Jenkinson Column: Praise For Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's "Extraordinary Places"

We have now reached the defining moment of North Dakota life in the 21st century.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has quietly put together a very modest proposal to designate a small number of acreages of western North Dakota as special or extraordinary places, and to require oil companies to treat those few parcels with special care when they extract the oil. The Attorney General has proposed that the North Dakota Industrial Commission, of which he is one of three members, adopt a set of special rules (or processes) for the management of those few acres.

It’s that simple. And here’s the most important point. If the Industrial Commission votes to accept Stenehjem’s proposal, not a single barrel of oil will be put off limits.

The short list of parcels Stenehjem has in mind includes such things as the near perimeter of the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park; North Dakota’s most magnificent landform Bullion Butte (south of Medora); the inner channel of the Little Missouri River; historically important sections of the Killdeer Mountains; the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers; the shoreline of Lake Sakakawea; Pretty Butte north of Marmarth. And a few others.

If you ask 100 people to name the most beautiful, fragile, pristine, or sensitive parcels of western North Dakota, almost everyone’s list is going to be the same for the first dozen or so places. Everyone understands that the best of the badlands are more valuable to the Idea and Identity of North Dakota than a lovely coulee near Parshall or Crosby. Public lands are inevitably easier to identify with, recreate on, and protect than strictly private properties, however beautiful those may be or special to their private owners. We take our collective identity from those things and places we especially prize (a flag, a veteran’s cemetery, a church, a landscape vista), and it is in the interest of a civilized people to make reasonable discriminations about such things as they develop and clarify public policy.

When Stenehjem began to think about this initiative he said, emphatically, that any list he made would need to be shorter rather than longer (a very few very special places, not a unrestrained conservation “wish list”), and that no list would preclude oil development in those parcels. He was adamant that the state of North Dakota has no right to violate the sanctity of contract between private parties or to intrude itself between a willing mineral owner and a willing oil company.

The shortness of Stenehjem’s list and his repeated vocal insistence on the sanctity of private property rights has frustrated some members of the environmental or conservationist community in North Dakota. But Stenehjem did not undertake this initiative to please this or that constituency. He has taken the lead because he loves North Dakota, greatly appreciates the landscapes that happen to overlay the Bakken oil shales, and because he understands that reasonable regulatory protocols are as important in the oil fields as they are in all businesses that impact public health and welfare. As a member of the state Industrial Commission, he has a unique public responsibility—to uphold our laws, to promote economic development, to serve the interests of all North Dakotans, and to balance competing interests for the benefit of the broadest number of people possible.

I think Wayne Stenehjem deserves great credit for his leadership in the most critical issue in North Dakota life, the most critical moment (I believe) in my lifetime as a North Dakota citizen. My respect for him was always high, but it has deepened dramatically as this initiative has begun to unfold. The easiest thing would have been to just leave it alone, to stamp the oil permits and get out of the way. To show leadership at a time like this is to invite criticism and backlash from both ends of the spectrum, and to have one’s integrity maligned by those (on the one hand) who think that any restraint on the oil industry is tantamount to confiscation and communism, and those (on the other) who believe that the special places initiative is nothing more than a public relations smokescreen behind which the “rape” of North Dakota will continue unabated.

The Attorney General is no wild-eyed liberal. He is not a “radical environmentalist,” as some in the oil industry like to characterize those who do not rubber stamp all of their extraction plans. He is not trying to lock up North Dakota to oil development, or even a tiny number of parcels. Above all, he knows and respects the U.S. Constitution, the North Dakota Constitution, and the common law. He knows and condemns what would constitute a Fifth Amendment “taking” of landowners’ or mineral owners’ property rights, or an unfair burden on private property. He’s a brilliant man. He’s a Republican. He’s a cheerful and serious advocate of the oil boom. He’s a man of unimpeachable integrity.

The fate of the Attorney General’s initiative is going to tell us who we are and what we value and where we draw the line as the first half of the 21st century unfolds in North Dakota. If his leadership prevails, it will not only help to mitigate the industrial impact on those parcels he has designated (and yet still permit oil development), but it will also reassure the people of North Dakota that the government of the state is directing this great economic boom rather than being passively directed by it, that we are sovereign, that we are in control of our own destiny. His list may seem conservative and modest, but it will make a huge difference to the spirit of North Dakota. We are awash in oil.

If Stenehjem’s initiative fails, if neither Governor Dalrymple nor Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring chooses to support the Special Places protocols, it will be an unmistakable sign that nothing is sacred in North Dakota anymore, that everything is for sale, with the least resistance, to the highest bidder. It will be a license to the oil companies that they may have their way with us, because we are insufficiently committed to our own sacred landscape to make reasonable requests about how it should be stripped of its oil reserves.

Oil industry pressure on Gov. Dalrymple is going to be gigantic, almost unbearable. Already a “landowners’ group” has sprung up, located interestingly enough in Tulsa, Okla., denouncing the Attorney General’s initiative, urgently warning mineral owners that, “Nearly a million acres of private land across the Peace Garden State may soon be restricted or even condemned.” This is so erroneous that it would appear to be a naked lie, both with respect to the number of acres in question, and the suggestion that lands may be condemned, which is no part of Stenehjem’s proposal whatsoever. Furthermore, that “landowners’ group” warns that, “Out-of-state interests are pushing their anti-development agenda in Bismarck.” This would be hilarious if it were not patently untrue and unfair. The Special Places initiative was wholly the brainchild of Wayne Stenehjem (decidedly in-state!) and nobody else, and his “agenda” is in no way whatsoever “anti-development.”

I find such tactics simply appalling. An initiative of this importance deserves a serious public debate. That debate will be passionate, possibly even acrimonious at times. But it ought to be a debate by North Dakotans about the future of North Dakota, and it ought to be conducted with a commitment to honesty and fair play.

In my 58 years, I have never felt more strongly about anything than I feel about this.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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