When I was a boy growing up in southwest North Dakota, I used to tag along with my dad on his pheasant, grouse and deer hunting trips, mostly along the Cedar River in Adams and Grant Counties. Dad was an optometrist in the small town of Hettinger, the county seat of Adams County, and many, if not most, of the farm families in his county were patients of his.
There wasn’t a lot of money in farm country in those days, and I remember we ate a lot of chickens and hamburgers, taken in trade as partial payment for an eye exam or a pair of bifocals. And I suspect there were days when my dad said to a farmer patient “Aw, there’s no charge for your eye exam this time, but I’d sure like to bring my boy out and chase pheasants through your cornfields this fall . . .”
He had a couple of pretty good farmer friends along the Cedar east of town, and there was a big chunk of school land over there, what he called the “government pasture,” where he usually took his deer in November. That was big country to a wide-eyed little guy like me. He and his buddies would park their station wagons or pickups and get out and go for a hike, and after they had shot their deer, they would walk back to the vehicles, drive out across the pasture to where the critters were, load them up, and come home.
I’ve never forgotten those “government pasture” days. I think I have probably spent more of my non-working hours in my life on public land than on any other activity I can think of. These days, it’s mostly on federal public land, but it’s a lot like those school sections—big country.
And so I’ve grown pretty protective of those public lands, and I write about them a lot on this blog. I also write a monthly column for Dakota Country magazine, an outdoors magazine mostly focusing on hunting and fishing. But my editor, Bill Mitzel, has gotten more and more concerned about conservation issues as the Bakken oil boom has been impacting our ability to enjoy our outdoor recreation activities in western North Dakota. And so he gives me space in his magazine to share what used to be occasional, and now are pretty frequent, threats to the lands we all own and many of us enjoy on a regular basis.
I’ve used that space to take the oil industry to task from time to time because that’s where the threats come from. Some of the magazine’s readers don’t like that, including one who sent Bill a letter a few weeks ago, which appears in the current issue. Here’s part of what he said in his letter:
“I finally had a chance to look at my June issue of Dakota Country Magazine. I’m a long-time subscriber and I really look forward to each issue with the exception of one section that I would really like to see discontinued. That monthly portion of this great magazine which is specifically focused on recreation in the Dakota’s is the “Badlands Watch” written by Jim Fuglie. Apparently he’s the self-appointed watchdog for everything that happens in the oil producing area of North Dakota. Essentially every article written in this magazine with the exception of the “Badlands Watch” has to do with hunting, fishing and the outdoors in North & South Dakota. I’m confident there is a better venue for Mr. Fuglie to vent about his perceived evils of the North Dakota oil & gas industry but the outdoor magazine so many of us subscribe to is not it.”
Well, in this month’s magazine I did not respond to that reader directly—he’s entitled to his opinion, and Bill gave him space to express it.
The thing is, the magazine exists for the people of the Dakotas who enjoy getting off the couch and participating in any number of outdoor activities, many of them on public lands. Including me. So my article this month talks about some reasons why I try to keep a close eye on what the oil industry is doing in our Bad Lands.
Here are some of those reasons I shared with my Dakota Country readers.
I want to climb magnificent Bullion Butte, the mothership of the Badlands, one more time, and stand on the north rim, and thump my chest, and claim, once again, to be the oldest person to climb Bullion Butte, and to look out across the vast landscape of the Little Missouri National Grasslands and still not see a single oil well, just like the last time I was up there. Right now, most oil activity is north of I-94. I want to keep it there.
I want to canoe the Little Missouri State Scenic River one more time, from where it enters North Dakota, south of Marmarth, to where it enters Lake Sakakawea, north of Killdeer, and not have to pass under any more massive concrete bridges allowing hundreds of oil trucks each day to kick up huge clouds of dust, darkening the prairie sky like the 1930s, as they haul their salt water and oil loads through this once-pristine river valley.
I want to stand on the rim of Painted Canyon, looking out into the vast wilderness of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and not have my view obscured by huge white plumes of water vapor and other pollutants from a refinery just five miles away, when the wind blows from the southeast, which it does pretty frequently in western North Dakota.
I want to sit someday on a quiet riverbank and watch my great grandson or great granddaughter, who will be born in January, wade and splash in the warm summer waters of the Little Missouri, like I watched his or her dad and grandma do when they were just children.
I want to hike through the undisturbed cottonwood bottoms of the Little Missouri to the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch cabin, the place that helped transform him into our greatest conservation president, and watch the river flow by under the shade of the same cottonwood trees that were there when TR sat there more than 125 years ago, and not be disturbed by the pervasive parade and cacophony of the oil industry.
I want to watch a pointing dog slam on the brakes as it hits the scent of a flock of sharptails in a sagebrush-covered grasslands pasture, and watch as his lungs nearly explode with excitement and anticipation as my hunting partners and I approach and wait for the flush.
I want to stand behind my photographer friend Bill Kingsbury as he focuses his long lens on a trio of bull elk silhouetted against the Badlands sunset.
I want to delight in the melodious song of our state bird, the Western Meadowlark, which I think is in big trouble in western North Dakota right now, based on my many years of traveling the back roads of the prairie, and the observations of my wife and her birder friends.
I want to climb into my sleeping bag and lay my head on my old foam pillow in Magpie Campground on the Maah Daah Hey Trail, and look up at the big, star-filled sky and hear . . . nothing. A coyote howling in the distance would be okay, I guess.
It’s for all those reasons that I will continue to report, as long as my editor will allow me, on the activities of the oil industry in western North Dakota, because all of those things, in my opinion, are threatened by what is going on in our Bakken Boom.
They’re threatened because our state’s politicians refuse to pass and enforce laws and regulations to encourage or require responsible development of our mineral resources. Oil companies are driven by greed. Our elected and appointed officials seem to think that’s just fine.
An example: In a recent newspaper article, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, one of three members of the state’s Industrial Commission, which issues permits for every oil well drilled in North Dakota, took off on a rant against people in the conservation community concerned about oil development, saying “Their opinion of beauty and natural is ‘This wasn’t here 200 years ago, and I don’t want to see it now.’ But that is not reality.”
200 years, Commissioner? A blink of an eye in North Dakota’s geologic history. I can take you today to one of America’s natural wonders, a place in western North Dakota where, after a short hike, you can peer over a Badlands ridge into a canyon that’s lain undisturbed for 60 million years. It’s the home of the Petrified Forest, in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, perhaps the most spectacular place in North Dakota.
I was hiking there one day with a friend of mine from Montana, some years ago, and we marveled how lucky we are that someone thought to put a national park fence around it, because just outside that fence and down a dirt road is a huge oil well complex, and as we drove away, he said, half seriously, “If there was a God, he’d have put the oil under Iowa.”
I replied that no, we like the money, and responsible oil development, if there is such a thing, would be just fine. Still, it would be nice if he had put the oil under the Red River Valley, instead of under the Badlands.
(Note: You can subscribe to Dakota Country, at a very reasonable price, by clicking here. It’s something you should do if you enjoy the outdoors in the Dakotas, or want to enjoy them vicariously from afar. Tell them The Prairie Blog sent you.)