By John A. Heiser
To those of you in the eastern half of this state, consider this both a plea for help from our fellow citizens and a wake up call to the politicians who have colluded in the creation of the destructive oil “boom” which is obliterating the land, the wildlife and the longtime inhabitants of western North Dakota. And, considering that we westerners are in general a fairly self-reliant bunch, it is no small thing for us to essentially swallow our pride and ask for help from the more “cosmopolitan” end of our fair state. Not only do we out West feel betrayed by our so-called “leaders,” but we also feel that we are under major assault by the oil industry and the outsiders they bring along. And, as is commonly the case, the silent majority is reticent to speak up, instead suffering significant injury in silence, while the resentment and anger against both the oil industry and our misguided state leaders builds. My name is John and I have finally had enough of the misguided state policies which have made the disaster area western North Dakota has become.
My roots in this high and dry land run deep—my maternal great-grandparents homesteaded near Dickinson a mere 15 years after General Custer set out on his ill-fated journey to the Little Bighorn River. My paternal grandparents homesteaded 3 miles from where my modest ranch is located on Ranch Creek, a tributary of the Little Missouri River, a few miles northeast of Grassy Butte. My Dickinson State University B.A. is in Biology & Geology and, from early April to late October, I am the Backcountry Ranger in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In the last “oil boom” (late seventies and early eighties), my family had an oil/gas well drilled on our land—the site of which was finally reclaimed last fall. We presently each receive royalties of about $100.00 per month from two Bakken Formation oil/gas wells, one each in Billings and McKenzie Counties. Had I been able to veto our recent mineral leases, I would have, but one owner has little impact when minerals are divided amongst dozens of interest owners, many from out of state.
Consequently, I call my royalty share “blood money” and give most of it to conservation organizations across America. And, since one of my least favorite sub-species of Homo sapiens is the hypocrite, I “walk the talk” when it comes to using energy; thus today being consecutive day #16 without using so much as single drop of gasoline or diesel while feeding my 68 head of livestock. I’ve been known to go as long as 40 consecutive winter days that way, completing all of my ranch chores by hand—a conservation and environmental commitment my neighbors can attest to. But I will say, too, that I am not at all opposed to moderate oil development with somewhere around 30 rigs drilling at any one time instead of 200 or more. That would be both sustainable and sensible over the long term.
My view eastward encompasses the badlands for perhaps 10 miles and then the Killdeer Mountains—quite a grand panorama in a normal time. These days, however, that formerly wild view is marred with several oil drilling rigs, around a dozen gas flares, and too often a choking cloud of dust from the oilfield traffic on county roads. Oil industry traffic on US 85 has become extreme and dangerous in the last several years; I’ve dodged many a near-miss accident on my formerly easy 20 mile journey to work. I will no longer set foot in Williston, Watford City or Killdeer because of their oil chaos, and only rarely journey to Dickinson for provisions—because that city is rapidly losing its sanity as well. Both my ranch and the North Unit used to be notable for their immense silence—but no more; the sounds of semi-trucks and their “jake brakes” provide a near constant and unsettling racket, not to mention the noise of drilling rigs and other associated “boom” impacts.
The Dickinson Press recently posed a very simple question to western North Dakotans: “Do you love or hate the oil boom, or are you indifferent?” An astounding two-thirds of the respondents said they “Hate” it—that is a pretty strongly worded message in any situation. Yet, from my numerous conversations with people of all walks of life out here, I think that number is actually low. There are very few of the silent majority who like this “boom” except for, perhaps, the developers and others who are really taking advantage of the “boom” to line their greedy pockets. Furthermore, political persuasions are falling by the wayside as unhappiness grows over this out-of-control “boom” and its dire consequences to everything we hold dear out here in the real West. The vast majority hate it no matter their politics. The oil industry and their state and local cheerleaders who are only too happy to sell the rest of us down the river are none too popular either.
Perceptive leadership would see or sense the unrest out West, and limit the wild oil boom immediately instead of belatedly treating only its symptoms. Great concern is expressed by state “leaders” for the crumbling and overwhelmed infrastructure of roads, housing, sewage lagoons and the like. But none is expressed for the equally overwhelmed spiritual and emotional “infrastructure” of longtime western North Dakotans who are under immense stress as our lifestyles and land are pretty much annihilated in exchange for money. Again, we westerners are not opposed to modest oil development, and certainly understand that we can contribute to America’s oil supply because we all need it. But, good judgment also suggests that we keep some of that increasingly precious oil in the geological formations—where it’s been for millions of years—rather than squandering it all in a few decades. If it’s presently worth $100 per barrel, what will its value be in a hundred or five hundred years? Any sensible person realizes there will likely be humans here for many centuries, and that future Americans might greatly appreciate that current generations possessed the wisdom and foresight to plan for that eventuality by saving some of that valuable resource.
Thoughtful leaders would realize as well that there is absolutely no reason that we must employ the masses of unemployed Americans who are in need of jobs because of the numerous greedy “bubbles” which caused the recent national economic turmoil—one which we wise and thrifty North Dakotans did not participate in. Naturally, we can employ some of those people—and should—but not if their “invasion” threatens everything we cherish about life in western Dakota. History and common sense suggest that a “boom” will “bust,” leaving further—but still preventable—chaos and ruin in its wake. Again, sound judgment would stubbornly insist that we stretch out the very finite supply of oil; a strategy which would not only prevent the unnecessary upheaval of the current “boom,” but also provide jobs for generations of North Dakotans. Wasn’t it long ago that “out-migration” was a major concern? How strangely perverse that we now seem perfectly willing to employ thousands of non-North Dakotans for a few years, rather than generations of our people for many years; when our oil and gas deposits are depleted and the associated jobs all gone—then what? Kids leaving a “busted” mess and great consternation because our “leaders” were simply not visionary enough to consider the long term future of our state and its residents. It’s not as if we haven’t gone through this ridiculous “boom and bust” cycle out here in the West before! We have—for what good purpose? While oil by its very nature is a limited resource, it could be “sustainable” for many decades if it were developed wisely—which of course implies slowly—the “fringe” benefits being minimal disruption of western Dakota society and few or no ill-effects to the environment.
It is beyond high time that the elected leaders of this great state awaken with regard to the out-of-control mess our here in the West—one they and their equally irresponsible oil industry accomplices created. They would also do well to remember that we western North Dakotans are a big-hearted people but that our acceptance and tolerance of outsiders logically has a limit. We feel like we’re under siege and being invaded against our will—a feeling which has occurred in past generations of humans, and which seldom has a desirable outcome. Women, in particular, feel vulnerable and frightened, and stories abound of incidents by the dozens, leave a sane person cold. Longtime residents are moving out of western North Dakota by the hundreds, but do any of the state and local “leaders” notice, much less care? Obviously, the first time that any native North Dakotan left because of the oil boom, the brakes should’ve been applied because those are the people who helped make our state what it is: a slightly flawed, but still Legendary place to live. Is it not yet crystal-clear that rampant greed has multiple shortcomings no matter how terrific the state budget looks?
I’d met Sherry Arnold of Sidney, Montana a few times, and knew other members of her family quite well, so when she was recently abducted and likely murdered, my blood ran cold for days. It was not so much that her kidnappers were oil field “trash,” but that they were outsiders and, fine a distinction as that may be, it is the one which ultimately counts the most. When one of our own neighbors is killed because of this out-of-control oil “boom” there’s potential for significant societal disruption to say the least. We feel besieged out here and there’s growing resentment and unhappiness over what’s happening to our land, communities, and way of life because we know there’s a better way…a sensible and responsible one which our state’s leaders should be able to recognize with ease—it’s called moderation, quite the opposite of the devastating exploitation which is presently occurring.
Anyone with geological knowledge always knew that the Williston Basin’s oil and gas could be a blessing or a curse—sadly, it’s more than disheartening to see that both the ultra-greedy oil industry and our misguided state leaders have essentially turned the former into the latter. Anybody in eastern Dakota want to lend a hand to those of us still hanging on in what really was a Legendary land? If you do, thanks in advance for your assistance—even if it’s simply by writing a letter soon or voting next fall. Fellow Dakotans, it’s time to make so much NOISE that none of the “leaders” of this state can escape it, no matter how deeply they bury their heads in oily sand.
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