MCKENZIE COUNTY —LeMoine Hartel is the kind of man whose handshake is as good as his word.

He says he's learned the hard way that some of the guys who come around for pipeline easements shake with one hand and cross their fingers with the other.

The land just east of Watford City on which he has spent 40 years improving now bears three long, wide scars where two gas and one crude oil pipelines went through.

While some of that scarring will heal, it's bad enough that he refused to do business with the last four pipelines that wanted to cross his land.

"When they come, these land men, they're like car salesmen, smooth talking, telling me anything I want to hear," Hartel said.

What he wants to hear is the pipeline easement will be reclaimed, brought back to grade, seeded, mowed of weeds and made productive again.

When it isn't, he calls the land man, who's working for a pipeline company who has hired a separate contractor for reclamation and maybe finds someone to talk to about invasive weeds left unmowed and grass seeding that didn't take on the disturbed soil.

"Two weeks go by, and no one comes. How many times do I have to call and check and threaten? Now I just ask, 'Who should my lawyer contact?'" said Hartel, adding he believes his land is a gift and improving it is how he pays that gift forward.

"That's it. That's my responsibility," he said.

Until the pipelines went through, he was pleased with his payments to the future.

Not alone

If Hartel is fed up with poor pipeline reclamation in McKenzie County, he has got plenty of company.

Last week, a group of producers of the independent, go-it-alone caliber said it's time to find strength in numbers. It was standing room only at the first meeting of the Greater McKenzie County Stewardship Group. One of the group's objectives is to give members a voice loud enough to be heard; another is to equip themselves with tools for better easement deals so their land isn't harmed.

"For me, personally, it's easy to say 'No.' The pipeline company may say, 'But we're not like that,' but I think they horsed up. Landowners can stand their ground and tell the oil companies, 'You're going to work with us,'" he said.

Like a lot of ranchers, Hartel says he believes oil development offers more good than bad for the region, but the scale and intensity of development has changed.

"Five years ago, a little group of us could get together and talk about how a pipeline could work best for us going across our land. Now, it's beyond that. You can't do it with just a few landowners. We need a bigger voice that's sticking together," he said.

He said he doesn't want to get stuck with a "bad guys" label, that the oil industry can't reduce gas flaring to the state's new reduced standard because landowners won't let the pipelines go through.

"I will, as soon as the oil company will stand up and take responsibility. Just work with me," he said.

LeMoine Hartel's son, Kyle Hartel, is the district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Watford City.

The thousands of miles of existing pipeline for gathering crude oil, natural gas and production water will increase to the point where there's a line of some sort on every quarter section if not half section of land in the county, Kyle Hartel said.

McKenzie County has 2,100 oil wells that produce 16.6 million barrels of oil each month and a proportional share of the 20,000 miles of oil and gas gathering and transmission pipeline in the state.

Kyle Hartel says he isn't impressed with the reclamation so far.

"I would have to say it's poor. We're just realizing how bad, but the momentum is changing in a positive way. The landowners are realizing that working in private groups is turning to bite them, and now they have to come together and get out of their comfort zone," he said.

As a conservationist, Kyle Hartel sees that the criss-crossed pipelines are fragmenting large sections of pristine range. The reseeding in those areas is creating a monoculture of plant life that, along with the dust coating from oil traffic, is a problem for wildlife.

"It's scary because of the unknowns. Some of these are short-term problems; some are long term," he said.

Vawnita Best, who organized the landowners' group and who was elected Tuesday to the McKenzie County Commission, said she was encouraged by the number of oil companies at the organizational meeting.

"I hope the industry took the message to heart, that it's about building relationships. The trust is gone. How do we get to a place where we do business together?" she said.

Dealing smarter

She said landowners will bring a different priority to the negotiating table than they did the first go-round.

"The last time, it (negotiation) got stuck on money. We're stuck with the last four years. The next time will be on quality reclamation," she said.

Best said there's a new opportunity now that the rush to develop and hold mineral leases by production is over.

"This idea of quality reclamation for the long-term was difficult during that rush. We can do it smarter instead of faster," she said.

Kyle Hartel he and his staff, in partnership with the Soil Conservation District, are in new territory, too, working with as many as 100 landowners with reclamation problems and concerns.

"It's forcing us outside of the box," he said.

LeMoine Hartel is out of his box, too. He used to be an ordinary, hard-working rancher, quietly doing his own thing. Now, he's an actor on the large stage of oil development, figuring out his lines as he goes along.

He's sensitive to outside perceptions that landowners are greedy because the negotiated price for easement rights is going for as much as $20,000 an acre. He hears accusation that they are hindering progress.

"What kind of value do you put on that when the easement is for 99 years? They (pipeline companies) don't care, and they do not uphold what they're supposed to do. They already stepped on our toes. It's not going to be as easy to dance with us the second time," he said.

Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.

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