A few weeks ago I wrote here that I regarded the Special Places initiative as perhaps the most important moment of North Dakota history in my lifetime. This last week the North Dakota Industrial Commission voted unanimously to “approve” Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s proposal—but so stripped of its original intent as to be essentially pointless and meaningless. The original proposal (December 2013) would have designated a number of Special Places in western North Dakota and required oil companies to tiptoe around them as they extracted carbon from under both public and private land in their immediate vicinity. In its second generation (February 2014) the Initiative went from a proposed rule to a proposed process, thus seriously reducing its capacity to really protect anything. And now it has been stripped, at the Governor’s insistence, of any application to private land and private minerals.
I am by nature an optimist. But for the moment I am really deeply saddened to see the Industrial Commission throw its immense weight (as usual) behind the dynamics of wholesale development—drill, baby, drill—rather than take measured risks on behalf of the commonwealth values of North Dakota. The Industrial Commission has a constitutionally-mandated responsibility to create broad policy protocols for economic activity in North Dakota. In other words, the state government of North Dakota has the right and responsibility to set the terms of industrial engagement as we strip our countryside of its immense oil shale reserves. If Gov. Dalrymple and Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring had voted to adopt Attorney General Stenehjem’s proposal as he originally presented it, the oil industry and “landowner groups” would have howled, but they would have soon found a way to work with the new protocols, which would have affected only a tiny fraction of the oil properties in North Dakota. Even in its original form, the Initiative would not have prevented a single barrel of oil from being extracted from beneath our soil.
So what’s left after last week’s vote? A list of special places—still a very good thing, in my opinion, because the State of North Dakota has now gone on record as believing that there really are some extraordinary places worthy of special care. James Madison resisted the Bill of Rights at first (1787) because he thought it would be a mere “parchment guarantee.” He was wrong. The Bill of Rights has become a fundamental baseline American text around which we the people can rally when our natural rights are jeopardized. Think of the power of “invoking the fifth,” or demanding respect for “my first amendment rights” (or second). The Special Places List of 2014 gives the people who love the landscape of western North Dakota official permission to rally around more than a dozen extraordinarily beautiful and fragile places that need and deserve advocates.
The effective collapse of the Special Places initiative points to a deep problem of North Dakota life. If the Special Places were Mount Rushmore, the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone Falls, Monument Valley, Devils Tower, Half Dome, Mount Rainier, or Lake Tahoe, I believe even a pro-development Industrial Commission would find ways to protect their sanctity by setting special conditions for industrial activity on adjacent private properties. If our Special Places were as obviously spectacular as the ones listed above, the people of North Dakota (and throughout the United States) would be their champions and clamor for their protection. The simple truth is that most North Dakotans have never seen the Killdeer Mountains or Pretty Butte or even Little Missouri State Park. Most North Dakotans live well east of Bismarck (the 100th Meridian), and the closer you get to the Red River Valley, where the bulk of our population lives, the more North Dakotans lean into Minnesota. They look east not west. Their idea of a special place is Detroit Lakes.
North Dakota’s Special Places are not sublime in the Grand Teton sense of the term. Probably only a few dozen North Dakotans have been to all 18 of them. Most North Dakotans will acknowledge that the Badlands are pretty, but when they say “Badlands,” most North Dakotans are referencing what you see from the Painted Canyon overlook off Interstate 94, what you see from the Burning Hills Amphitheater, or (a couple of times in a lifetime) along the loop road in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Most North Dakotans have never been to Bullion Butte and only a few thousand have every climbed it. White Butte, the highest point in North Dakota, at 3,506 feet, is hard to pinpoint as you hurtle along US 85 between Belfield and Bowman. It’s not even as impressive as its more traditional cousin Black Butte (on the other side of the highway), and it generally gets talked about by way of a flatlander’s smirk.
We North Dakotans undervalue the beauty of our landscapes, including our public lands. We compare our landscapes unfavorably with those of Colorado, Utah, and Montana, or the woods and lake country of Minnesota. For most of North Dakota’s policy makers, by which I mean the Industrial Commissioners, the state’s regulatory bureaucrats, and most members of the state legislature, the lands in question are something of an abstraction. The attitude of most North Dakotans is that there is not much special here, that the country west of the Missouri River is a vast and largely bleak empty quarter that should be damned grateful that it now finally has found a way to attract economic development. Matthew 6:1: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
I sincerely wonder how many of the Special Places our three Industrial Commissioners have visited. I don’t mean by flying over them in a plane or helicopter or driving past them en route to somewhere else in suit and tie. I mean get out of the car and spend some time in hiking boots. I know that Wayne Stenehjem ventured quietly to Bullion Butte when it became an issue before the Industrial Commission a year or so ago. That seems to me to be exemplary leadership. I wish the three commissioners would take a weeklong Special Places vacation, with no media and no neckties, camp out on the ground (no RVs) at Pretty Butte north of Marmarth, and climb White Butte on a hot July afternoon, to watch the thunderheads gather and rumble in from the west. I’d want them to have a picnic of baguettes and cheese within the perimeter of Theodore Roosevelt’s cabin site at the Elkhorn Ranch. Month after month the Industrial Commission sits in judgment of the future of North Dakota and yet they have been making profound decisions about places they know mostly from maps.
I hope everyone who is reading these words will go visit the Special Places between Easter and first snowfall. If you contact me (see below) I will give you tips about how to sequence your visit, and which ones you can legally climb. We need to build a broad protective constituency for the subtle magnificence of western North Dakota. Until you have been to the Elkhorn Ranch (no climbing required), you cannot, in my opinion, quite realize how much is at stake as we frack North Dakota.
This column originally appeared in the Bismarck Tribune