JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Donald Trump, Harold Hamm And Kevin Cramer

Most of my Democratic friends have a hard time understanding why I like Kevin Cramer. I think it’s because they’ve never been a part of a brotherhood. Let me explain.

I’m was thinking about this Wednesday because of Gary Emineth’s announcement Tuesday that Kevin Cramer would run for the U.S. Senate against Heidi Heitkamp. Thanks for that, Gary. I’m sure Kevin is grateful as well. Saved him a whole bunch of time and trouble putting together an announcement statement and lining up a place for a press conference and notifying the media and all the rigamarole that goes with announcing a campaign.

A couple of my Republican friends told me they are disappointed in the way things turned out. I think they wanted Emineth to run and Kevin to stay in the House. Well, me too. More about that in a minute.

I’ll give you a couple of names of people who are not disappointed.

Hey, Kevin …

Donald Trump and Harold Hamm. The two of them were the most instrumental in getting Kevin to change his mind, after he announced he would seek re-election to the House and not make the race for the Senate. Both put some persuasive pressure on Kevin to run against Heidi, but I’m told it was Hamm who closed the deal, after Trump had called Kevin and been turned down.

Harold Hamm, the deal closer.

I don’t know what Hamm promised, but it must have been significant, because Kevin was pretty sure, to the point of a public announcement, he would seek re-election to what most people consider a safe seat, and now he’s giving up a lot of security on a big gamble.

Well, of course, as of today this is all speculation, because there’s no formal announcement yet from Kevin, and likely no one except Harold and Kevin know what the deal was.

Kevin Cramer — an unlikely senator.
Kevin Cramer — an unlikely senator.

I’m disappointed because I’ve considered Kevin a friend for many years, and I don’t like it when my friends lose elections, no matter what party they belong to. And he’s pretty likely going to lose against Heidi. Which is OK, I guess. Even good, in fact, because Heidi’s been my friend longer than Kevin, and we all know the importance of seniority in politics.

I’ve known Heidi since her 1984 campaign for North Dakota State auditor. Anybody else remember that? I got to know Kevin in 1992, when he was chairman and executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party. He was a good one, unlike most of those party hacks who preceded him. But I need to back up a minute.

I had the job of executive director of the other party, the Democratic-NPL Party, in 1984, the year Bud Sinner got elected governor. I’m not boasting when I say I played a pretty significant role in his election.

After the election, as his transition team began filling available jobs in the Capitol, I got a call from Joe Lamb, who was chairing the transition team, asking me if I wanted a job in government. I said I was pretty happy with what I was doing, but if it meant a pay raise, I’d consider it.

I considered it, but I stayed on in my job with the Democratic-NPL Party until summer, meanwhile looking around at what might be the best job in state government that I dared ask for. I found one. I called Chuck Fleming, who had been Sinner’s campaign manager and then became his chief of staff in the governor’s office, and said a really cool job would be the manager of Lake Metigoshe State Park. I loved parks, and I loved camping, and I loved the Turtle Mountains, and I told Chuck that if I could manage a whole state political party, surely I could manage one square mile in the Turtle Mountains. Chuck said he would see what he could do.

A few days later he called me back and said, “Sorry, but you have to be QUALIFIED to get that job.” Turns out it is a civil service position that falls under the state’s personnel system, not subject to patronage. Dang.

But Chuck had another idea. He said I might make a pretty good State Tourism director, and that job might come available. Well, I didn’t know much about tourism, but I knew enough about marketing, which was what the job was all about, and apparently you didn’t have to be QUALIFIED to take THAT job, so I took it.

I wasn’t prepared for the phone call the next day from a reporter from The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead asking me what my qualifications were to be Tourism director. I stammered out something like “Well, I know the state pretty well, and I’ve camped in every state park in North Dakota …”

The answer looked pretty lame in the paper the next day, but somehow I got by that and had a fun seven  years in the Tourism Office.

Fast-forward to November 1992. I resigned from the Tourism Office that fall, and Ed Schafer got elected governor. Not long after the election, I ran into Kevin Cramer at lunch time at the Peacock Alley in downtown Bismarck, and I congratulated him on a great campaign and on getting Ed, who I liked immensely (and who I had voted for), elected governor.

And I said that now precedent had been set — Sinner got elected on my watch, and I became Tourism director — so now it was his turn. And I said, it is the best job in state government (way better than being a state park manager).

Well, it took Kevin a few months to warm to the idea, but eventually he did it, and held that post a few years, joining the Brotherhood of North Dakota Tourism directors. I was only the fourth person to hold that job in the state’s history, and Kevin became the sixth. Ed kept Tracy Potter, who was Deputy Tourism director when I was there, in the job on an interim basis, until Kevin was ready to leave his post with the party and go to work in government, so Tracy was fifth.

The rest is history. Kevin did a fine job, got promoted to Economic Development director, ran for Congress a couple of times and lost (if you went through his bank statements from his 1996 and 1998 campaigns, you’d find a couple of checks from me in there — sorry, Earl), and he finally did get elected to Congress a dozen or so years later.

He should stay there. He can continue to make as many BAD votes there as he wants to without really doing any harm. Although young Ben Hanson, the Democrat running for that job, would give him a pretty good run for his money. It’s going to be a darn good year for Democrats, and Ben’s a darn good candidate, and you never know …

What I do know is that Ben is the third person, behind Trump and Hamm, who’s really happy to see Kevin make the jump, if that is what happens this week. His job as a candidate just got a whole lot easier, no matter who the Republicans run for that seat.

Questions remain.

  • What of Tom Campbell, the only other serious Republican in the Senate race? He’s rich and could primary Cramer, just like Cramer primaried Brian Kalk six years ago. If not, Campbell could run for the House.
  • But who else might want that House seat? Maybe someone who had it once before, like Rick Berg? That could make for an interesting state convention, and/or primary.
  • And what of Gary Emineth? Well, he’s embarrassed the party by calling the president of the United States (not the current one, but if the shoe fits …) a Piece Of Shit in a Facebook post and might be tempted, but he’s unlikely to get a party endorsement any more. That’s why he pulled out of the Senate race and made Kevin’s announcement for him.

Could I make a prediction? Well, partly. Anticipating this possibility, young Ben Hanson got out there really early and pretty much has a lock on the Democratic-NPL slot. Smart kid. But an open seat for Congress could draw a flood of Republicans to the race. I wouldn’t be surprised to see as many as half a dozen.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves in this Senate race. Let’s wait for Kevin to come home and talk to us.

To paraphrase Priscilla Alden, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, Kevin?”

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie —A Short Message About Our National Park

This might be the shortest blog post I’ve ever written. Or will ever write. But it’s an important one, so if you are concerned about the possibility of an oil refinery being built next to Theodore Roosevelt National Park as I am, please take just one minute to read it.

I had a chance encounter with Gov. Doug Burgum this weekend. We had a lengthy, frank and off-the-record discussion about the Davis refinery.

Off-the-record, but I think I can share a few things with you after the conversation without him objecting.

First, I don’t think the governor wants an oil refinery next to our national park any more than you and I do, but I believe he is committed to letting the regulatory process play out, without interfering with his agencies.

Second, I think that he believes, as do many of us, that there will be a legal process before construction begins on the refinery and that he is committed to letting that legal process play out as well.

And third, if the refinery gets its permits and survives a legal challenge, I am starting to get the feeling that we might be able to convince the governor to intervene personally with the company and try to get them to move it away from the park.

To convince him, we need to let the governor know that we will support any efforts he undertakes to get the company to move the refinery away from the national park by sending him an e-mail at governor@nd.gov. We can do that now, or we can do that after the legal process is over. But now might be better.

To quote my new online friend and fellow blogger, Judge Tom Davies: Amen.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Buying Newspapers From A Skunk

I’m about to break two rules.

  • Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel.
  • Never get in a pissing match with a skunk.

This one’s a two’fer because it’s the skunk that buys ink by the barrel.

The skunk is The Bismarck Tribune, which has just pulled off the slickest “bait-and-switch” gambit I’ve seen in a long, long time, and somebody ought to go to the pokey. Or at least they need to get reported to the Better Business Bureau, which I will probably do.

Here’s a summary of what they just did:

On Jan. 16, I got a letter from the Tribune telling me the cost of my subscription was going up, from $42.50 per month to $51, a 20 percent price increase. It was the fourth price increase in 2½ years, going from 28 bucks and change in 2015 to $51, an increase of more than 80 percent.

I decided the value wasn’t there at that price and called them and canceled. Three days later, on Jan. 19, I got an e-mail from the Tribune telling me I could call them to discuss getting a subscription for “as low as $45 a month” or I could sign up on line for three, six or 12 months at $47 per month. I declined. I was still angry.

A couple of days later, I was talking to a friend and he said he had canceled his subscription, too, and they had offered him a rate of $37.50 to get him back, and he took it. He said I should call them back. So I did — on Jan. 23.

Sure enough, they said they would give me a lower rate, $39.50, which confirmed how arbitrary their rate schedule is. I now had offers at $45, $47 and $39.50. And my friend was getting it at $37.50. I said OK, I’ll take the $39.50, and I’d like to give them a credit card number and pay for a year in advance at that rate. The nice lady on the phone said no, you have to pay month to month. Uh oh. Red flag.

I said I’d really like to pay for a year in advance, so we don’t have to have this conversation again next month. “Oh, it won’t be that soon,” she replied.

She lied. Six days.

On Jan. 29, just six days after I signed up to subscribe at $39.50 a month, they sent me a letter that said “effective Feb. 24, 2018, your subscription rate will change to $47.50 per month.”

WTF? How can any business pull a sleazy trick like that? Sell me something at one price, and then raise the price 20 percent six days later. I’m tempted to tell them to cancel my subscription right now.

But damn, I’m going to feel really bad about not getting my local paper. I’ve always been fascinated by newspapers. My mother said that I was reading the Minneapolis Tribune Sunday paper before I was in school. Somewhere in old photo files there’s a picture of me propped up against the dining room furnace register (my favorite winter reading place) when I was 6 or 7 years old reading the Sunday paper.

When I was 12 or 13, I inherited the job of actually delivering the Sunday Minneapolis Tribune in Hettinger, N.D., when the longtime carrier, whose name I forget now — if it was you, and you’re reading this, please remind me — outgrew it.

I met the train every Sunday about 6 a.m. pulling a wagon in the summer and a sled in the winter and picked up the big bundle of Minneapolis Sunday Tribunes the station agent pulled from the boxcar and dropped on the platform  somewhere around 50 or 60 of them, I think — and trudged around town as fast as my short little Norwegian legs would take me, delivering the news to my customers before they went to church.

Once a month, I’d knock on doors after school and collect a buck or so from each customer and put the money in a cigar box in my room at home. Three or four times a year, my paper boss, Reuben Schumacher from Dickinson, N.D., would drive to town and we’d sit down and count out the money I owed him, and I got to keep the rest. If I was lucky, there would be $5 or even $10 in that box for me, for my Sunday morning efforts.

I did that for four or five years, until I was well into high school and I was old enough to get a regular part-time job and turned the newspaper carrier job over to someone younger than me, allowing me to sleep off my occasional Sunday morning beer hangover.

Also, in my last couple of years in high school, I got the job as sports editor of the Hettinger Hi-Lites, the school newspaper. I discovered I was a pretty good writer. In addition to writing stories about all of our school’s sports teams, my first real paying job was ghost-writing Michele Clement’s stories for the paper.

Bob Plum, the newspaper adviser, had kind of a journalism class, and if we worked for the paper, we got some credit. Michele and I grew up together. Our dads were golfing and fishing and hunting buddies (someday I’m going to write some stories about them) and our moms were both pudgy little women named Phyllis. Michele and I were good friends — not girlfriend-boyfriend, but good friends — and she either didn’t like to write or wasn’t good at it. So whenever we got an assignment, she paid me $5 to write it for her. Worked out great, except at the end of the year, she got an A and I got a B.  Both Michele and Bob are dead now, so I can tell that story without recrimination.

I knew in high school I wanted to do journalism as a career. In the high school yearbook, under my photo it says, “his ambition is to be a reporter.” And so I was.

I went away to college and became sports editor of the college paper my freshman year. Then I took a Friday and Saturday night job at The Dickinson Press, answering the phone calls from high school coaches with results of their games and writing one-paragraph blurbs for the paper the next day.

Within a year I was sports editor of the daily paper, and to make a long story short, I spent nine of my first 13 years after high school working for newspapers, sandwiched around a four-year stint as a U.S. Navy photographer. Living my dream.

But I finally figured out there was more money to be made in public relations, so I left the newspapers and had a 30-year career doing various things in that field. But always I had a keen interest in newspapers. I got that, I guess, from my mom and dad, who were newspaper readers as well. In Hettinger, we got the Bismarck Tribune delivered to our door every evening. Harry Samdal brought it from Bismarck on his regular bus route, and one of his boys delivered it, I think. So I’ve probably been reading the Bismarck Tribune for close to 60 years.

It hasn’t always been the best paper around, but it was the only one, so I’ve kept up my subscription since I moved to the Bismarck-Mandan area in 1976. It was still an afternoon paper then, but switched to a morning paper sometime in the early 1980s, I think. I don’t know what I paid for it back then, but what I’m paying for it right now brings me back to the point of this story.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been surprised to learn that most of my friends don’t subscribe to the paper anymore. Their complaints are about quality and price. Mostly quality. And bias. Frankly, it hasn’t been a very good paper lately.

Some of my friends look at the online edition, but most get their national news from the Washington Post or the New York Times online, and their North Dakota news from the website of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, and local news from social media and broadcast outlets and their websites. None of them miss getting the paper, they tell me.

But Lillian and I really like to read a paper with breakfast — we’ve been doing it all these years, and we’re kind of news junkies, and just the idea of starting our day without a newspaper doesn’t work for us. So we’ve bitched and kept on paying the $42.50 a month — $510 a year — for our morning newspaper. It had just about reached my limit of affordability but passed my limit of value when the price was jacked to $612.

But now it isn’t just about the money, which at my new rate is $570 a year. It’s about the way the newspaper operates. Lillian and I have to decide if we want to do business with a company like that, one that employs bait and switch as a standard business practice.

As I said, I’ll feel bad if we have to cancel. I believe in newspapers — and the role they play in society. I don’t want them to go away. As the Washington Post says at the top of its front page every day, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

There are lots of really good people working at newspapers. Dedicated journalists, albeit overworked. And there are a whole bunch of people who get up at 3 or 4 in the morning seven days a week, to deliver papers, rain or shine, for I’m sure slave’s wages, but they need the money. For some, it’s all they have. For others, it’s what they do before they go to their other job at 8 a.m. I have great respect and admiration for them.

But I no longer have any respect for Bismarck Tribune management, or that of their parent company, Lee Enterprises. If newspapers are a dying industry, it’s because of managers like theirs, not because of online competition. We’ll decide what to do in a couple of weeks. Damn, that’s a hard decision.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Thoughts Of Spring, Tomatoes And Peppers On A Cold Winter Day

Note: I am reprinting (reposting?) below a story I first ran three years ago this week. It’s about tomatoes. I was thinking about it because today I am preparing my basement “greenhouse” for spring.

I’m getting ready to plant peppers, which need to be started indoors really early because they take a long time to ripen on the bush. We harvested about three dozen last fall, but last fall was an exception because we never got a hard frost in all of September, so we were able to leave them on the plants to ripen until Oct. 8, the day before the Weather Service warned us it was going to freeze.

Most of them still hadn’t turned from green to red or yellow or orange, like they are supposed to, at that time, so we put them in tightly closed big paper grocery bags (they’ll give you some at Dan’s Supermarket if you don’t have any) with a banana and an apple, and sat them in a warm place inside, and in about 10 days they had turned beautiful colors and were pretty much all ripe. Apples and bananas give off ethylene gas, which helps ripen other fruits, like peppers. And you can make banana bread or apple crisp when you’re done.

But this year, I’m going to try to avoid the need to do that, by starting my peppers indoors next week, on Feb. 15, a month ahead of my tomatoes. The plants will be pretty big by the time I put them outside about May 15, but I have plenty of room inside, so it will be a grand experiment.

By the way, in case you’re wondering what I did with more than 30 sweet bell peppers last October, let me share a tip. I cut the tops off, scooped out the seeds and the membranes, and blanched them in boiling water for 5 minutes. Then after cooling them in ice water, I drained them and dried them with a dish towel and put them on cookie sheets and put them in the freezer. When they were frozen, I transferred them to big Ziploc bags. We’ve been eating stuffed peppers, which we love, all winter. This year, I’m going to try roasting some before I freeze them. I think they’ll be good in salads, soups and on pizza.

Anyway, this started out to be a reprint of my story about Golden Bison tomatoes, which, by the way, turned out to be a big hit, not just at our house but with lots of friends to whom I have given plants. I’ve been saving my own seeds every year since 2015, and I’ll start a bunch this year, too. If you want a plant or two, come by the house about May 15. Here’s the Golden Bison story. Oh, and Happy  Belated Birthday, Clay.

*********

Here’s a story about the best customer service ever. Even better than the lady who almost bankrupted Herberger’s.

It started last March when Lillian and I attended a presentation by Robert Hanna of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation at the former North Dakota Governor’s Mansion.

Robert’s Foundation has taken over the interpretation of the Oscar H. Will Seed Co., and has a display of the company’s early products at their Interpretive Center in Washburn, N.D. That cold March night, Robert spent about an hour telling us about the Will company, complete with displays of seed packets sold by the company more than 100 years ago. (For a brief history of the company, founded here in the 1880s, go here.)

What caught our attention was a handout Robert gave us at the end of the session, listing the various places you still could purchase seeds once sold by the Will Co. We read that a company in Oregon had preserved one of Will’s heirloom tomato varieties called Golden Bison. We ordered some of the seeds last spring, planted them, and they were our best-producing tomato last summer. And early. We were eating them Aug. 12. And they kept producing right up until freeze-up.

Fast forward to Jan. 21 when I got a call from my friend, Sheila (pronounced Shy-la), inviting me to a birthday party — a small, intimate dinner she and our friend, Valerie, were hosting on Feb. 4 for our friend Clay. Clay was going to turn 60 that day, so she said that, for a present, we should bring 60 of something. That’s Sheila.

We puzzled over it for a bit. Clay likes wine and books, but 60 bottles of wine or six 10-year-old bottles of wine were a bit out of our price range, even if we could find them, and 60 books would be insignificant in that house of his with thousands of books, even if we could find 60 he hadn’t read, which is unlikely, unless there are 57 more books in the “50 Shades of Grey” series.

But almost simultaneously, Lillian and I hit on the perfect solution: Seeds. And not just any seeds. 60 Golden Bison heirloom tomato seeds. Golden Bison tomatoes were bred in North Dakota in 1932 by horticulturist A. F.  Yeager at the North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University, winner of four straight national football championships — sorry, couldn’t resist). Yeager was a pioneer in developing tomato strains for the northern tier of states, with short growing seasons. He did much of his research in Bottineau County, North Dakota, which is about as “northern” as you can get and still be in the U.S. He is credited with developing 14 varieties of tomatoes. I don’t know what happened to the other 13, but the identity of Golden Bison has been preserved all these 80-plus years, and they are great tomato plants, as I mentioned earlier. You can read about them by going here.

You should know that you can’t just buy any old ordinary seeds for Clay. He is a devout North Dakotan and personifies all things Dakota. The Golden Bison would be perfect for him.  The problem was, we didn’t have any, and time was short. We thought we could just write up a card saying they had been ordered and were on their way, and give it to him, which would have been fine, but not great.

So, Jan. 24, I went to the website of Adaptive Seeds and pulled up the order form for Golden Bison, and ordered three packets, each of which had 30 seeds — two for Clay (60 total) and one for us. When I clicked on “checkout,” there was a message that said they were really busy this time of the year, and we should allow a few weeks for delivery. That was OK because we were just going to give him the card with the note anyway.

But down at the bottom of the order form was a box that said “Comments welcome.” So I thought, what the heck, I’ll send them a note. I wrote that the seeds were for a birthday present  for a friend having a 60th birthday on Feb. 4 and that their Golden Bison seeds would be  special for him because they were bred in North Dakota, and he was a true North Dakotan, and if there was any way they could get the seeds to us before Feb. 4, that would be appreciated, but if not, that was OK, too. I pushed “send” about 6 p.m. Saturday evening, Jan. 24.

On Jan. 27, the mailman brought us a manila envelope full of seeds from Adaptive Seeds, postmarked on their end Jan. 25. Sunday. The day after I had ordered them at 6 o’clock in the evening.

Inside were three packets of Golden Bison tomato seeds. Along with most of our other garden seeds for the year — I had liked their website so well — it was so friendly — that I decided to just forget the other 32 or so seed catalogs we had on the shelf and get most of this year’s stuff from them.

Here’s some of the seed catalogs we got so far this year. I have never ordered from most of these, so all I can think of is they swap mailing lists. I’m not complaining. They brighten up otherwise dreary winter days when they come in the mail.
Here’s some of the seed catalogs we got so far this year. I have never ordered from most of these, so all I can think of is they swap mailing lists. I’m not complaining. They brighten up otherwise dreary winter days when they come in the mail.

So there were carrot seeds, beans, mesclun, basil, lettuce, sugar snap peas, radishes and three other varieties of tomatoes. The whole order, most of what we would need for this summer’s garden, was just a shade over $50.

At the bottom of the receipt, it said the order was processed at 5:13 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015. Just 23 hours after I had ordered.

But the best thing was the handwritten note at the bottom of the receipt. It said “Thanks for your order! I hope your friend has a Happy Birthday. Happy sowing. Sarah” Accompanied by a drawing of a happy face.

Seeds ordered from Oregon on Saturday night. Seeds delivered to Bismarck on Tuesday afternoon. That is incredible customer service. Generally, when you buy things online, there is little or no human contact. One computer talking to another. Not with Adaptive Seeds. They have real people there. Real friendly people.

Better yet, to paraphrase, the proof of the tomatoes is in the eating. We ate them last year, and they were great. Even better than that, they are North Dakota bred, identity preserved, heirloom  tomatoes.

When we gave them to Clay on Wednesday night, we offered to start some for him when we start ours in March because we know he is on the road a lot. We’re going to start a whole bunch anyway. So, if you are in Bismarck, or close by, and you want a couple plants, let me know,  and come by May 15 to pick them up. That’s the day we plant outside. We’ll have plenty.

Or, you can just go to the Adaptive Seed website, order some, along with your other garden seeds, and start your own. As Sarah would say, “Happy Sowing.”

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Should A Governor Take Free Super Bowl Tickets?

I just read on The Forum’s website that Gov. Doug Burgum is taking free tickets to the Super Bowl. “Burgum and first lady, Kathryn Helgaas Burgum, will be attending the game at the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis as guests of Xcel Energy, which leases a suite at the venue, Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki said.”

“’So they are not paying for their tickets,’ he said.”

Really? Burgum’s going to do that?

Now I understand why there is a petition being circulated to create a North Dakota Ethics Commission. I’ve been skeptical of that idea. No more.

Xcel Energy, one of the biggest corporations in one of the most highly regulated industries in North Dakota, is paying for tickets for the Super Bowl for not just our state’s top elected official, but also HIS WIFE.

Well isn’t that special. Y’know, there ought to be a law. Especially when it involves Xcel. The company has long been in a dispute with North Dakota regulators — read governors — over whether North Dakota customers should have to pay higher rates for electricity because Xcel is moving more of its power generation in Minnesota to higher cost renewable sources. The conflict has been in and out of court for many years, as well as the subject of discussion between Xcel and our regulators — read, the governor.

So Sunday, in a fancy suite overlooking the biggest sporting event of the year, Xcel executives are going to say “Now, now, Gov. Burgum, don’t you worry your pretty little head about those electricity rates. You don’t live in Fargo any more, you’re out in Bismarck, in MDU territory now, so it doesn’t affect you anymore. Here have some more champagne and cheer for your favorite team today. Wait! What? You’re cheering for the Eagles?”

I am reminded of the summer of 1991, when Tracy Potter and I were working for the North Dakota Tourism office, and our ad agency called and said they had two tickets for the U.S. Open Golf Tournament that was being played in Minneapolis, and they wanted us to use them. They knew Tracy and I were golf nuts and that we would really like to go to see all the famous golfers playing in the biggest golf tournament of the year in America.

Well, I was pretty nervous about taking them. So I called the attorney general, Nick Spaeth, and asked him if it was OK to do that. Nick said it was a bad idea. We could take them, he said, but we should pay for them, to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

Well, we did that. They weren’t cheap, but Tracy and I figured that opportunities like this don’t come along very often, so we splurged, paid the ad agency what they had paid for the tickets and went to the tournament. And we paid our own expenses. And we felt good about that, and we never regretted doing that.

(Aside — we were walking alongside one of the fairways and spotted none other than Nick Spaeth in one of the corporate booths, stocked with fine food and drinks. We never did ask Nick if he paid for his tickets, but I can guarantee you Tracy and I paid for our own beer and burgers.)

So this Sunday our governor is going to the Super Bowl, free, courtesy of one of the most highly regulated companies in North Dakota, and I’m guessing he’ll be sitting with the lobbyists who work the North Dakota Capitol on a regular basis. Damn, that looks bad. It looks cheap. It looks shady. I’m really disappointed in him. I mean, it’s not like he can’t afford to pay for his own tickets …

Oh, and by the way, the governor is throwing in some official business while he’s there — lunch with Minnesota’s governor, to discuss state-to-state business — so I wonder if the taxpayers of North Dakota will be picking up the expenses for the trip. And if he’ll be flying down there in the state-owned airplane, at state expense.

Minnesota’s governor, Mark Dayton, by the way, paid for his own ticket to the Super Bowl, according to The Forum’s website. Dayton said he paid $6,000 for his ticket. (Don’t worry, he can afford them too.) So Xcel’s cost for Burgum’ tickets, and his wife’s, might be as much as $12,000. Plus chips and dip. And maybe some wings. And a beer or two. You can read the whole story here if you want to.

The initiated measure, which will be gathering signatures any day now, deals directly with this kind of thing. It reads, in part, “The ethics commission may …adopt ethics rules, including rules on disclosure, campaign finance, conflict of interest, lobbying, use of position, government contracts, gifts to public officials …”

So I guess if I was one of the sponsors of that petition drive to create a North Dakota Ethics Commission, I might now have a really good reason for why we need one. A $12,000 reason. With chips and dip. And wings.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Charlie Creek To Belfield — A History Lesson

The last major threat to the visual integrity of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, at least that I can recall — though there have been many skirmishes with the oil industry — was in 1989, when the Western Area Power Administration came really close to putting a huge transmission line along the east boundary of the South Unit of the Park.

I’m reminded of that in the context of the Meridian Energy Group’s horrible idea to put their proposed Davis Oil Refinery in about the same place, along the east edge of the park.

In the 1960s, WAPA, one of four federal power marketing administrations that serves our part of the United States, determined there was going to be a need for more electricity in part of its region in the future, and Basin Electric, headquartered in Bismarck, had surplus power to sell. All that was needed was a way for Basin to get its power into the WAPA system.

They determined that the best way was to build a transmission line — one with those big metal towers — from Basin’s Charlie Creek substation in McKenzie County, near the junction of state Highway 200 and U.S. Highway 85, to tie into an east-west WAPA power line near Belfield, N.D., about 40 miles south. WAPA commenced a federal Environmental Impact Statement process to find the best location for the line and its towers (unlike Meridian, which refuses to even submit to a state site review process) in 1969, and issued a draft EIS.

Some 20 years later, when demand reached the point that WAPA decided it needed the extra power, it commenced a review process with a public comment period and public hearings on the project. The review process focused on two identified corridors for the power line: a western line, called W1-1, which was four miles shorter and a million dollars cheaper than one farther east, called E-4-1R. WAPA recommended using the shortest, cheapest route, W-1-1.

Unfortunately, that route ran beside the eastern boundary of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and would have been visible from most high places in the park. The eastern route ran alongside Highway 85, five miles or so east of the park, and out of sight from the park.

So in the spring of 1988, WAPA published a notice of its intent to build the line next to the park and opened a public comment period. Tracy Potter and I were running the State Tourism Office at the time, and if WAPA could have picked any two people on the planet it did not want in THAT office at THAT time, it would have been the two of us. Our boss, Gov. George Sinner, turned us loose to organize against building the line next to the park.

In advance of the public hearings, which were to be held in Belfield and Grassy Butte, N.D., on July 26-27, 1988, we got on the phone and began rounding up supporters to send letters to WAPA, asking it to move the line east, to the highway, out of sight of the park. We did a pretty good job.

U.S. Sen. Quentin Burdick wrote:

“In recent days, I have received a number of letters from concerned citizens who believe that the route recommended for the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) will have long term negative effects on the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As well, the North Dakota Tourism Office and the State Highway Department have also expressed opposition to the recommended route.

“It seems clear from the concerns raised by the opponents that WAPA should reconsider the options and seek a more acceptable routing for the line. Granted, the additional $1 million in construction costs must be an item of consideration. However, when viewed in the context, it seems the additional $1 million is not too large a price to pay to protect such a national treasure as Theodore Roosevelt Park.”

How about that! Why don’t we have U. S. senators like that anymore?

And Congressman Byron Dorgan wrote:

“The visual impact (on Theodore Roosevelt National Park) is unacceptable. I hope you will hear the concerns of myself and of many others who are committed to protecting the natural, scenic beauty of the Badlands.”

I know that our newest senator at the time, Kent Conrad, weighed in on this as well, but I can’t find his letter.

Even our boss, Gov. Sinner, and his lieutenant governor, Lloyd Omdahl, sent a jointly signed letter (although I think Tracy probably wrote it for them):

“North Dakotans have jealously guarded the Badlands scenic areas from avoidable intrusions. Consequently the Park today still provides awesome views of natural beauty unmarred by artificial structures. Whether or not future generations will be able to share this beauty will be determined by this generation and the decisions it makes about development in the area. We must proceed cautiously in the consideration of proposals to change the landscape.”

Other letters came from concerned citizens, and the usual suspects — the National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, the Theodore Roosevelt Nature and History Association and others, many of whom are now involved, 30 years later, in the current fight to move the Davis refinery away from the park.

Tracy led the testimony at the public hearing in Belfield, followed by TRNP’s Chief Ranger Bob Powell, Gary Redmann from the State Highway Department representing then-Commissioner Walt Hjelle, Wally Owen from Medora, who ran the horse concession in the park, and finally, batting cleanup, Medora Mayor and President of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation Rod Tjaden, who I think was also state chairman of the Greater North Dakota Association, the state’s chamber of commerce, at the time. (Humorous aside: Tjaden, not known for hanging out with the environmental crowd, sent me a note a few months later that said “Dammit, Fuglie, I’m getting mail from the Sierra Club, and it’s YOUR FAULT!”)

After the public hearings, WAPA went into hibernation for about six months, and in early 1989 released its final EIS, with its final recommendation on a route for their transmission line, which concluded with this statement:

“Through public comment, it was determined that visibility of the line from residences, local urban areas and TRNP was of significant importance. In particular, a large number of comments expressed concern for the visibility of the proposed line from TRNP. It was determined that the agency-preferred route would be changed from W1-1, as specified in the DEIS, to E4-1R (the environmentally preferred route).”

A loud cheer could be heard throughout western North Dakota. The system worked. The park was protected.

Well, that’s our history lesson for today. Sadly, history doesn’t often repeat itself. A month or so ago, I sent letters to our current governor, Doug Burgum, and to our congressional delegation, asking them to meet with the Meridian people and ask them to move the proposed refinery away from the park. I got a couple of responses.

This in an e-mail from Jodee Hanson in the governor/s office:

“The Governor respects the public comment period, which is still ongoing, and is staying apprised of the Department of Health’s permitting process being conducted within the boundaries of the law.”

To which I responded:

“Thanks for the note Jodee. Relay to everyone there that the ‘boundaries of the law’ are the minimum standard for action by public officials. There is much more that can, and should, be done. Like a one-on-one between Burgum and Prentice, heart to heart, CEO to CEO. I am inspired by Julie Fedorchak and Connie Triplett seeking a PSC review. The governor could make that happen by putting the hammer down on Prentice: “Y’know, Bill, we’re in this together for the long haul. We’re going to be looking at each other and talking to each other for a long time. Let’s be responsible and see what a PSC site review tells us.”

I also got an e-mail from a staffer for Congressman Kevn Cramer:

“Congressman Cramer has been in contact with both the N.D. Department of Health and EPA ensuring the project meets human health and environmental requirements.”

To which I responded:

“Relay to everyone there that meeting the “human health and environmental requirements” is not enough in this case. There is much more that can, and should, be done. As a former State Tourism director, Kevin understands the impact on our National Park. I’d suggest a one-on-one between the congressman and Meridian CEO Bill Prentice, heart to heart. I am inspired by Julie Fedorchak and Connie Triplett seeking a PSC review. The Congressman could help make that happen by meeting with Prentice:”

I’ve not heard anything from our two senators. I’m going to send them, along with Cramer and Burgum, a copy of this blog post to remind them of what can be done if everyone pulls their own weight.

Maybe. Just maybe …

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — What Will Happen To The Newest Bridge Across The Little Missouri State Scenic River?

Last summer, I wrote an article about a North Dakota Bad Lands rancher who built himself a big bridge across the Little Missouri State Scenic River on federal land without getting permission. I wrote then, last July, “The folks at the BLM office don’t seem to know anything about the bridge or the road or the water pits, but they should, since things like that would certainly need ‘permission slips …”

Well, I asked the federal land agent at the Bureau of Land Management office in Dickinson, N.D., about it. He promised to get back to me. When he did, it was with these succinct words: “We’ve got a situation here.”

Since then, Loren Wikstrom, the manager of the BLM’s North Dakota field office, and I have talked by phone, e-mailed and even snail-mailed a few times, and a couple weeks ago, I spent some time with him in his office. He’s pretty close to getting to the bottom of this “situation.” Here’s an update.

The rancher’s name is Wylie Bice. His ranch is a few thousand acres beside the Little Missouri State Scenic River in Dunn County, just west of the Killdeer Mountains, in western North Dakota. Bice made a fortune — $100 million or so — selling his oilfield trucking company before the bust hit the oil patch. I guess he really wanted to be a rancher instead of a trucker, so he used some of the money to buy the ranch adjacent to his, which happened to be on the other side of the river.

It’s a pretty nice bridge! Cross over and you’re on federal land.
It’s a pretty nice bridge! Cross over and you’re on federal land.

That ranch had a federal grazing lease on some BLM land. which just happened to be right up against the river, where Bice wanted to put his bridge. So he did.

And not only did he put a bridge there, but he built a road to get to it, and he built a couple of large water ponds for storing water for sale to the oil industry for fracking, and he also spilled his farming operations over onto that BLM land. All of that without telling the BLM, or asking permission. Yep, I’d say that qualified as a “situation.”

So the BLM dispatched one of its employees up to see Bice. They went out and stood beside the bridge and talked about it. And then the employee came back to the office and wrote up a report for his superiors. And the BLM began taking action.

What they did is, they opened up what they call a “trespass file.” I don’t think it is a criminal file, just a civil matter, but the BLM considers it a serious violation, because they told me the trespass file is closed to public inspection until it is resolved. They did, however, tell me what is going on.

First, they told Bice he had a bridge and a road on BLM land without a permit, and they sent him an application for a right-of-way permit, which would essentially grant him permission to build a bridge and a road on their land (never mind that both of them are already there). They told him to fill out the application and to send it back, along with the engineering plan for the bridge and the road, so they could see if it meets their specifications.

Once he’d done that, if everything was in order, they would consider giving him the missing permit for the bridge and the access road. I thought that was a pretty nice reaction. It’s a pretty expensive bridge, probably a million dollars worth or more. I’m sure Bice would not want to have to tear it down.

The BLM gave him until January 15, 2018 — a couple of weeks ago now — to submit his paperwork. When I met with Loren Wikstrom a couple days after that deadline, he thought he might be able to give me the paperwork to look at in early February. I’m going to take him up on that.

If they do decide to issue a permit, Bice is going to have to pay rent on the land that the bridge and the road are on, and there’s going to be an administrative fine. They haven’t told me what the fine is going to be.

Along with the application, the BLM is requiring him to send his plan to “reclaim” his water depot. That’s right. Bice built two big ponds — I mean really, really big — into which he pumps water from the Little Missouri, where it is stored until an oil company needs it for fracking. Then he sells it, and the oil company comes and hauls it away.

A number of Bad Lands ranchers are doing this right now, thanks to our North Dakota State Engineer’s office, which issued more than 600 illegal water permits in the last few years to help out the oil industry. I wrote about that here last year. Seems like North Dakota’s state government is a lot more willing to just look the other way to help the oil industry than the federal government is.

It turns out that part of Bice’s water depot is also on BLM land, and the BLM isn’t going to allow that, so he has to remove the ponds and reclaim that land. The BLM also is going to charge him back rent on that land and fine him for putting that water depot on their land.

Bice also started a farming operation on that side of the river, although I don’t know what he planted. But part of what he planted was on BLM land. The BLM didn’t like that at all. It’s probably going to fine him for that as well and make him reclaim that land.

The BLM told me in a letter dated December 7, 2017, “BLM will oversee application of the National Environmental Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, Endangered Species Act and other applicable laws in considering the proposed right-of-way.”

The BLM guys went on to say that Bice “remains responsible for all applicable fines and back rent during the application processing period. In the event a right-of-way is granted, all fines and rent must be paid before issuance of right-of-way. Should the right-of-way be denied, the bridge, access road and other developments must be removed and the sites fully reclaimed to their original state at the expense of the responsible party (Bice).”

Well. Sounds like the BLM means business.

Then there’s another consideration. When someone wants to build something on federal land, especially in areas near Indian reservations, that darned old Historic Preservation Act comes into play. The BLM guys told me they never did get archeologists out there to do a cultural survey. That will likely have to take place once they get a completed application from Bice. The worst-case scenario, they told me, is “if they were to find artifacts or stone circles in the vicinity. That would be bad.”

I’m not sure exactly what “that would be bad” means, but I suppose it could mean denial of the right-of-way, and/or additional fines for violation of the Historic Preservation Act. The law is pretty clear on things like that, I suspect. I’m not going to look it up. I’ll let them tell me if that’s the case.

The water depot on BLM land, which is going to have to be removed.
The water depot on BLM land, which is going to have to be removed.

I don’t know if Bice is going to peaceably go in there and rip out the plastic liner in his pits, bulldoze them back to level ground, plant grass for the critters, pay his fines for trespassing, catch up on his back rent for the road and the pits and the bridge and the farming operation, or if he’s going to resist and set up another Cliven Bundy standoff situation. We’ll have to see how this plays out.

I did ask the BLM what happens if Bice doesn’t cooperate. The BLM’s response: “The BLM first tries to work with the responsible party in resolving trespasses amicably. However, if a trespasser is uncooperative, applicable civil or criminal measures may be pursued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

Uh-oh. As we saw in the case of Jason Halek, the fellow who violated the U. S. Safe Drinking Water Act by dumping 800,000 gallons of saltwater down an abandoned oil well near Dickinson, which I wrote about here a few months ago, the U.S. Attorney in North Dakota doesn’t take these things lightly. So that’s when the lawyers get involved. Bice has plenty of money for lawyers. And things can drag on for years.

I also learned this week that Bice has obtained two new industrial water permits (one issued just last week) to pump water from the Little Missouri into his water pits. (You can look at them here and here if you want to.) Nothing surprising there. The water’s free, and the State Water Commission engineers love giving it away. They did place some restrictions on the permits, pretty standard stuff, such as taking precautions to minimize the visual and audible disruption to the scenic Little Missouri River valley, by keeping the shorelines in and around intake locations free of construction debris and litter, keeping pumps and motors sheltered from view of canoeists, setting pumps and motors away from the shoreline to make sure gas and oil leaks don’t get into the river, and putting mufflers on internal combustion motors “to maintain the tranquility and ambiance and minimize audible disruption of the scenic river experience.”

Uh, huh. We’ll see how that’s going when I canoe through there this spring (which I am surely going to do). I’ll also see if his scrapers and bulldozers have completed the job of getting rid of those big water pits on land you and I and the rest of the people of the United States own, and if Bice has planted some grass and a few cottonwoods alongside the river. I get the feeling the bridge will still be there. For a long time. I’ll let you know what I find.

Meanwhile, if you want to have a look for yourself, I can tell you the legal address is the West half of Section 33, Township 148 North, Range 97 West.

That’s it on the left, on the Forest Service map. White is private land, yellow is public land – owned by the BLM. You’ll have to get a Forest Service map and follow the winding gravel and sometimes two-track, roads. The road from the east is a private road through private land, so you probably should go there from the west, across public land. And you probably shouldn’t cross the bridge, like I did, because you’ll be trespassing once you get about halfway across the river.

As I wrote last summer: “Y’know, with all the things I’ve learned, and all the stories I’ve heard, about the Bakken Oil Boom, this takes the cake.”

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Of Refineries And The Public Trust Doctrine

The official comment period has passed on that sleazy company Meridian Energy’s request for an Air Pollution Permit for an oil refinery beside Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I’m guessing the State Health Department got an earful.

Mandan’s Tesoro Refinery. They all pretty much look alike. That white stuff is what you’ll see from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Mandan’s Tesoro Refinery. They all pretty much look alike. That white stuff is what you’ll see from Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Friday, on the last day of comments, my friend,Sarah Vogel, our former state agriculture commissioner and one of the state’s best attorneys, sent me a copy of what she sent to the Health Department. It’s so good, I just have to share it. If the Health Department can issue a permit after reading this, everyone there should be sent packing. And if the governor doesn’t step in after reading this, he should be sent back to Cass County.

Here’s what Sarah wrote:

“The Health Department is well aware of the views of the three statewide-elected officials who serve on the Public Service Commission. They have been clear that they believe that this project should not go forward without a ‘big picture’ overview that would come with a site review by the PSC. See, Bismarck Tribune, ‘Commission urges refinery developers to apply for siting permit,’ December 19, 2017. The majority of the persons testifying at the Health Department’s hearing in mid-January 2018 were opposed to the issuance of the air quality permit by the Health Department, and many urged that the Health Department not grant the permit until such time as a site review by the PSC was completed.

“It appears that the Health Department is evaluating comments on some type of a ‘bright line’ separation between its own concerns, and the concerns by other state agencies such as the PSC, and that it believes it lacks authority to look at any factors other than those strictly dealing with the air quality permit requirements set forth in Health Department regulations.

“Yet, the Department of Health is the lead environmental agency of the State of North Dakota! See N.D.C.C. Section 23-01-01.2 (‘The state department of health is the primary state environmental agency.’) Because of its additional role as the primary environmental agency, the Health Department should take a broader view consistent with the Public Trust Doctrine that underlies the duties and operations of all state agencies, including the Department of Health.

“As explained by the North Dakota Supreme Court, the Public Trust Doctrine is part of the common law of this state and overlays and informs the actions of the state as those actions affect the citizens of North Dakota’s critical reliance on clean water and other resources such as clean air. See, e.g., United Plainsmen Association v. North Dakota Water Conservation Commission, 247 N.W.2d 457, at 460-464 (ND 1976). See, also, State ex rel. Sprynczynatyk v. Mills, 523 NW 2d 537, at 540 ND 1974) (‘North Dakota could not totally abdicate its interest to private parties because it held that interest, by virtue of its sovereignty, in trust for the public.’)

“The Public Trust Doctrine is part of the overarching principles that should govern North Dakota governmental officials and especially those at the Department of Health See N.D.C.C. Section 23-01-01.2, supra.

“I recommend that the Health Department consider the Public Trust Doctrine in determining whether it, as the primary environmental agency, has a duty on behalf of the citizens of North Dakota to coordinate with the PSC to insure that all environmental factors are appropriately considered at the appropriate time and in the appropriate sequence.

“The Legislature’s use of the word ‘primary’ necessarily implies a leadership role with other secondary agencies for environmental issues. Here the PSC is pleading for the opportunity to do its job, and review the site of a project that will have a huge effect on western North Dakota in advance of issuance of a permit. The stakes are even higher since North Dakota’s premier attraction, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, is extremely close to the site for the proposed refinery. Surely, the Health Department has the discretion to defer its decision on an air quality permit for Meridian’s proposed refinery until the PSC has the opportunity to do a thorough and thoughtful determination of the suitability of the site in keeping with state government’s duty to protect the public’s interest.

“The idea that a Meridian claim of a 500 barrel disparity in anticipated production could prevent this critical and essential review is a weak rationale to avoid PSC review. To illustrate, why should the Department of Health take at face value Meridian’s current assertion that it will produce 500 barrels of oil less than the cutoff for mandatory PSC review? As the Department of Health is well aware, Meridian has a history of changing its numbers based upon the audience it is addressing. One set of numbers is provided on Wall Street for potential investors and stockholders; another set of numbers is provided to officials of the State of North Dakota. The latest illustration of the unreliability of Meridian’s public statements is its recent press release on the Health Department’s January hearing which asserted that most of the people testifying were in favor of the project. In contrast, the Bismarck Tribune’s story by Amy Dalrymple said exactly the opposite.

“In conclusion, the permit should be denied or the application should be held in suspense until a proper site review is conducted by the PSC.”

Well. Thank you, Sarah.

I have no doubt the Public Service Commissioners will read this and agree with Sarah. But as long as the Faustian refinery developers hold to their estimate of 49,500 barrels per day (99 percent of the 50,000 bpd that triggers a site review), the PSC is helpless.

But are you reading this, Doug Burgum? Because, ultimately, you’re the man responsible for upholding the Public Trust Doctrine, on behalf of the citizens of your state. The Health Department works for you. You’re the governor. You asked for the job. Now do your job. The Supreme Court has already upheld the Public Trust Doctrine. Do you really want to be on the same side — the wrong side — of a lawsuit with Meridian Energy, governor, and on the opposite side of your own Public Service Commission, when someone files suit to force you to uphold the Public Trust Doctrine?

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Refinery Needs A Site Review

A pair of former Democratic-NPL state senators challenged the North Dakota Health Department to demand a site review by the State’s Public Service Commission before issuing an air pollution permit allowing Meridian Energy Group to build a refinery three miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park at a marathon public hearing by the Department Wednesday night.

Former Sen. Connie Triplett of Grand Forks told Health Department administrators near the end of a four-hour public meeting in Dickinson that they should attach a condition to the permit if they issued it, stating that the permit to build the Davis refinery would only be valid if the company submitted to a full site review by the PSC. And former Sen. Tracy Potter of Bismarck went a step further, saying the Health Department should just put the permit application on hold, and not consider it, until the PSC reviews the site.

Damn, I wish I could get rid of the word “former” in front of those two senators’ names. Out of the 40 or so people testifying on issuing an air pollution permit to the company at Wednesday’s public hearing, their Legislative experience showed their understanding of the government processes that could be brought into play before a refinery is built on the national park’s border.

To review: North Dakota has a law that says any energy conversion facility, such as a refinery, that is going to process more than 50,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd) needs to undergo a site review by the Public Service Commission to “ensure the location, construction, and operation of energy conversion facilities … will produce minimal adverse effects on the environment and the welfare of the citizens of this state …”

Further, it says “The policy of this state is to site energy conversion facilities … in an orderly manner compatible with environmental preservation and the efficient use of resources. Sites and routes must be selected to minimize adverse human and environmental impact …” (emphasis added)

To get around that requirement, Meridian now says it is going to process only 49,500 barrels per day, a sleazy, transparent move to avoid having the PSC tell them it this is a lousy place for a refinery and that Meridian should put it somewhere else where it won’t detract from our national park.

Meridian’s number of 49,500 bpd is 99 percent of the PSC’s jurisdiction limit of 50,000 bpd. Fifty thousand barrels is 2.1 million gallons. 49,500 barrels is 2.079 million, just 21,000 gallons less than the threshold for regulation. So Meridian’s tactic is to stay just 1 percent under the threshold for regulation. It would be a laughable move by the refinery people if it weren’t for the fact that by staying just barely under the threshold, THERE IS NOTHING STOPPING MERIDIAN FROM PUTTING AN OIL REFINERY BESIDE THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK.

I can’t shout that loud enough. Nothing stopping them except, of course, issuance of an air pollution permit, which was the matter at hand at Wednesday night’s public hearing. And that’s why Triplett and Potter’s requests are so important. Because in its initial review, the Health Department says it thinks that the refinery could come in under the pollution limits allowed by the federal Clean Air Act to protect the Class I Air Quality Status of a nearby national park.

Now whether we believe that — the Meridian people haven’t said much that is believable so far in this process — Triplett and Potter pointed out that this is just one very narrow — albeit very important — look at whether the refinery should be built there. North Dakota state government needs to take a holistic approach to siting something as big as this — and there’s no doubt this is big, the biggest industrial plant to be built in our state since the Great Plains Coal Gasification Plant near Beulah 35 years ago, which at the time, was labeled the largest construction project in North America.

That’s what the PSC siting process brings. A look at the big picture.  And then once the PSC has completed its site review, the Health Department, the Water Commission, the Game and Fish Department, the State Parks Department, the Agriculture commissioner, the Tourism director, the Transportation director, maybe some other directors and, most importantly, the governor need to sit down around a table and decide what’s really good for the state, and  if this is really the best place to put an oil refinery. That’s how state government should work, whether we trust all those people or not. I guess we have to trust them, since they’re in charge here right now.

I don’t think anybody’s questioning whether we should have an oil refinery in North Dakota. Of course we should. As Triplett has pointed out, it is certainly more environmentally — and economically, I’ll add — desirable to refine oil here and ship a finished product out in a pipeline than it is to ship out raw crude in a pipeline and then ship refined gasoline and diesel fuel back here in trucks or another pipeline.

So the only real question is, where should the refinery be? Public Service Commissioners Julie Fedorchak and Brian Kroshus pushed hard at Meridian officials at a meeting last month to get them to consider other locations away from the park but to no avail. Barring that, they asked politely to be allowed to conduct a formal site review to “ensure the location, construction and operation of the refinery… will produce minimal adverse effects on the environment and the welfare of the citizens of this state …”

Meridian officials told them to stuff it. The 49,500 bpd refinery is under the threshold for a site review, they said, and they are complying with the law. Well, yeah 1 percent under the threshold, and in terms of impact on the environment and the welfare of our citizens, that’s a pretty slim — and sleazy — standard they set for themselves.

In fact, it prompted PSC Chairman Randy Christmann to tell me and a few others after the meeting that he won’t be surprised if some legislator introduces a bill in the next legislative session to get rid of the threshold altogether and make all energy conversion facilities of any size subject to a site review. Good for him. Christmann is not a big government regulation guy, but I think he’d like that. In the case of Meridian, that would be closing the barn door after the cows are out, but it certainly would keep this from happening again in the future.

Shortly after that meeting between Meridian and the PSC, when Meridian snubbed its nose at three elected officials, I sent a letter to Gov. Doug Burgum asking him to call Meridian CEO William Prentice into his office and ask him politely — CEO to CEO — to move the refinery away from the park. I think I’ll just put my letter at the end of this post because it’s been a month now, and I’ve not had a response from the governor.

I’m disappointed in that. It used to be in North Dakota, when you wrote a letter to an elected official, you got a response in a pretty timely manner. I worked for a governor for eight years, and I don’t recall a constituent letter ever going unanswered. Especially on a matter as important as this. I’ll write a little more about that subject in a few days.

Meanwhile, subsequent to Wednesday’s Health Department hearing, a public comment period on this issue remains open until Jan. 26. Then the Health Department will read all the public comments and respond to them, I think. Often the response is just to thank you for commenting and telling you they are taking your comments into consideration, but at least you know your comments have been read by someone. I submitted mine a few weeks ago and shared them with you in this space. You can read them by going to my old blog. I urge you to join me in commenting. I’m putting the address for your comments at the end of this post, too.

I’m adding to mine by strongly urging the Health Department to take the advice of Sens. Potter and Triplett and attach conditions to any permit, requiring Meridian to undergo a site review. Triplett, an environmental attorney, knows North Dakota law, and she says they can attach conditions to a permit. There’s precedent for that, even.

Way back in the 1970s, when a company named Michigan Wisconsin Pipeline Co. asked for a state water permit to construct some coal gasification plants here (one of which ended up being the Great Plains Synfuels Plant I mentioned earlier), the North Dakota Water Commission attached a series of conditions to the permit, which ended up being the beginning of North Dakota’s Mined Land Reclamation Laws, now the strictest reclamation laws in the country.

I think the conditions were challenged in court, and they held up. We’re all winners because of that. Strict regulations were followed, the coal gasification plant got built, and it’s still operating successfully today.

And I’m going to go a step further and ask the governor to strongly advise the Health Department — they work for him, after all — to attach the condition of a site review to the permit, if they issue one. Or to just tell the company they’re holding the permit until a site review is done. If Meridian is confident they’ve got the right project in the right place, they won’t have any problem undergoing a site review.

Let me repeat that.

If Meridian is confident it has got the right project in the right place, it won’t have any problem undergoing a site review.

One more time.

If Meridian is confident it has got the right project in the right place, it won’t have any problem undergoing a site review.

Here’s the address for your comments, to be submitted to the Health Department by Jan. 26. You might want to use the line “If Meridian is confident they’ve got the right project in the right place, they won’t have any problem undergoing a site review.”

Terry O’Clair, P.E., Director

Division of Air Quality

ND Dept. of Health

918 E. Divide Ave.

Bismarck,ND 58501-1947

And here’s my letter to the governor:

 December 21, 2017

Dear Gov. Burgum,

Late in the afternoon on this shortest day of the year, my mood is as dark as the 5 p.m. sky. I close my eyes and think back to the meeting between the PSC and William Prentice from Meridian Energy Group the other day, and I see him smirking as he says “We are going to comply with the law.”

So that’s what it’s come to for Meridian. It’s about the law. It’s not at all about anything North Dakotans might feel about having a refinery smack up against their national park. A national park named for our Greatest Conservation President.

“If these stupid North Dakota hicks are willing to put that kind of a loophole in their siting law, I’m going to use it,” the snarky Californian says.

So now, Governor, it’s up to you. You need to get that asshole in your office and tell him he needs to move that refinery. You can do that. He’ll respect you, a fellow businessman and North Dakota’s CEO.

Randy and Julie and Brian did their best, but they carried no authority. They’re not used to dealing with this kind of character. “I don’t see why you don’t just go through the siting process” won’t work with this guy. It’s kind of like the salesman who says “I don’t suppose you’d like to buy some insurance, would you?”

Please, Governor, call this guy up and get him in your office. And tell him to move the damn refinery.

Please let me know if you are willing to do this, so I can stop writing about it (and you) for a while. Even if it does no good, I need to know that at least you were willing to try.

Thanks.

Sincerely,

Jim Fuglie

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — A State Champion Tree—In Our Yard!

Hello from Lillian AND Jim. We sat down this week and wrote about one of the coolest things that have happened to us in a long time, and we’re posting it on both our blogs — Wild Dakota Woman and View From The Prairie. We hope you enjoy reading this as much as we enjoyed writing it.

On summer evenings in the early 1970s, you could find Birgit Smeenk in her front yard with a garden hose, pouring water onto a spindly little oak tree she had stuck into the ground in hopes of one day having shade for the front of her house at 920 Arthur Drive in Bismarck.

It takes a long time for an oak tree planted out here on the prairie to provide shade, even with daily waterings. Birgit’s daughter, Jennifer, watched her mother water that tree every day. “For a few years, it just didn’t do anything,” Jennifer told us on the phone from her home in Washington state the other day. “Then one year, it just took off.”

State Champion Red Oak Tree.
State Champion Red Oak Tree.

Birgit’s constant attention worked. She didn’t live to see it, but today, more than 40 years later, that little stick is now North Dakota’s State Champion Red Oak Tree — the largest Red Oak in the state. So says the North Dakota Forest Service.

We bought that house at 920 Arthur Drive in late October 2009, becoming the home’s third owners, and we moved in a few weeks later. So while we took notice of that big old bare-branched tree in the front yard as winter approached, we didn’t give it a lot of thought until the next spring, when it started to leaf out and we saw the familiar shape of oak leaves.

Neither of us had ever owned (or been owned by) an oak tree that big before, and we inquired of Tim Kingstad, from whom we bought the home, about the tree. Tim, the home’s second owner, told us it was a red oak (Quercus rubra) and that the Bismarck city forester said it was the only mature Red Oak in Bismarck.

There are a lot of other trees in our yard, probably 10 varieties. The Smeenks and Kingstads had been pretty attentive to trees, especially when the kids brought home seedlings on Arbor Day each spring. Some of the evergreens, planted early in the Smeenks’ time here, in the early 1960s, were taller than the oak, but none as spectacular, as we watched it through that first full year of seasons, from bare branches to green buds, to big green leaves, then yellow, then reddish brown, holding its leaves to be the last tree to go bare in late fall.

Our longest-lived neighbors, both in time on earth and time on Arthur Drive, Dave and Myrna Blackstead, who live across the street, have watched that tree grow all of its life. Myrna thinks it was transplanted by Pieter and Birgit Smeenk from a lake cabin the Smeenks frequented in Minnesota, probably in the late 1960s.

Myrna recalls this was their second try at an oak tree, after the Smeenk boys accidentally broke off the first one, much to their mother’s dismay. The boys’ older sister, Jennifer, isn’t sure. She thinks maybe her parents bought it somewhere. She vividly recalls her mother out there with that hose every night, though.

Well, thank you, Birgit and Pieter Smeenk.

Pieter and Birgit Smeenk were immigrants, he from the Netherlands, she from Denmark. (We believe that occasional flashes of bad karma that erupt in our now mostly Norwegian household from time to time, are the result of too many years of Danish presence — nothing personal, just institutional).

The Smeenks dedicated their lives to the children of Bismarck. Birgit was a physical therapist and worked with BECEP, the program for preschool children. Pieter was a much loved Bismarck pediatrician. He finished his career as medical director for North Dakota Crippled Children’s Services, serving in that job past his 80th birthday. To this day, frequently when we mention to someone that Dr. Smeenk owned our house at one time, the response is, “Oh, my, he was my doctor when I was little. I loved him.”

Dr. Smeenk died in 2000, at age 82, his wife in 2014, at age 85. Their children have scattered. None live in Bismarck. Upon their parents’ death, they composed beautiful obituaries.

Of their father:

“He received three things in life that are of basic importance:

Someone to love

Something to do

Something to look forward to

And he was thankful.”

And of their mother:

“She knew herself to be a child of God and lived her life with the joy and radiance which this awareness gives. She plucked thistles where she saw them, and planted flowers where she thought they might grow.

Grace was in all her steps

Heaven in her eye

In every gesture dignity and love.”

We know Birgit loved that tree, and we’ve taken good care of it. A couple of years ago, we started noticing in the mornings some sap on the Jeep, which we park under the tree. About the same time, Myrna stopped by the house one day and said she’d been watching our tree from her perspective across the street. “I’m a little worried about your oak tree. It looks a little peaked.”

She was right. There were a few small dead branches, and the leaves weren’t as thick as they had been the year before. We called the city forester and the Extension Service for advice. We were told we needed to treat it with a special chemical we could buy at Runnings.

Well, we weren’t very excited about that — we’ve taken great pains to build up an organic yard, and Lillian’s hundreds of hostas and daylilies, and Jim’s prolific vegetable garden, are a testament to our success at that. First, we tried a release of a huge number of ladybugs to go after the aphids, but that didn’t take, as these critters disappeared within a day.

But this tree was important. So early one summer morning, Jim drove down to Runnings and snuck into the store before anyone else got there so he wouldn’t be seen and bought a couple of those big blue bottles of Bayer Crop Science chemicals, came home and held his nose and mixed it up and poured it around the base of the tree, being careful not to spill on the hostas.

Well, as much as we hate to say it, let’s hear it for modern science. The roots of that big old oak tree sucked up that chemical and sent it shooting up the tree, killing all those little aphids that had been eating leaves and spitting all over the Jeep.

One day Myrna came over and said, “Well, whatever you did to your tree, it worked!”

Red oak tree in early fall, in front of Red Oak House.
Red oak tree in early fall, in front of Red Oak House.

The tree and the house have become inseparable — it’s not possible to imagine one without the other. To cement that bond, we’ve named our house “Red Oak House,” and we use that name on our fledgling business cards and our website (redoakhouse.com), which doesn’t really have anything on it yet except a bunch of photos and links to our blogs.. There’ll be more one day. We have time.

We learned of the North Dakota State Champion Tree Registry a few years ago and wondered how our giant red oak measured up. So this fall, we went out and measured it according to the specifications listed by the Forest Service on its website and sent in an application. Within days, the Forest Service responded and sent a technician to verify our measurements — a fellow named Joel Nichols, who we said has the best job in North Dakota. He agreed.

A couple of weeks later, we received a letter in the mail from Glenda Fauske, coordinator of Information and Education with the Forest Service (the second best job in North Dakota) that started “Dear Jim and Lillian, I’m very pleased to announce your red oak (Quercus rubra) at 920 Arthur Drive in Bismarck is the new first place champion red oak!” (Here is the list for the entire state.)

Along with the letter was a certificate for framing and a news release, which has generated interest from the Bismarck media. We’ll likely be in the paper next week. We’re not sure how we’ll handle the fame. We’re also not quite sure how our neighbors will like the steady stream of onlookers and gawkers on our quiet little street, which has an average daily traffic count of 12.

But what the heck, if you’re interested in seeing the largest red oak in the state, come on over. Arthur Drive is one of those little streets off Ward Road that doesn’t go anywhere except to the houses on that street. We tell people that if somebody hits a really bad hook off the No. 6 tee box at the Tom O’Leary Golf Course, their ball could end up in our yard.

But wait until June. Our oak is the last tree to leaf out on the street (oaks are just that way), but the wait is worth it. If you want to stop and visit and examine the tree up close, bring wine. And we’ll toast Birgit and Pieter Smeenk for planting that tree. And Dave and Myrna Blackstead for keeping a close eye on that tree all these years.