Giving credit where credit is due, my brother is probably the key to my Badlands bent. He is the one who taught his little sister the wonders of the great outdoors — from my propensity to note and investigate wee details to my exuberance for the derring-do. I was the timid one; he, the bold. He stretched me. Husband David and I took this now longtime Coloradan and BCA member to the northern Badlands over Easter weekend — with some reservation on both his part and ours. Larry hadn’t seen the Bakken Boom.
Natural resource communicators talk about shifting baselines. Our human tendency to judge conditions as we personally recall them limits the deeper recognition of rate of change. Larry’s older pre-Bakken expectations of what was status quo rubbed up against my own, and both ran askew of the current industry slowdown. Th at’s what struck me most about this trip.
We saw over a dozen “stacked” rigs north of Dickinson. Last year’s April 12th rig count was 190; this year it was 93. Th e saltwater disposal site at the entrance to Little Missouri State Park is still there, of course, and is under expansion. The mega-pads in the Little Missouri River breaks just south of the Bear Den Natural Research Area were as shocking as ever, and the diesel pump pulling frack water from a local stock pond roared like a jet engine despite our lack of precipitation; but the traffic was way down from six months ago. It was decidedly not pre-boom, but without much of the knuckle-whitening tension that had become the norm.
Completion of double bypasses around the community of Watford City kept oil tankers to a minimum in town, but complicated the once clear shots in and out of town south toward the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Multi-lane intersections replete with freeway-grade lights need improvement on signage, but should eventually improve safety. We all hope.
Meanwhile, before heading south we bought our weekend groceries at the new Cashwise that anchors the south end retail complex. It’s got to be great for locals to easily buy a kiwi, a bag of potting soil, spring chicks in season or a new pair of glasses without a trip to Dickinson. New residential development has and is cropping up on all sides of town and in all stages of construction – suburbia and exurbia come to Watford City, as does a large and impressive new school on land somewhere between prairie and industrial park. Motel proliferation such as Teddy’s Residential Suites and the Little Missouri Inn may have reached the saturation point, while in some minds robbing the dignity of iconic place. Few to no cars in their parking lots was perhaps only evidence of a holiday weekend.
If one were dropped unknowingly directly into the midst of Watford City, reaction would have to be of burgeoning growth and prosperity, and the question would be why? Knowing the context, my best descriptor of the slowdown would have to be “eerie.”
At the close of our first day’s tour, we were determined to stick to the Badlands we love, spending most of our daylight hours in USFS Lone Butte non-motorized with early evening visits to the North Unit. Our guest agreed the wonder-of-it-all still existed. Literally blankets of crocus greeted us as did a patch of Nuttall’s buttercup, and the greening of prairie smoke foliage spoke well for our upcoming BCA Earth Day hike. The light was glorious and the full moon couldn’t have been more dramatic rising above silhouetted buttes in a dusk blue sky.
But, we were never far from evidence of the Bakken. Slow down or no. Basin Electric’s transmission structures lay in segments on prairie and butte with raw excavation of ridge top access roads and piles of rebar awaiting crews. I burned in memory the northern sight-line where a State School Land section newly leased will likely become Grand Central for multiple wells drilled laterally to the south under Lone Butte’s no-surface-occupancy reaches. Flaring is down in some areas but persistent in others. What we claimed assuredly was a rig fire by its size and clarity turned out to be “just” one more humongous flare on the horizon as we changed orientation along Badlands high points.
Upcoming hearings for the ND Industrial Commission’s Oil and Gas Division include cases for development across the entire east/west tier south of the NU of TRNP. Testifying at those hearings is just one way BCA helps the Park defend its territory, and our own. Often our remarks introduce corporations headquartered in Houston or Dallas or Denver to the surface/landscape values and not merely the minerals located 2 miles below, and we assert the need for state and federal agency participation and coordination. We aren’t going to stop development, but we can oppose poor planning, harmful impacts and inadequate regulation.
My brother doesn’t wear his North Dakota cap anymore. That’s pretty heartbreaking for a little sister to hear from a native son. He did, however, still see the intricacies he once taught me to find. And, the beauty.
I’m not a frequent “vacation-taker” per se, but for three days in early April I did just that. I spent unscheduled time with people I love in a landscape that is always new and calls to me like no other. It ain’t perfect, but it’s still there and it’s mine. It’s yours, too. Don’t give up on it. This is our fight.
BCA Executive Director