North Dakota's Badlands Balance Beauty, Oil Boom
by USA Today - Laura Bly Posted on 9/7/2012 Oil platforms are becoming more common in the landscape of western North Dakota. Now part of the national park created in his memory, the weathered remnants of Roosevelt's "Walden Pond of the West" retain their sense of remoteness in the least populated region of one of the USA's least-visited states. But on a ridge beyond the quivering cottonwoods and grasshoppers flitting through knee-high prairie grass, an oil well pierces the horizon. It's a symbol of the "carbon rush" that has earned North Dakota the country's lowest unemployment rate and ranked it second to Texas in oil production - and is rapidly transforming what the late CBS newsman and native son Eric Sevareid called the "rectangular blank spot in the nation's mind." View on USA Today site. This summer, citing threats from nearby development in the Bakken, a 13,000-square-mile, oil-rich geological formation that spans much of western North Dakota, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Elkhorn Ranch one of the 11 most endangered historic places in America. North Dakota's still-accelerating energy boom is "one of the best things that's ever happened to this state," says Bismarck-based humanities scholar Clay S. Jenkinson, author of For the Love of North Dakota. Yet that economic juggernaut, he says, also is creating the "wholesale industrialization" of a subtle landscape often ignored by travelers passing through on Interstate 94 to such marquee destinations as Glacier or Yellowstone national parks. The area's undulating prairies and furrowed, pockmarked buttes - formations frontier soldiers described as "hell with fires put out" - are an "acquired taste," Jenkinson allows. Many residents of the state's more populated Eastern half (also known as "Greater Minnesota") even dismiss the Western region as "Godforsakia," he jokingly adds. Now, Jenkinson worries, the lyrical emptiness of "America's Outback" is under seige - and "no one is going to say, 'Gee, honey, let's vacation in the middle of an oil boom.' " Big changes in small towns On the other hand, it was the buzz surrounding the Bakken oil rush that persuaded Ryan and Bethany Buus to detour through northwestern North Dakota on their way from Rochester, Minn., to Montana this summer. The couple's verdict? Camping in a state park surrounded by oil fields "was … interesting," says Ryan, ordering a cup of coffee at Hidden Springs Java in the cowboy-themed tourist burg of Medora (pop. 100). "When we looked up and saw this bright flame on the horizon, we knew it was either a really big campfire, or a gas flare." (An estimated 30% of the natural gas produced in the Bakken is now burned off as waste .) But, Ryan says, after coping with a steady stream of 18-wheelers along the scenic two-lane highway that links Medora to the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and hearing stories of $250-a-night motel rooms, "once was enough for us." At the local visitor center, director Leona Odermann is fielding queries about two of the town's biggest attractions: a nightly Medora Musical that draws about 100,000 spectators every summer, and a pre-show "pitchfork steak fondue" featuring 12-ounce rib eyes skewered onto pitchforks and plunged into huge vats of boiling sunflower oil. ("We aim for medium," says one cowpoke chef, "but when you're cooking 10 steaks at a time, it can be kinda tough.") From Odermann's perspective, the boom has been a boon for tourism. About a third of the 10,000 travelers who've stopped by this year are oil workers, many with families in tow. As for naysayers who grumble about road congestion and supply-and-demand prices, "we live in a spoiled society that demands cheap gas and a nice place to stay - with no one else around," she says. "We have a product here that people need and want. Why shouldn't we benefit economically?" Others, including park ranger and fourth-generation rancher John Heiser, are less sanguine. Yes, says Heiser, the park has seen an influx of out-of-state workers seeking a where-the-buffalo-still-roam respite from nearby Watford City, a boom town where "man camps" and food trucks peddling $10 burgers are the norm. But the park's visitor guide now advises tourists that while "North Dakota has become the 'land of opportunity' for many," the "sleepy cowboy towns you remember" are disappearing as new wells go in every month. The boom "begs a difficult question," the article continues. "How can we develop our resources while still protecting our parks and communities?" 'Pristine' places will endure That worries Jessica DeMartin, too. The 34-year-old mountain biker and world traveler from Joshua Tree, Calif., came to ride the Maah Daah Hey Trail, a recreational path that meanders nearly 100 miles through North Dakota's rugged Badlands and Little Missouri National Grasslands, "before it's too late." In four days, passing fresh hay bales and threshing machines that look like props from Star Wars, she never saw another tourist but did meet dozens of friendly people drawn to the Bakken by the promise of new jobs. She left with trepidation - and optimism. Elkhorn Ranch and the rest of the park that honors Roosevelt "is one of the most pristine, wildest places I've ever been," DeMartin says, and the impact of the surrounding oil rush "isn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be." It's easy, she says, to believe those relentless winds and neck-craning skies will absorb the latest North Dakota boom the way they have other booms … and busts. And Teddy's own words stay with her: "Conservation means development as much as it does protection," he wrote, but "the nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value."