So We Shouldn't Build A Refinery Because Someone Had Their Ashes Spread Nearby?

A visitor takes in the view from Buck Hill in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Photo courtesy of North Dakota Tourism

“Refinery in view of Sheila Schafer’s resting place,” reads the headline from Lauren Donovan in the Bismarck Tribune.

Sheila Schafer, for those of you who are unaware, was a long-time booster for Medora-area tourism (and stepmother to former Governor Ed Schafer). Her ashes were spread on top of Buck Hill, a popular spot in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Visible from Buck Hill would be the proposed Davis Refinery, which would be capable of taking up to 55,000 barrels per day of North Dakota crude, increasing the in-state market for North Dakota’s prodigious oil output.

That some would object to an oil refinery because it could, when built, be seen from Buck Hill illustrates just how difficult an issue “view shed” rights are.

How fair is it to a private property owner to inhibit valuable development on their property – be it an oil well or a refinery or housing – because it can be seen from, say, a national park?

For instance, in a recent editorial the Grand Forks Herald urged Attorney General (and current gubernatorial candidate) Wayne Stenehjem to renew support for his controversial “special places” policy he promoted as a member of the North Dakota Industrial Commission. Under that policy, as Stenehjem proposed it, there would be additional regulatory requirements for energy development near places the state identified as “special.”

This policy was largely rejected because, frankly, what is and is not “special” can be completely arbitrary especially when stacked up next to the hard rock reality of property rights.

How fair is it to a private property owner to inhibit valuable development on their property – be it an oil well or a refinery or housing – because it can be seen from, say, a national park?

This is a tendency among some – particularly certain commentators who live far from western North Dakota – to subordinate private property rights to recreation and tourism interests. Western North Dakota is a wonderful and wholly under appreciated place. Every citizen of this state has an interest in protecting it.

That being said, many seem to want to apply some arbitrary and unfair standards to development around some of the more scenic areas of the state, and that’s simply wrong.

Thankfully, it seems most of the locals get this. From Donovan’s piece:

Doug Tescher, a Medora rancher and cabin outfitter, said he thinks his generation is more accepting of the park than were those when the park was developed in the 1930s and 1940s. But that acceptance only goes so far.

“The fact that it’s government, I think that’s a lot of it. It goes back to private property and too much control, with wetlands and sage grouse. It’s not so much the park as government overall,” Tescher said.

Ross said she’s aware of the perception Tescher expresses.

“There can be an emotional response that we are overreaching our jurisdiction,” she said. It’s those intangible resources — the air quality, the water, the scenery — that all contribute to the visitor experience, she said.

The comment about overreaching jurisdiction is the key, here. National parks were created to protect and preserve certain areas. That’s wonderful. But that can’t be allowed to spill over into private property that is merely near public land.

If the government wants to protect those areas too, they should buy them from the property owners. Otherwise, leave them alone.

UPDATE: Just to prove some perspective, here’s a map showing where the refinery would be built and Buck Hill. As you can see, it’s about 7 miles.

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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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