I’ve listened to a few State of the State speeches by North Dakota governors — probably somewhere between 15 and 20 — and even had a hand in writing a few of them, so I think I’m qualified to offer a few comments on the one Doug Burgum gave Thursday to the North Dakota Legislature.
As they go, his was a pretty good one. I thought his speechwriters (likely Mike Nowatzki and Jodi Uecker) did a pretty good job. It was hopeful and optimistic, as is Burgum’s nature, and he threw down the gauntlet in front of legislators on every issue he has extolled the last few months, including in his budget address last month. He was interrupted numerous times by applause, some of it enthusiastic, some of it lukewarm; a couple of times by his own emotions; and once by a brief glitch with his teleprompter.
As I sat in my perch in the House balcony, I couldn’t help but observe, looking down at the 141 legislators on the House floor below me, that I didn’t know very many of them, unlike many past legislative sessions, when I could put a name to almost every face.
I thought to myself that I missed, for example, my old friend, Duane DeKrey, who sat on that floor for many State of the State speeches and who used to help me with my State Tourism budget, and I missed seeing him and all those old friends, on both sides of the aisle.
And then there he was, about the first person I ran into in the Great Hall outside the chambers after the speech, and he told me he’d be around the session, not as a legislator, but in his new role as director of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District.
One face I did recognize was another Republican friend, Rep. Mike Nathe from Bismarck, my adopted Legislator — Rep. Bob Martinson and Sen. Erin Oban represent my district, but I can’t tolerate Karen Karls, so I’ve adopted Mike, from a neighboring district, and he’s agreed to it.
He’s my choice to be the next governor when Burgum packs it in, and I told him that in the hall after the speech, in the context that we’re likely to keep having Republican governors for a while longer, so until the Democrats get their shit together, I’d pick him. He replied with an “Aw shucks,” and only half-jokingly said something about his wife’s lifestyle habits not allowing him to take that big of a pay cut (I don’t think Karen reads my blog, so I don’t think sharing that will get him into too much trouble).
The governor’s speech was long (almost an hour — I commented to a friend afterward that he never heard the phrase “Always leave them wanting more,”) and he choked up a few times. I was not so interested in all the mechanical things he threw out to the Legislature, things they are going to have to deal with like education funding and reform and taxing and spending and social service issues because we are going to hear about those things ad nauseum for the next four months, and nothing he said about them will matter a whit in the end — the Legislature will have its way with them.
The two things that interested me most were, first, his willingness, almost eagerness, and his sincerity, to make up for sins of past Republican governors against Native Americans by promising to place the flags of North Dakota’s five tribes in the hallway outside the governor’s office, and, second, his paean to Theodore Roosevelt as he closed out his speech.
The Roosevelt remarks, of course, came in reference to his request for $50 million of state funds to contribute to the cost of building the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in Medora.
Invoking Roosevelt’s legacy and speaking like Roosevelt, Burgum said being a North Dakotan is “A choice open to anyone who shares the spirit of self-reliance and self-respect — who feels the connection to our land and water and wildlife — who lives with the daring spirit of a pioneer.”
It was the phrase in that sentence — “who feels the connection to our land, water and wildlife” — that set me off, later Thursday. Because given the governor’s recent record involving the North Dakota Bad Lands that TR loved and credited with enabling him to become president, there’s more than a hint of hypocrisy in those remarks. And so Thursday night, I sat down and wrote him a letter, and this morning, I e-mailed it to him, and here’s what it said:
Dear Gov. Burgum,
I liked your speech Thursday. I liked your goal of building a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in the North Dakota Bad Lands. But Governor, if you are going to invoke Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy, if you are going to talk about Theodore Roosevelt, and indeed, if you are going to talk like Theodore Roosevelt, then by God, you better start acting like Theodore Roosevelt.
I refer to two things.
First, your use of water from the Little Missouri State Scenic River for industrial purposes — fracking. That was illegal until you signed legislation in 2017 — against the urging of a whole bunch of people who care about the Little Missouri State Scenic River — to allow the oil industry to take water from the river and haul it away in big tanker trucks to oil well sites for fracking.
I can’t tell by looking at the State Water Commission’s website how many industrial water permits have been approved since the policy took effect, but by looking at Google Earth I can see at least 10 water pits along the river between Highway 85 and Highway 22.
I’m also seeing more and more oil wells hard up against the riverbank. Just so you can see exactly what I am talking about, I am attaching Google Earth photos of a water pit and an oil well alongside the river east of Highway 85.
So here’s a plea from me and Teddy Roosevelt — shut down the industrialization of the Little Missouri Scenic River Valley. It’s our only State Scenic River. It deserves to be protected.
Second, Meridian Oil says it is about to begin construction of an oil refinery on the road into Theodore Roosevelt National Park, just three miles from the park. Please do something about that. This is not my first request to you to sit down with Meridian officials and talk some sense into their heads.
Only if those two things can happen, governor, will I approve of your use of Rooseveltian references. Unless you decide to seek re-election, you’ve made your last official address to the Legislature. Now is the time to start defining your legacy.
The governor closed his speech with these words: “This Sunday, Jan. 6, marks the 100th anniversary of the passing of Theodore Roosevelt. By immersing himself in the rugged, beautiful and untamed Badlands, he transformed himself into a bold and fearless leader — whose later actions transformed our nation and our world.”
Rugged. Beautiful. Untamed. Badlands.
Yes, Governor, that’s why Roosevelt loved those Bad Lands. Let’s do everything we can to keep them that way. Because Roosevelt also said this:
“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
“The time has come” he said 100 years ago.
The time has come now to start listening.