JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Of Refineries And Bridges

There is news this week on several fronts involving threats to the North Dakota Bad Lands. There are some long documents to read. Here’s a summary. More when I get done reading them.

THAT DAMN REFINERY

First, Meridian Energy’s proposed oil refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. You probably read that the Dakota Resource Council and its legal ally, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, filed a complaint with the North Dakota Public Service Commission asking the PSC to assume jurisdiction over the siting of the refinery before construction can begin.

On Monday, the PSC accepted the two groups’ complaint and agreed to serve the complaint on Meridian. What that means is that Meridian will now have to respond to the request for a full site evaluation. I’m pretty sure it also means that it cannot start construction of the refinery (Meridian has its Permit to Construct for a month but have not started any work at the site yet) until the PSC hears both sides of the story. The PSC has heard the environmental group’s side in the 17-page complaint, and now it will l get to hear Meridian’s case, arguing that it is not subject to PSC review.

And then, the PSC will decide whether to accept jurisdiction over the plant and require Meridian to undergo a full site review to decide if this is a good place to put a refinery. If it does that (and I won’t be surprised if it does), expect Meridian to go to court and challenge the PSC’s ability to do that. If Meridian doesn’t, expect ELPC to go to court to try to get a judge to order it done.

ELPC’s complaint asks for a cease and desist order, keeping Meridian from going ahead. I’m not sure if Monday’s motion grants that order. I’m waiting for a call back from an attorney to answer that question, but I’m guessing it does. I’ll keep you posted.

THAT DAMN LITTLE MISSOURI BRIDGE

The second long document I have to read is the long-awaited 80-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement on Billings County’s proposed Little Missouri River Crossing north of Medora, which was released a couple of weeks ago.

I say long-awaited because public hearings on this project were held in the summer of 2012, and we’ve been waiting more than six years now to see this document. No one seems to know what the holdup was, but no one was complaining, except the Billings County Commission, which has shelled out millions of dollars to the engineering firm KLJ for it.

The EIS identifies the proposed location of the new bridge — about 12 miles north of Medora — and explains why this is the best location for a new Little Missouri River crossing. The location is on private land — the historic Short Ranch — in spite of the fact that Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud said unequivocally at the public hearings on the project in June 2012 that the bridge would be built on public land.

Apparently KLJ couldn’t find a place to put it on public land. It will be interesting to hear Arthaud try to explain what happened. It will also be interesting to hear him explain why no one has bothered to even contact the Short family to let them know what is going on. The bridge is proposed to cross the river just downstream from the Short’s home place, within eyesight of the ranch headquarters, and no one from the county or the engineering firm has even bothered to talk to them.

The release of the EIS also triggers a new round of public hearings, scheduled in Bismarck and Medora. The DOT ran some huge, 25-column-inch ads in the Bismarck and Medora papers a couple of weeks ago advertising the public meetings, scheduled for next week, in Bismarck and Medora. But then, with no public fanfare, DOT changed the dates to the following week with just a short notice buried deep on the Billings County website.

So here’s the deal. The Medora hearing is now scheduled for 5 p.m. (MDT) July 23, in the Medora Community Center. The Bismarck hearing is at the Courtyard by Marriot Hotel in North Bismarck at 5 p.m. July 26.

These hearings are to gather public input on the bridge project. If you don’t like the idea of another bridge across the Little Missouri, in the middle of no goddam place, you should go to one or both of these hearings and make your feelings known. You should probably read the EIS before you go. You can find links to it here.

THAT OTHER DAMN BRIDGE

The third thing in the news this week is a notice from Bureau of Land Management that it is “seeking public comments regarding an application to authorize an existing single-lane ranch bridge over the Little Missouri River, with an associated access road, in Dunn County.”

You read that right. An application to authorize an existing bridge.

This is the bridge I’ve written about before, built by rancher Wiley Bice, west of Killdeer, on BLM land without BLM permission. The BLM knew nothing about this bridge on its land until I told them about it last year, even though it had been there for a few years. Bice also planted alfalfa on BLM land without permission.

In February, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the application Bice submitted for this bridge, but even though the government is compelled by law to give me that application, it refuses to do so. Now I’ve received a letter asking me to comment on an application I have not seen.

I’ve pretty much lost patience with the BLM. Noted author Ed Abbey called it the Bureau of Livestock and Mines. A friend of mine in Montana called it the Bureau of Leasing and Mining. Both were pretty accurate. I know the BLM has been busy with an oil boom in North Dakota, although it hasn’t been booming so much the last couple of years, but it is apparent to me that it doesn’t even go out and look at its land to see what is going on.

I’m pretty sure no one had looked at the parcel that Wiley Bice built his bridge on — and planted alfalfa on — and built a road on, for more than five years. They’re the Bureau of Land MANAGEMENT. How can it MANAGE our public lands if it never goes look at it to see who’s abusing it?

Anyway, according to this letter, if you go to this website you will find all you need to know — not really, just all they want you to know — about this project, and how to comment. You have until Aug. 13 to respond. I have no idea what will happen after that.

Well, actually, I kind of do. The BLM will conduct an Environmental Assessment (a little bit cheaper version of the document Billings County did for their bridge) on the project, and then tell Bice to go ahead and build his bridge. Oh, wait, it’s already built. Never mind.

In a separate letter I found a copy of Tuesday, North Dakota BLM manager Loren Wikstrom writes that the alternatives being considered in the EA are:

  1. Take no action (leave the bridge, road, pond, and alfalfa fields on the land as-is). This would not achieve the project purpose, but the BLM will analyze the effects to serve as a baseline;
  2. Remove the bridge, road, pond, and alfalfa fields and rehabilitate the public land to a condition similar to that of the surrounding public land.
  3. Sell or exchange the affected public land to the adjacent landowner;
  4. Authorize the bridge, road and pond through rights-of-way, and the alfalfa fields through a lease; and
  5. Authorize only the bridge and access road through a right-of-way, remove the pond and alfalfa fields and rehabilitate the public land. In the event a right-of-way for the bridge and road are granted by the BLM, the site would still remain inaccessible to the public, via road, due to the lack of public roads to the site.

Loren has already told me that No. 5 is their preferred alternative, and that they’re not looking to make Bice  tear down a bridge that cost a couple of million dollars. He’s also told me they are making Bice pay for the cost of the EA and the reclamation. No big deal to Bice. As I wrote here earlier, he sold his oilfield trucking company for about $100 million. This is small change for him.

So I wouldn’t waste time writing letters to the BLM about this. It’s a done deal. A rich guy builds a bridge on public land, gets his hands slapped and lives happily ever after. That’s how the Bureau of Land Management manages your land.

Anyway, those three things are a pretty good indicator that there are still plenty of threats to North Dakota’s Bad Lands. So many it’s hard to keep track. I’ll try to write about each of them as things progress. Somebody has to keep an eye on these bastards.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Who Wants To Invest In A Refinery? Here’s How You Can Do It

I wrote here a couple of weeks go about the beginning of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, created by Congress in 1947, and about the proposed oil refinery that threatens it, a refinery that has now been issued a permit by the state of North Dakota to build the dang thing.

It’s been 70 years since Congress declared that this place in the North Dakota Bad Lands should be protected forever as a national park. Now this California company, Meridian Energy Group Inc., a startup company with no experience building or running a refinery, says it’s going to build a refinery just three miles from the park, alongside the road that runs into Medora.

I want to look at this more carefully. I don’t trust them.

On Jan. 27, 2017, Meridian Energy Group Inc. issued what it called a “Confidential Private Placement Offering” which began:

“Meridian Energy Group, Inc. (‘Meridian’or the ‘Company’) is a closely-held South Dakota corporation that will construct and operate the Davis Refinery, a 55,000 barrel per day high conversion crude oil refinery on a 715-acre site in Billings County, near Belfield, North Dakota, in the heart of the Bakken formation.”

Don’t be fooled by the “South Dakota” in there. They might be incorporated there for tax purposes, but these guys are from Texas and California. And pay special attention to the number 55,000. That’s important. I’ll talk about that in a minute.

And don’t be fooled by the words “Confidential Private Placement Offering” label on the prospectus. I went digging around the Internet and found it for myself, although I bet Meridian is not happy about that, and it may disappear pretty soon, unless the word “confidential” is just another sham put out there by this sleazy company — more about shams in a minute, too.

The first thing you notice in the prospectus, right there in the third line, is that Merdian is selling stock in a refinery that is going to process 55,000 barrels of oil per day. Somebody at Meridian didn’t do their homework. When North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak and her fellow commissioners heard about this, they said, “Wait a minute. North Dakota state law says if you are going to process more than 50,000 barrels per day, you have to come to us and let us do a comprehensive site review to determine if that is really a good place to put an oil refinery.”

“Oh, dang,” Meridian responded. “That was a mistake. We didn’t mean 55,000. We meant 49,500 barrels per day. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it.”

Except that the prospectus is still there, online, selling stock in a refinery that Meridian says is going to process 55,000 barrels per day.

So in spite of that, as I pointed out here a week or so ago, there will be no site review (as of now), which if one took place, would probably determine that this is NOT a good place to put a refinery.

Dang!

Our Health Department has decided that the unproven technology planned for this refinery might — just might because there’s no way to know until it is built and operating — meet federal air quality standards (this is North Dakota, after all, and we’ll plant big wet kisses on the ass of any oil company executive who shows up here with a fat checkbook). So I guess there’s nothing left to do but watch a refinery go up beside Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Except there is one other possibility. I said earlier I don’t trust Meridian. And I’m not alone. I’ve had more than one person mention in casual conversations, including some people in pretty high positions, that this whole deal sounds suspicious. The project has a price tag of close to a billion dollars, but the stock offering is for only $30 million. Now that Meridian has the permit, it has to find a bank willing to lend it at least three-quarters of a billion dollars. Again, as I mentioned, on unproven technology. Would a bank really do that? What’s the collateral on that if this falls through? A refinery that doesn’t work?

I asked Gov. Doug Burgum if he wouldn’t mind asking his State Securities commissioner, Karen Tyler, to take a look at the prospectus and see if they think this is all on the up and up. I mean, the state does have some responsibility to help protect investors in big deals like this in our state. Apparently he did that. Here’s what his spokesman Mike Nowatzki told me the other day:

“Commissioner Tyler informs me that Meridian is utilizing a federal securities registration exemption under Regulation D Rule 506(c) of the 33 Act. This federal exemption requires that they only accept investments from Accredited Investor — income of $200,000 to $300,000 or net worth of $1 million excluding primary residence.  The exemption largely pre-empts state securities regulatory authority. The Securities Department can require that Meridian put the department on notice that it is soliciting and selling in the state (Note: Meridian has done that), and Securities’ anti-fraud authority is preserved, but it does not have the authority to opine upon and set requirements for their offering documents.”  (emphasis added)

Well, how convenient. Is there any loophole in the law this sleazy company won’t find?

Would I be surprised if I learned down the road, in a few months, that this company never really intended to build an oil refinery here? No, I would not. In fact, I’d be willing to bet all my shares in the company that there’s at least a 50-50 chance this whole thing is a big stock scam designed to make some quick bucks for a few executives and board members.

On the very first page of the “confidential” prospectus, there’s a line that says the total stock offering is for $30 million, but up to 25 percent — $7.5 million — can be used for “cost of issuance,” including “compensation paid to employees of Meridian.” From what I can tell from its website, that might be about a dozen or so people on the “management team” and a few clerical staff dividing up $7.5 million dollars.

But then it also says, “Management’s Discretionary Control over Proceeds — Although the Company anticipates that it will apply the net proceeds of its financing as described herein, Management will have complete discretionary control over the utilization of the funds and there can be no assurance as to the manner or time in which said funds will be utilized.”

So that management team can pay themselves way more than $7.5 million. It can use it all. Good grief. Who would invest in a company like this? Ummmm, maybe somebody looking for a tax write-off?

Well, if it’s a scam, too bad for the investors, but good for us. Except I’m not willing to take a chance. I’m going to keep talking and writing about it. Because if Meridian is serious, and we fail to stop it, shame on us. It will the most egregious example of failed leadership in the history of our state.

I hope Gov. Burgum doesn’t want that to be his legacy.

P.S. Here’s an “Important Notice” from page 3 of Meridian’s “confidential” offering:

“This memorandum contains certain information of a highly confidential and proprietary nature. The receipt of this memorandum constitutes an agreement on the part of the recipient hereof to maintain the confidentiality of the information contained herein or any additional information subsequently delivered in connection herewith. Prospective investors who accept this memorandum or become aware of the information contained herein must understand and comply with the extensive federal and state securities law restrictions placed upon their ability to disclose information contained herein to others or to participate in or otherwise effect or facilitate any transactions relating to any securities of the company. Prospective investors who cannot comply fully with such restrictions should not review the information contained herein and should immedialtely (sic) return this memorandum to the offeror.”

Yikes! Well, golly, I’m not a prospective investor, so I guess I can share that much with you, but I won’t tell you anything else that’s in it because I don’t want to take a chance on going to the pokey. But if you’re interested, and maybe want to invest a buck or two (and if you make 300 grand a year and have a million bucks in the bank you’d like to gamble), just click here and you can read it yourself. Oh, and if it’s disappeared by the time you read this, don’t worry — I’ve got a PDF. Just send me an e-mail and I’ll send it to you.

This story is an edited version of a story that appears in the July 2018 issue of Dakota Country magazine.  It’s a magazine you should be reading. You can subscribe here.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — ‘I So Declare It!’

My day started out OK this morning. My pillbox told me it was Thursday — it’s always nice to know what day of the week it is right away in the morning. I had a pretty good bowel movement — for you young readers, that‘s pretty important for someone my age. I got my belt through every belt loop but one and got my shoes on without untying them.

And then it all went to hell, when I opened the paper to see the headline screaming from the front page: “Davis Refinery permit approved.”

Yikes!

I turned the paper face down on the kitchen counter so it wouldn’t be the first thing Lillian saw before she even had a sip of coffee. And then I went and sat down on the patio and sipped my coffee and looked at the beautiful, clear blue sky over North Dakota and thought to myself, “What kind of monsters would want to do this — put an oil refinery right next to Theodore Roosevelt National Park? And what kind of state regulators would permit that to happen?”

And who, at the highest level of North Dakota state government, will step in and say, “No. We’re not going to let you do that.”

Surely, Doug Burgum, you have a soul. Surely you won’t let this happen on your watch. Surely, you don’t want this to be your legacy.

Let me ask you this, Gov. Burgum:

  • Would the state of Wyoming allow an oil refinery to be built three miles from Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park?
  • Would Montana put a refinery three miles from the Going To The Sun Highway in Glacier National Park?
  • Would Alaska permit a refinery at the base of Mount Denali? Well, maybe, Alaska is an even bigger whore to the oil industry than North Dakota. But let’s not give them any ideas.

These places — Yellowstone, Glacier, Denali, and yes, Theodore Roosevelt — these national parks are our national treasures. There are only 59 of them. The federal government — our elected Congress members and senators — agreed to protect these most spectacular places in our states, passing laws that said, “We’ll take care of what’s inside these park boundaries. Now you, people of these states, you take care to not let anything mess them up from the outside.”

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the only national park in America named for a president of the United States — in fact the only national park named for a person. That’s how revered Theodore Roosevelt is. He was afforded this honor because of his great conservation record, which includes setting aside more than 230 million acres of public land during his presidency from 1901 to 1909.

He didn’t set aside the land where Theodore Roosevelt National Park is today. That was done by Congress in 1947, to honor him. But he lived and ranched there and developed his strong conservation ethic there and said if it was not for the time he spent in the North Dakota Badlands, he never would have been president of the United States.

The National Parks Conservation Association, a national parks watchdog group, has suggested that the Health Department attach a condition to the permit — perfectly allowable in the law — requiring the refinery to undergo a PSC site review. Here’s a story with some background on that.

I asked an official with the Health Department a couple of weeks ago if they were considering attaching such a condition. He responded, “We will address the PSC siting review issue in our response to comments, which will be made available upon completion of the document.”

They did that. In response to comments requesting them to attach the condition of a site review by the PSC (you can take a look at the Health Department’s response here–look at Comment 3), the Health Department said:

“Imposing a condition in the permit to construct requiring PSC siting would not be reasonable because a permit to construct is intended to address air pollution-related issues, not siting issues. See N.D.A.C. § 33-15-14-02(9) (authorizing the Department to impose “reasonable conditions” in a permit to construct). Concerns regarding the PSC’s requirements must be addressed to the PSC.”

Well, that’s complete and total bullshit.

I did go “see N.D.A.C. § 33-15-14-02(9).” It says:

“The department may impose any reasonable conditions upon a permit to construct, including …” and then it goes on to list various things, like

  • 1. Sampling, testing, and monitoring of the facilities or the ambient air or both.
  • 2. Trial operation and performance testing.
  • 3. Prevention and abatement of nuisance conditions caused by operation of the facility.
  • 4. Recordkeeping and reporting.
  • 5. Compliance with applicable rules and regulations in accordance with a compliance schedule.
  • 6. Limitation on hours of operation, production rate, processing rate, or fuel usage when necessary to assure compliance with this article.

Well, I guess I could make a pretty good case that any refinery operating beside a national park could create “nuisance conditions,” for the park, but that should not be necessary. There’s nothing in 33-15-02(9) that says they cannot require a PSC review. They could certainly attach that condition and let Meridian challenge it in court, if they want to.

I am reminded of a story about Theodore Roosevelt. When he heard that yachtsmen in Palm Beach, Fla., were shooting brown pelicans for sport as the ponderous birds flew to their nests on a small island not far away, Roosevelt asked an aide, “Is there any law that will prevent me from declaring Pelican Island a federal bird reservation?”

“No,” the aide replied. “The island is federal property.”

“Very well, then, I so declare it.”

And that was the birth of our National Wildlife Refuge system.

If there’s nothing in state law preventing the Health Department from attaching specific conditions to a construction permit, then it should “so declare it.”

Or, if Meridian wants to be a good North Dakota corporate citizen (yeah right) they could simply comply and go through a site review, like every other major energy conversion facility in our state has done, and using the best legal and scientific methods, find out if this is really a good place for a refinery.

That’s what should happen, Gov. Burgum. Those folks over at the Health Department work for you. Call them up and insist that they attach a condition for building that refinery next to our national park requiring Meridian to go through a PSC site review. As I have written here before, there is precedent for that.

Way back in 1974, in the face of a massive development of coal gasification facilities and coal-fired electricity generating plants, with the state lacking laws to regulate things like pollution and mined-land reclamation, Gov. Art Link and his state Water Commission attached a set of conditions to water permits granted to Michigan Wisconsin Pipeline Co. and a pair of Minnesota electric cooperatives, United Power Association (UPA) and Cooperative Power Association requiring them to take substantive measures to guard against pollution and land destruction. Those conditions, later adopted by the Legislature, became what are still today, I think, the strictest land reclamation laws in the country.

The companies, of course, challenged the Water Commission’s right to attach the conditions. On behalf of the Link administration, then-State Tax Commissioner Byron Dorgan asked Attorney General Allen Olson for an attorney general’s opinion on whether such conditions were legal. Dorgan wrote:

“I know that the Water Commission and the Governor are attaching these conditions in order to provide the best possible protection for North Dakotans as a result of the approval of these projects.

“The conditions are designed to make certain that developments of the type that were approved are subject to very stringent regulations in order to protect North Dakota’s quality of life.

“However, if these conditions should not be able to stand the test of a court challenge, then we are all living with a false sense of security about these conditions.

“For this reason, I believe that the Water Commission and more importantly, the people of North Dakota, should have the opinion of the Attorney General whether the imposition of conditions attached to water permits is legally binding action that the Water Commission has the authority to take.”

Olson wrote in his opinion:

“It is our opinion that the conditions on the Michigan-Wisconsin Pipeline Company and United Power Association/Cooperative Power Association Conditional Water Permits granted by the State Engineer and approved by the State Water Commission are basically valid.”

Olson then went on to say “However, as in all such cases, the courts would make the final dispositive determination as a validity.” You can look at the full exchange here.

In the end, the courts did that. Link won his battle “to protect North Dakota’s quality of life.”

North Dakota’s leaders had balls in those days. It took a special kind of courage for Art Link and Byron Dorgan and Allen Olson to stand up to the industrial giants of their day and say “Not so fast. Let’s take a good look at this and make sure we’re doing it right.”

In the end, we got a coal gasification plant, and some power plants, built under specific conditions that protected the environment. That’s the model Gov. Burgum needs to take a good hard look at.

We can have a refinery here if we want one. And I think we do. But we can put it somewhere else, down the road, not beside the national park named for the greatest conservation politician in the history of our country.

Let’s do that.

One more thing: Shortly before 7 a.m. this morning .I sent an e-mail to Mike Nowatzki, the governor’s press person, asking for 10 minutes with the governor today to talk about this. Here’s his response:

“The Governor is completely booked today with things that can’t be changed and is not available for an interview. Below is a quote you can attribute to him.

“The North Dakota Department of Health has determined that this project is expected to comply with all applicable federal and state air pollution rules and regulations and meets the requirements for a permit to construct. The project is going through the proper regulatory authorities as prescribed in North Dakota state law, and the Governor’s Office will continue to stay apprised of its progress.”

I wonder how Art Link,  Byron Dorgan and Allen Olson would feel about a response like that.

Finally, the entire document allowing Meridian Energy Group to build a refinery next to Theodore Roosevelt National Park is available online. You can go here to look at it.

You can also take a look at Meridian’s response to the public comments received by the Health Department in this document. Pay particular attention to its response to comment 4(e). The company has the nerve to say that there is more pollution from the cars visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park each year than there will be from the refinery. They even built a fancy chart purportedly showing how much tailpipe emissions are coming from the cars visiting the park.

Great! There’s a way to protect the park. Keep everyone out.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Walk On The Wild Side — In The Bad Lands

While life at Red Oak House here on Missouri River is filled with many blessings and much happiness, as frequently as possible we refresh our spirits with visits to the Bad Lands of North Dakota, which we did early this week, joined by our daughter, Chelsea, and Paul and Joe, our friends from Arizona.

We met on the veranda of the Rough Riders Hotel to make a plan. After a quick lunch, determining that Paul had not been to the Chateau de Mores since his southwest N.D. childhood days, we went there to tour. Joe had never been. Thus it was a good way to reflect upon the founding of the town of Medora and the colorful characters who lived there in the 1880s. When Chelsea was in college, she worked at the Chateau for the summer, as part of the interpretative staff, in period costume. I’m pleased at how much she remembers.

It was a perfect late May day and the Bad Lands are very green right now. There is an array of wildflowers in bloom, including Prairie Ragwort and, my favorite, Prairie Smoke.

We spent the remainder of their two-day visit hiking Theodore Roosevelt National Park trails and driving the loop road. It was very interesting to observe the effects of the recent controlled burn, which although it might seem extreme due to the fire’s proximity to the road, close observation revealed a mosaic pattern that mimics the natural prairie fire process, effecting a relatively small percentage of the Park’s total acreage.

We observed many grazers taking advantage of the fresh green native grasses that had quickly sprouted in the wake of the fire, including a fine bull elk.

Day 2 found us taking a four-mile hike to the Petrified Forest on the park’s west side, a place neither Joe nor Paul had seen, and it was another pleasant day with temperatures in the high 70s. I pointed out to my companions that we were in the officially designated wilderness within the park. A couple of bison bulls were spotted and we gave them a sufficiently wide berth.

Although I’m fairly knowledgeable regarding prairie wildflowers, this one (right) had me stumped (although I thought it was likely a vetch). In all of the miles we hiked, I saw only this one large clump of this specimen. Later, I checked with friends, crowd-sourcing this on social media. One of my friends identified it as a Narrow-leaved Milkvetch (Astragalus pectinatus).

The dominant birds of the day were Lazuli buntings, bobolinks, meadowlarks and yellow-breasted chats. While we hiked, I taught the others some about the birds and plants and confessed to being rather a dunce when it comes to rocks.

While we hiked and chatted, we learned that our friends had never been to the Elkhorn Ranch. By Godfrey, this must be solved, we said, and off we went. The ticks were thick there and a very fine specimen of a bull snake slithered across the trail. We were pleasantly surprised to find a few other visitors who’d made the trek.

Then, it was time to return to Medora, for pizza, followed by a farewell to our good friends and trail companions, until their next visit to North Dakota.

“My home ranch-house stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cotton-woods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking-chairs (what true American does not enjoy a rocking-chair?), book in hand–though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and fro, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the after-glow of the sunset.” — Theodore Roosevelt

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Rollin’ Up Our Sleeves

It is the tradition for members of the Badlands Conservation Alliance to do a day of service, usually in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, on the weekend closest to Earth Day. On this past Saturday, we did just that, rollin’ up our sleeves for Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in the heart of the Bad Lands, our sacred landscape.

I’ve been involved with a service event on Earth Day since 1970, when we schoolkids from Rhame, N.D., picked up trash from state Highway 12 ditches. I often think back to that day.

Photo by Jim Fuglie.
Photo by Jim Fuglie.

The moment Jim and I arrived in the park, we headed straight to the banks of the Little Missouri River, as is our tradition. The river is big right now, filled with snowmelt. It drove us both a little bonkers to not be canoeing.

Duty called, and we gathered with 21 other dedicated souls in the parking area of Cottonwood Campground, where Ranger Grant expressed the gratitude of the park for our service and gave us our directions. It was a beautiful spring day, after a very long winter.

Photo by Jim Fuglie.
Photo by Jim Fuglie.

We fanned out across the campground and went to work, cleaning out the ashes from the fire grates and picking up litter and fallen branches, preparing the place for the summer camping season.

There were a few campers in one campground loop, and from these I recruited a new member, who curious about what we were up to, offered to join us in the chores. In our midst were Bart and Julie Koehler, traveling with their Scamp camper from Florida to their Alaska home, and delighted for the occasion to be with old friends in a beloved place. When all was ship-shape, we celebrated Bart’s birthday with a cake and song.

The rest of the weekend was play time for all, with drives and hikes throughout the park, where lots of wildlife was spotted. Sunday morning, Earth Day proper, Jim and I put in extra effort and located the first crocus (pasque flower) of the season.

The spring peepers were singing in the Paddock Creek wetlands, and all was well on a sunny 65-degree day with no wind. Every time we stopped, we reveled in meadowlark song.

If you are interested in joining in future BCA fun, find the details about upcoming events here.

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” — Albert Einstein

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Another Set Of Eyes On Our Wild Bad Lands

North Dakota has more than a million acres of public land, most of it in western North Dakota, our Little Missouri National Grasslands, managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Most of it is grazing land, although it’s grazed by more than cattle and sheep. Pretty much every creature that lives in North Dakota has a presence there. For some — mule deer, sharp-tailed grouse, sage grouse, prairie dogs, coyotes, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope and countless species of birds, including our state bird, the Western Meadowlark — it is critical habitat. Studies done by state and federal agencies and numerous wildlife organizations confirm that most of those species are stressed. Some are in danger.

As recently as 40 years ago, more than half of those million acres were wild lands, roadless, designated as “suitable for wilderness.” Countless species thrived there, and the human presence was infrequent and temporary, limited to those of us who wanted some form of wilderness recreation — hunting, birding, hiking, camping, canoeing, photography, or just sitting in the shade of a cottonwood tree watching fluffy white clouds float through a crystalline blue sky. And the ranchers and their cows, of course.

Then came oil. In two booms, the Billings Anticline boom of the 1970s, fueled by the creation of OPEC, and the Bakken Boom of the 21st century, a product of horizontal drilling and fracking. And there went our wilderness.

Eager to pour oil royalty dollars into the federal treasury, the government opened the grasslands to oil development, and today we have just 40,000 acres out of that million — about 4 per cent — available as “suitable for wilderness.” I’ve bemoaned these facts and numbers endlessly on this blog, and I won’t apologize because it is important to remember and realize what we have done — to the land and to the critters who live there — or used to.

So imagine my joy to hear that a new organization was making its way into North Dakota, an organization made up of people who really CARE about those public lands, and are doing things to preserve and protect them.

An e-mail from a friend in early January told me there was going to be an informational gathering — attractively called a “Pint Night,” and I know what pints are all about — in a downtown meeting room, sponsored by a group called Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. The group, my friend said, was interested in public lands in the western part of the United States and access to that land for hunting and fishing, as well as other outdoor activities.

“Oh, Damn!” I thought. Access. A bunch of crazy four-wheelers trying to find new ways to get their noisy machines into our roadless areas. I Googled them. Much to my surprise, it turns out just the opposite — the group wants to protect public lands and maintain habitat for the birds and animals who live there.

Keeping wild places like this wild is the goal of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. (Photo by Bill Kingsbury)
Keeping wild places like this wild is the goal of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. (Photo by Bill Kingsbury)

The “access” issue they’re talking about is dealing with the purchase of large tracts of private lands, blocking gateways into these public areas — a more and more common practice across America’s West these days. Well, I thought, hooray for them. At the appointed hour on the appointed night, I drove to downtown Bismarck to learn more about these people.

As I walked through the door and looked around the room, I got the feeling that about half of all the testosterone in North Dakota was gathered in one place. Perhaps 50 or 60 young men — big, strong, young men, most between the ages of 25 and 40, I’d guess, not the paunchy aging baby boomers we’re used to seeing at wildlife club meetings and DU banquets — had gathered to learn about these Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

The uniform of the evening was plaid flannel shirts, jeans and well-worn boots, and most were wearing baseball caps (with the brims pointed forward), with a smattering of battered cowboy hats. And there were a few women, also dressed like they were ready to venture outdoors, with their husbands or boyfriends, or on their own.

The men and women were leaning casually against the walls of the room, almost all holding a bottle of beer, and a few sat at scattered tables, listening to a fellow,  dressed like they were, talking about organizing to influence public officials.

BHA’s trademark is these “Pint Nights,” a familiar scene in the 34 states and two Canadian provinces that already have their own chapters of the organization (including South Dakota), dedicated to the protection of public lands and waters and providing responsible access to those lands and waters for Americans who want to enjoy our country’s great outdoor resources.

I’ve been a member of a lot of conservation, sporting and outdoors organizations (and now a member of this one), but this was the first I had heard of BHA. Founded in 2004 by small group of Montanans who saw a lot of problems with the management of our nation’s wild places and public lands, they came up with an idea for addressing the problems. They set out to create a grass-roots organization focused not on protecting one specific species, river or hunting area but on ecosystem-wide conservation across the continent. They wanted to create a voice for the silent wilderness. A wilderness they enjoyed as hunters and anglers.

Today they have grown an organization approaching 20,000 members. BHA President and CEO Land Tawney (yes, that’s his real name), who was the one speaking that January night in Bismarck, and at subsequent gatherings in Fargo and Minot, to help launch a North Dakota BHA chapter, told me later that North Dakota’s been on his radar for a while, and now volunteers have stepped forward to help get it going.

South Dakota’s chapter was formed in 2017, rallying around the issue of stopping the transfer of Black Hills National Forest land to the state for creation of a park in Spearfish Canyon. So far, they’ve succeeded, but the issue is long from resolved. One of the chapter’s founders, Jessie Kurtenbach of Deadwood, S.D., said the group will continue to work to protect Spearfish Canyon and is also deeply involved in the South Dakota meandered lakes law controversy, as well as working to protect all of South Dakota’s 2.6 million acres of public land.

In North Dakota, two volunteer co-chairs, Russ Senske of Bismarck and Adam Leitschuh of Minot, have started organizing a chapter whose initial mission, Senske says, is to promote responsible use of North Dakota’s Little Missouri National Grasslands. The key word there is “responsible.”

Tawney and the North Dakota men, Senske and Leitschuh, are concerned about our federal roadless areas, and stress their importance to men and women who enjoy the outdoors.

“Theodore Roosevelt came here to find solace as a young man, and this is where he developed his conservation ethic,” Tawney told me. “He preserved a lot of wild lands. We’re not making wild lands any more. We need to protect what we have.”

Tawney, a native Montanan and wildlife biologist with a B.S. degree from the University of Montana (and, he says, a Ph.D. in Post Hole Digging while fencing in the family quarter horses and mules), is a veteran of the conservation battles, spending time with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the National Wildlife Federation before coming to  BHA in 2013.

Both he and Senske stressed that stopping the illegal use of off-highway vehicles in the National Grasslands is a priority. Senske, a Wisconsin native and restoration ecologist by training who works as an environmental scientist for the North Dakota Department of Transportation, said increased signage in the grasslands is a high priority, with an eye to protecting sensitive wildlife habitat. Wetland wildlife habitat and enhancement of the PLOTS program will also be high on the priority list in North Dakota.

Additionally, at the federal level, Tawney says BHA maintains a presence in Washington, D.C. to keep an eye on outdoors issues, like monitoring attacks on the Clean Water Act and preserving and enhancing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a key funding source for outdoor recreation and habitat improvement in both Dakotas.

All the organization’s leaders stressed the importance of keeping young people involved in issues concerning outdoor recreation. “We do reach out to a new generation of sportsmen and women, using a lot of social media,” Tawney said. “I think young people today like the fact we call it like we see it — we stand up for the resource.”

Senske said the North Dakota group will be submitting a formal letter of intent to form a BHA chapter here in April, and they hope to have an active chapter here soon after that.

Anyone looking for more information, or who wants to become a member (dues are just $25 per year and that include a subscription to a slick quarterly magazine), can look at the organization’s website, backcountryhunters.org (just click to go there). North Dakotans who want to talk to someone about being part of the new chapter can send an e-mail to backcountryhuntersnd@outlook.com.

The organization is a welcome addition to both the Dakotas. Our public lands need all the friends they can get. As Tawney says, they’re not making wild land any more.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Wild Lands In North Dakota: A Red-letter Day In North Dakota History

Today was a red-letter today in North Dakota history, specifically N.D. conservation history.

This morning, at the Bismarck Public Library, the film “Keeping All the Pieces” was released by the Badlands Conservation Alliance and the North Dakota Wildlife Federation. Presented by Jan Swenson, BCA executive director, and Mike McEnroe, of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation, this 15-minute film dramatically captures the critical stage we find ourselves in with respect to the Bad Lands landscape and the future of this hauntingly beautiful place.

Jan Swenson (left) and Mike McEnroe introduce the film "Keeping All the Pieces," released by the Badlands Conservation Alliance and the North Dakota Wildlife Federation.
Jan Swenson (left) and Mike McEnroe introduce the film “Keeping All the Pieces,” released by the Badlands Conservation Alliance and the North Dakota Wildlife Federation.

Many North Dakotans stepped up for interviews in this film, sharing their deeply felt personal perspectives and concerns. In the months leading up to this release, Swenson and McEnroe have shown the film in communities across the state to more than a thousand interested parties. Now the film is out there for everyone to see. I urge you to watch it and to share it with your family and friends.

From the flyer available at today’s release:

“The Badlands are in crisis. Ninety-five percent of the Little Missouri National Grassland is open for oil and gas development. The future of the Badlands should be a decision made by the people, not the oil industry.”

This landscape is the heart of my personal geography, my sense of place. I grew up in rural Slope County, in the southern portion of the Little Missouri National Grassland. Jim and I have been working on these issues for decades, with BCA and other organizations, and in his entries on his blog. Together, on our own, or with friends and family, we’ve spent countless days and nights in the Bad Lands, camping, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, star-gazing, birding and hunting. As Swenson says in the press release for this film, “We do this now or we lose our Badlands.”

Also on my mind are two publications that were released some time ago, documenting the lands worth saving and calling for more permanent protections. The first was “Badlands on the Brink: North Dakota Wilderness and Wild and Scenic River Proposal,” published by the Teddy Roosevelt Group of the Sierra Club in May 1993. I hope to have a link to the pdf of this proposal in the future to post on this blog, as copies are difficult to locate.

The second is a document that I contributed to, along with Jan Swenson, Bart Koehler, Kirk Koepsel, Carol Jean Larson, Larry Nygaard, Mary Sand, Wayde Schafer and Webster Swenson. “Prairie Legacy Wilderness: North Dakota’s Citizen’s Proposal for Wilderness on the Dakota Prairie Grasslands” is a proposal by the North Dakota Wilderness Coalition, a broad variety of N.D. citizen organizations, made up of people who believe that the remaining fragments of wild lands in North Dakota are deserving of lasting protection. It was published in February 2008 and is available on the Badlands Conservation Alliance webpage by following this link.

What is important in this issue to remember is this: In the early 1970s, 500,000 acres of the Little Missouri National Grassland qualified for wilderness designation, By 1993, when “Badlands on the Brink” was published, only slightly more than 150,000 acres of potential wilderness remained. By the time “Prairie Legacy Wilderness” was released, less than 40,000 eligible acres remained wild.

“If we the public are not engaged, we likely will not like the results 10, 20 and 30 years from now.” Jan Swenson, BCA Press Release Feb. 1, 2018

Please get involved in these discussions. View the film. Join a N.D. conservation organization that is actively working on these issues. Make your voice heard for wild North Dakota lands to endure for the enjoyment of future generations.

My heartfelt thanks to Jan Swenson, Mike McEnroe and everyone else who contributed to the making of this fine film. I will confess that when I was shown an early version of this moving film, I shed tears.

“… where Nature can heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”
John Muir

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Mother-Daughter Date To Theodore Roosevelt National Park

My daughter and I had a Theodore Roosevelt National Park getaway Thursday. She hadn’t been out there since Labor Day, and she described the day as “rejuvenating.”

She loves the Bad Lands as much as I, and she is particularly in love with the wild horses that inhabit the South Unit of TRNP. She is a photographer and a member of the group North Dakota Badlands Horse. This nonprofit organization publishes an annual guide to the horses and my daughter, Chelsea Sorenson, has had her photographs featured in the 2017 and 2018 guides.

Thursday was a very monochromatic day in the park, with overcast skies, but not a breath of wind. There were very few other visitors, and the entire loop road was open, something very unusual this winter as it has been closed most previous winters. In addition to seeing 50 horses, we spotted a few bison and some activity in the prairie dog towns. We also saw several hawks, six wild turkeys, lots of magpies and two golden eagles perched on a clay butte. A bald eagle flyby was the day’s finale.

The highlight of the day was that she got to see a stallion she’d never seen before, which is pretty remarkable considering all of the hours she’s spent at the park.

Here are some of Chelsea’s photographs from the day. You can follow her work on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at Wild Dakota Photos.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — ‘The Hour of Land’

“The Hour of Land: a Personal Topography of America’s National Parks,” Terry Tempest Williams (Sarah Crichton Book, 2016).

The National Park Service observed its centennial in 2016. During this year, writer Terry Tempest Williams published “The Hour of Land,” her personal journey and meditation on the national parks, essays written as she traveled the country visiting some of the iconic sites that so define this country.

“There are few contemporary nonfiction writers who can capture the essence of the American wilderness landscape as eloquently and intimately as Williams. Noted for writing about the American West, her distinctive prose style is capable of conveying a deep spiritual dimension within the physical setting. This is very much in evidence in her latest book, a broadly ambitious and deeply impassioned collection of essays on a select group of settings within the national park system.” — Kirkus Reviews.

Lillian with Terry Tempest Williams at Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit, Summer 2016. (Photo by Jim Fuglie.)
Lillian with Terry Tempest Williams at Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit, Summer 2016. (Photo by Jim Fuglie.)

Williams, the writer of many books and a personal friend of mine, is one of the most eloquent voices writing about American lands in this time. One of the early chapters of this book features the previous Superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Valerie Naylor, and thus the challenges that are so familiar to readers of Wild Badlands. When Williams was a guest speaker at TRNP during the anniversary celebrations, the house was packed and her warm wisdom kept everyone enthralled.

When I am feeling discouraged about the challenges that the Bad Lands face, I often turn to her writing to ground me and give me courage and fortitude. Hers is an excellent voice to join with those of BCA, and this book is a gem I give my highest recommendation.

This book review was published in “Wild Badlands: Badlands Conservation Alliance Newsletter,” Autumn 2017, No. 42.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — The Elkhorn Ranch: A Love Letter

In the last days of 2016, Jim and I sent a handwritten letter to President Barack Obama, a heartfelt plea to him to act in his last days to protect the Elkhorn Ranch. We were inspired to do this after a Christmas winter campout to that area. Here is a two-part series Jim wrote about that campout: Camping at the Elkhorn Part 1 and Camping at the Elkhorn Part 2.

We carefully chose a card from the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation and used a Theodore Roosevelt National Park postage stamp on the envelope. From a lifetime of knowledge of this landscape, we drew by hand the map upon, which we overlaid a vision for the protection of this heartbreakingly beautiful and important place. It is our Love Letter to the Elkhorn Ranch.

We put it in the mail and then braced ourselves for the inauguration of a new president, fearful that conservation would take a backseat to the interests of the captains of industry and finance, profits above all. The sun kept coming up in the east and North Dakota inaugurated a new governor, Doug Burgum. We even attended his inauguration ball and talked to him about Bad Lands wilderness proposals at this festive event.

And as each week passed by, we kept on reading our emails, and going to meetings, and writing letters, and writing blogs, all for the protection of wild places in the Bad Lands of North Dakota.

Occasionally, I wondered whatever happened to that note, and I’ll admit that I hoped that it would find a home in the Obama Presidential Library.

On Monday, as is true on every day but Sunday, our friendly mail carrier, Jamie, dropped a stack of envelopes into our slot. I collected and sorted through those. Lo and behold, here was a letter from Barack Obama, a reply to our card. Here it is, to Jim and Lillian. My sense of hope, for just this moment, is restored.

If this story inspires you just one tiny bit, please consider writing a letter to the current president. You never know what might change the course of history.