Growing up in Bismarck, Jan Swenson's earliest memories of the North Dakota Badlands were of childhood trips with relatives visiting from the Red River Valley, where both of her parents had been raised.
Every time, the reaction was the same when the car stopped, Swenson recalls.
"There were cousins bounding out, we laid out blankets and had picnics and explored, and it was an exuberant, joyous experience," she said.
That love and passion never wavered, so it was only natural Swenson would join the Badlands Conservation Alliance, a grassroots advocacy group formed in 1999 with a mission to restore and preserve the Badlands and western North Dakota's rolling prairie landscape.
Swenson eventually became the BCA's executive director, a position that put her at the forefront of efforts to balance the group's mission as an independent conservation voice in North Dakota with the Bakken oil boom.
Swenson recently announced she is retiring as BCA executive director at the end of March. The search for a new director is underway.
"Jan is probably the most knowledgeable person in North Dakota about threats to public lands in North Dakota, especially the Little Missouri Badlands," said Lillian Crook, BCA founder and current president.
Swenson recently talked with Grand Forks Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken about her love of the Badlands and her years working on behalf of one of North Dakota's truly wild places. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Question: How would you describe the Badlands and what makes it special?
Swenson: It's open. It's mysterious. Parts of it are still wild − parts of it, fewer and fewer all the time. There's a contemplative aspect. There's a certain amount of still-existing risk in exploration. It awakens human senses, whether it's the smell of sagebrush or the incredibly blue skies against that red scoria; it awakens one's senses.
Q: It's almost a "seeing is believing" thing.
Swenson: I really think it is seeing is believing. Although it's wonderful to go to (Theodore Roosevelt National Park) and drive the loop, people need to get out of their cars. I realize not everybody can get out of their cars, but for those that are able, it's a whole other step up, to get off the road onto a trail and then again off the trail headed for someplace that just looks like you'd like to explore.
It's one of the reasons that I look forward to retirement. The Badlands have always been my well; that's where I go. And even despite the oil and gas development that's out there, it remains my well. I know that in retirement, I will spend a great deal of time out there. And not on a schedule.
Q: How many members did BCA have in the beginning versus now?
Swenson: There was a group of folks, maybe under 10, when we made the decision to actually come into existence, and it's approaching 400 now. From 28 different states and we used to have one in Hong Kong and one in Israel, but they moved home, so we can't say that we're global anymore. This year marks our 20th anniversary.
Q: What were the issues then vs. now?
Swenson: Early on, the issues were elk management in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, grazing on the Little Missouri National Grasslands (and) the acquisition of the Eberts Ranch by the U.S. Forest Service. There was the occasional proposed well siting, but oil and gas wasn't nearly the concentration that it is today.
I will tell you that when the Bakken (energy boom) came into existence, when it was new in North Dakota, Badlands Conservation Alliance was really the only organization at that time that was concentrating on the public lands in western North Dakota. Some organizations in the state that have a national affiliation had previously had a strong focus, but it just so happened that when the Bakken came around, they were looking at other conservation issues. And so, early on when the Bakken came to town, a big part of our job was getting those organizations and many more reactivated.
Q: What are you most proud of in your years with BCA?
Swenson: I'm most proud of our persistence. We have been incredibly detail-oriented and vigilant in our monitoring of what is actually happening in western North Dakota and particularly public lands.
If there had not been an organization like Badlands Conservation Alliance, industry would have had freer reign than it even did and does, and the losses would have been even greater than they have been.
Q: There must have been times when the job was very stressful and frustrating, given the pace of development in the Bakken.
Swenson: It has been very strenuous to work in conservation during the Bakken. There were plenty of weeks where I was working 60-70 hours a week just to keep up. When I talk about how we had been detail-oriented, we watch all the daily activity reports that come out of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, we attend the monthly hearings as needed, and at one time at the height of things, they were looking at 300 cases a month, so I was also looking at 300 cases a month.
Obviously, we only testified at those cases that had an immediate impact on public lands, and we continue to do that because there continue to be impacts.
Q: Did you ever face backlash for that persistence?
Swenson: Sure. I've spent a lot of time in the last 12 years in rooms with people that don't like me, that wish I wasn't there, that wish I would just go away.
Have I ever felt threatened? No.
Q: Do you plan to stay involved with BCA?
Swenson: Yes, absolutely. I was a BCA member before I became staff. I will always be a BCA member, and I am grateful and I am proud of that affiliation.
Q: Is there hope for conservation in North Dakota?
Swenson: My initial unfettered reaction was it's a hard place to work − it's a hard place to work if you're a conservationist − but the payback is pretty rich.
In my time out there, whether I'm there for my own pleasure or I'm there for work, over the last few years, I've run across an awful lot of people that are new to North Dakota because of the oil industry. And I find them on top of a butte somewhere, where I think I'm not going to run into anybody. Or, I find two dads and four kids out along some creek where I've never seen anyone before. And they're loving it.
That gives me hope because we need more people with a conservation sense in order to make progress, and they may be coming from outside of North Dakota, and they may be working in the industry. And they're very welcome. I just hope that they also have a voice for wild North Dakota places.
Q: Anything else?
Swenson: I remember the first time I realized there were public lands in western North Dakota beyond Theodore Roosevelt National Park and how miraculous that seemed to me. I mean, what a gift we have, to have that 1.1 million acres of Forest Service land, public land. All the time that I have spent exploring out there and how it has shaped my life, it's an opportunity that people living in North Dakota shouldn't take lightly and they shouldn't be missing.