Last week, I wrote about a whimsical airplane journey I took a couple of weeks ago with a North Dakotan who is a key player in the Bakken oil boom. We flew in a small, funky yellow two-seat plane from Bismarck to Bullion Butte, then down the Little Missouri River to Watford City, and then "overland" back to Bismarck by way of Zap and Golden Valley.
It was a nine-hour adventure with someone of infinite good humor, who boomed and busted in the oil boom the last time around, in the 1980s, then stuck it out through all the lean years when all the "summer soldiers and sunshine patriots" sought their windfalls elsewhere. I have the deepest respect for what he represents — a homegrown North Dakotan with persistence and superb instincts that have now finally paid off in a big, big way.
Last week, I wrote about our adventure. Today, I want to try to make sense of what I saw as we flew over the green, grassy plains of North Dakota in a wet June.
In every crisis of life, no matter how big or small, it is essential to try to step back and view things from a broader perspective. It really is true that we cannot see the forest for the trees. That's a cliche, but if you try to look at a big phenomenon from too close to the ground (or ground zero), you see only what is immediately before you, not the larger pattern of things.
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If, for example, you are a Wall Street Journal reporter or someone from the BBC, and you fly out from New York or London to Denver and then on a tiny plane to Williston "to make sense of the oil boom," you are going to see a city bursting with energy, enterprise, dust, chaos, congestion, noise, construction and growing pains that make it not a very attractive destination. But Williston is not the oil boom and the oil boom is not Williston. Williston is one of the choke points of the oil boom.
The oil boom is many things that cannot be seen from the air. Full employment. The promise of energy independence for America. A whopping state budget surplus and what is tending toward full funding for a wide range of institutions and enterprises that have been living on thin gruel for most of North Dakota history. Jobs aplenty. New life in small towns.
One of my closest friends is a faux-curmudgeonly former newspaper editor from Crosby. We had a long conversation in the heart of the Badlands a few weeks ago and he said this:
"I have lived in Crosby, N.D., all of my life. What you have to understand is that for almost all of my life we have been managing decline and depopulation, economic marginality and loss. Do you know what that is like for a town to go through? We have had hundreds of meetings over the years about how to find a way to save and regenerate our little hometown. Nothing really worked. Suddenly, thanks to the Bakken, we are viable again, and growing. There are shops on Main Street and every house in town is full of families or workers. Heck, we even have a housing boom in Crosby. We wish the growth were a little less and a little slower, a little more organic, of course, but do you think we can really wish this hadn't happened?"
Towns like Williston, Watford City and Killdeer are just scrambling to survive this tsunami, and keep life livable for both long-term residents and newcomers. They are fracked communities as well as fracking communities. But other towns as far away as Bottineau, Harvey, Bowman, Spearfish, S.D., Kenmare, etc., are experiencing indirect regeneration from the Bakken phenomenon. They may be the biggest winners.
A moderate amount of new life and economic activity makes all the difference in a rural community like that. Faraway Grand Forks is reaping benefits thanks to extremely intelligent strategic planning, and Bismarck is becoming a new place. Just walk around downtown for a couple of hours and remember what that experience was like even as few as six years ago.
Last week, I told a visiting capitalist from Chicago that Bismarck is going to be the Tulsa of the Bakken oil boom. He laughed hard and said, "Dream higher." Which means that he doesn't understand the history of the Great Plains at all.
Here's what you see if you spend ample time flying over the western half of North Dakota merely trying to drink in what you can observe from a couple of thousand feet. First, there is an awful lot of North Dakota. Even now, in the midst of this industrial juggernaut that is plunking down oil wells at the rate of approximately 2,000 per year, there are, as a famous writer put it, more places where nothing is than something is. North Dakota (and the larger Great Plains of which it is a small rectangle) is still a vast and open landscape that is, after 150 years of white settlement and economic activity, largely empty in every direction.
Second, the development is only initially gross and transgressive. But once the pump jacks are installed and the pipelines are buried and the water and fracking trucks move on, the landscape gets pretty calm again. From the air, it is not ugly. To my mind, the boom does violate one of the things I most love about western North Dakota — its essential primordialness — but from a couple of thousand feet the footprint is not nearly as overpowering as it seems from the junction of U.S. Hwy 85 and U.S. Hwy 2.
Or from a bench in the city park in Alexander, the home of one of my heroes, Arthur A. Link, the man who reminded us that there are values in the North Dakota character greater than money-making, the choke points are really choked.
Third, the Badlands are indeed punctuated in every direction with oil activity. I find that disheartening, as does my oil-soaked pilot-friend, but the Badlands are still the Badlands and they are astonishingly beautiful and largely untouched, even with a buff-colored tank array here and a drilling rig there.
If we adopt some special protocols and restraints for Badlands development, especially on federal and state lands, we can probably make the oil boom respect this sacred corridor carved by wind and the Little Missouri River, and at least minimize (OK, moderate) the impact somewhat. I do worry what will happen when all those 10-year development leases start to come due, but there is still time to save a few of the finest parcels. In fact, there is still time to create the modest Prairie Legacy Wilderness of about 65,000 acres, to set aside a wee little sliver of the few remaining pristine acreages. We should save these parcels for seed.
No matter what happens, there is still going to be a vast amount of North Dakota that wears, and will always wear, an exceedingly light industrial footprint. We are going to have to discover parts and places of North Dakota outside of the prime recreation zone. We are going to have to take our spirit recreations in landscapes we have hitherto largely ignored. We are going to have to come to terms with loss.
And we the people are going to have to fight to chasten this thing in some important ways. Because our leadership is so far not doing much chastening.