (all 4 of Dad’s boys got one for their 14th birthday, I think), and also one of the peak years for Soil Bank. There was pheasant habitat everywhere, and there were pheasants everywhere, and we actually got out of the car and walked through heavy cover, and shelter belts and corn fields next to the heavy cover. And we shot pheasants. Man, did we shoot pheasants.
But then by the time I graduated high school, Soil Bank was gone, and we had a lot of lean years, exacerbated by bad weather of the mid-60s. A couple years there was no season. And then someone came up with those three magic letters: C. R. P. Cropland became grassland. Back came the pheasants.
If you go back and look at each of the experiences I have described, you will see that every one of them, to some extent, happened because we as a people, represented by our government, took a role in making them happen. Dam building, fish stocking, Soil Bank planting, CRP—all of those things were possible because we asked our elected leaders to make our lives better by providing the resources to make those things happen.
Unless we, as a people—we, as men and women who cherish our time in the outdoors—unless we step up now and direct our government leaders to keep doing that, we are going to lose a lot of the things that make our enjoyment of the outdoors possible. Including enjoying our Badlands. Especially enjoying our Badlands. Because right now our Badlands are threatened more than at any time in their ten million year history, by the march of industry toward them. And we don’t seem to be doing much about it.
Yesterday’s Soil Bank is today’s CRP. Yesterday’s Shade Hill Dam is today’s Missouri River system. Yesterday’s WPA dams are today’s National Wildlife Refuges. North Dakota has 63 of them, more than any other state. Only two are natural bodies of water. Sixty-one are man-made reservoirs. Built with federal funds.
But federal funds have a way of coming and going. We already know that the federal commitment to conservation has been cut dramatically. CRP is going away. That program, which once dropped a hundred million dollars a year into North Dakota’s farmers’ pockets to take land out of production and provide habitat for wildlife, is slowly dying, and will be completely gone before I am.
But North Dakota is an oil-rich state now. We have enough money to do more for ourselves, without federal help. The Legislature has just adjourned, and there’s been a massive failure on their part to help protect and enhance our outdoor experiences. You’ll remember that last fall, the voters of our state, aided and abetted by a good number of our outdoors men and women, I’m afraid, rejected a measure to put a bunch of money into reinforcing our outdoor resources. I am done whining about that now, but I need to point out that one of the reasons we rejected that measure is that we were told that the state is spending $30 million in the current biennium, which ends this June 30, and $50 in the next biennium, which begins the next day, to do some of the things that supporters of Measure 5 had planned for us.
Well, turns out we were lied to. The money isn’t there. In the end, there is going to somewhere between $15 and $20 million, not $50 million, to spend on outdoors projects in the Outdoor Heritage fund in the coming biennium. Yes, we were lied to. I’m going to write more about that one of these days.
I’m just starting to think my way through this dilemma of how things can be so good and then so bad, and then so good again, and then, potentially, so bad, as my hunting and fishing days near an end. We need to try to figure out how we can mitigate the coming (some would say already ongoing—I’ll write more about that soon too) environmental and ecological disaster in the next ten years or so of North Dakota’s existence. You and I, readers, as people who enjoy North Dakota’s outdoors, are going to have to do this ourselves. No one is going to do it for us.