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A tale of two parks: How the Bakken boom transformed a landscape

While a North Dakota national park is an oasis from drilling, a nearby state park is thrown open.

I moved to North Dakota for the same reason everyone else did: because oil was selling for over $100 a barrel, and there was work to do. I drove in from the south on June 8, 2014, on highways crowded with semis hauling oil, saltwater, pipes and gravel. I bottomed out my Honda Civic turning into a rutted gas station in Belfield, where men in coveralls waited to use the bathroom while a sign on the empty ladies’ room announced: “No Men!”

 

I drove on to Bismarck, where I moved into the spare bedroom of a 20-something car salesman from Washington. Once a month, I went to the oilfield to report stories. I interviewed a farmer whose soybean fields were ruined by saltwater spills; an RV park owner who got rich renting sites to oil workers for $800 a month; a woman who sold pepper spray and stun guns to other women. Everywhere I drove, I saw drilling rigs. There were almost 200 then, and oil production was at its peak. Over a million barrels a day flowed from the Bakken shale.

The oil boom also overlapped with the state’s most beautiful and rugged region: the Badlands. It was to these Badlands that a young Theodore Roosevelt fled in 1884 to mourn the deaths of his wife and mother. In the wide-open spaces of western North Dakota, Roosevelt became a conservationist.

The Badlands became an escape for me, too: On its public lands I could retreat from the oilfield’s manic energy and the monotonous squares of wheat and sunflowers. Grassy plateaus — the largest remaining swaths of native short-grass prairie — gave way to wildly eroded buttes, ridges and coulees that were bushy with juniper and aspen. Along the undeveloped Little Missouri River plain, the cottonwood lowlands meandered for miles. Out here, I could breathe more deeply.

During my two years in North Dakota, I regularly visited two parts of the Badlands: Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Little Missouri State Park. Although they encompass nearly identical terrain, the parks feel distinctly different. The national park is an oasis from the oil boom. Little Missouri State Park, meanwhile, has been engulfed by it. There are even oil wells within park boundaries.

When I first discovered this, I was shocked. A state park should be a refuge from the grind of industry, I thought, not its host. So what happened? Who decided to open this state park for business? And what were the consequences of that choice? I also wondered if, once I looked into it, my perspective would change. “Engulfed,” after all, is a matter of opinion.

A well pad complex is constructed just outside Little Missouri State Park, its lights flooding the park campground.
Andrew Cullen

I met Jim Fuglie at the Rough Riders Hotel in Medora last Labor Day weekend to talk about Little Missouri State Park. Fuglie is the former head of the state Democratic Party, and when I worked in North Dakota, he was my go-to angry conservationist. When I interviewed him about oil development in the Badlands, his voice rose so frequently that I used to think he was mad at me.

Fuglie was there on Labor Day celebrating his 70th birthday with his siblings. He probably would have gone to Little Missouri State Park, if not for the oil boom. “Literally, I don’t go there anymore,” Fuglie said loudly. “They’ve trashed it.” There’s some evidence that Fuglie is not alone in his opinion: Visitation to the state park has fallen by almost a third since the oil boom began, in 2007. At Theodore Roosevelt National Park, by contrast, where officials have worked to shelter the park from the boom, there were 65 percent more visitors in 2016 than in 2007.

As Fuglie sees it, the fate of Little Missouri State Park was sealed on Dec. 20, 2011, in the basement of the State Capitol in Bismarck. There, three men — then-Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring — agreed to allow ConocoPhillips to extract up to 43 million barrels of oil from land in and around the state park. The three elected officials sit on the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which regulates the oil industry. They also accept campaign contributions from the companies they regulate.

At the meeting, the commission discussed an unusual arrangement that would allow ConocoPhillips to drill wells wherever it wanted inside a 50-mile area in and around the park, instead of within two-square-mile units, as the state usually required. This arrangement, state oil and gas staff said, would allow the company to cluster its wells, minimizing the number inside the park while also allowing it to extract even more oil from the rugged terrain. One option not discussed at the meeting was leaving the park alone — whether it might be too special to drill.

[RELATED:http://www.hcn.org/issues/49.20/public-lands-in-utah-public-access-to-state-trust-lands-come-at-an-increasing-cost]

Two years later, though, Stenehjem brought up that issue with what he called his “extraordinary places” proposal. It came after a state parks employee was driving around Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, now part of the national park, and noticed flags in the ground. The oil company XTO had staked out a well pad about 100 feet from the park’s border. The public outcry was fierce, and Stenehjem was surprised. So he proposed creating a buffer zone around 18 “extraordinary” places in western North Dakota, including Little Missouri State Park, where drilling permit applications on private or public lands would undergo extra review.

“There are some areas we need to let everybody know we are paying particular attention to,” he told me in July 2014.

Oil companies, however, hated the idea and responded forcefully. “For the moment, Continental Resources remains committed to North Dakota, but a sustained commitment will depend largely upon the policy decisions being made today,” Harold Hamm, CEO of one of the largest oil companies in the Bakken and a major political donor, threatened in a letter. “The Bakken is not the only attractive play in America.”

Stenehjem backed off. His watered-down proposal applied only to public lands. And as it turns out, that does not actually include Little Missouri State Park.

The view looking over the Little Missouri River from the rim of the Badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s north unit in North Dakota.
Andrew Cullen

The event that continues to influence everything is the creation of the park in 1971. In the late 1960s, state officials decided that the people of North Dakota deserved a park in the Badlands. They approached local ranchers and asked them to sell land to the state. One couple agreed to part with just over 1,000 acres. Depending on who you ask, there either wasn’t enough money left to buy more land, or nobody else was interested in selling to the government. “What could the state do to protect the place that we couldn’t?” one local landowner told me.

So the state opted for long-term leases with three families. The leases allow public access, and the state built and maintains the trails, but 80 percent of the park remains private property. The state has even less control of the mineral rights; it owns less than 7 percent in the area ConocoPhillips developed. That matters, because in North Dakota, mineral owners have a constitutional right to develop their property.

“We do the best we can to balance the interests of people who want to recreate against the right of people to develop their own minerals,” Stenehjem told me. “I think on balance, we’ve done a pretty good job.”

By the time I first visited Little Missouri State Park in August 2014, a wide oil road had just been constructed across a high grassy ridge where a horse trail used to be. Below the ridge, ConocoPhillips had carved a well pad out of the side of a butte. The scoria was still fresh, the color of undercooked beef. The drill rigs, with their piercing white lights, were just across the river. The wells were coming.

When I returned this fall, two saltwater disposal wells marked the turnoff to the park. ConocoPhillips had built six well pads in the park, and new horse trails switchbacked around them. At night, I counted 28 flares from the campground, some so bright and close they looked like bonfires.

[RELATED:http://www.hcn.org/issues/49.20/infographic-how-states-generate-money-from-trust-lands]

I visited with a husband and wife who lease land to the state park. The development had been mixed for them. The quality of their everyday life had diminished in small but significant ways. The view of the Badlands from their home was obstructed by pump jacks, and they’d lost their sense of privacy. The main road to town was choked with trucks, and at night, they could hear the roar of flares and the moan of pump jacks. Not being mineral owners, they didn’t receive the legendary “mailbox money” that had transformed the lives of so many western North Dakotans. Still, they received nominal payments for an oil road lease, and for the loss of farmable land due to five well pads on their property. They rented spots in their RV park to workers, and let a drilling company store its rig in their field. Overall, they were financially better off. “I don’t think I’m emotionally better off!” the wife said, and they both laughed.

Although they agreed to an interview, they asked me later not to use their names. They feared appearing to criticize how the state handled oil development, of looking like they disagreed with their neighbors, and of publicly disclosing that they got some oil money. “We have to live within all this and don’t need a lot of people banging down our doors or calling us because we didn’t do the right thing, in their mind, to protect the land, to allow oil development, etc.,” the wife wrote me later. “We find both good and bad with the changes.”

Ruthmarie Lawson, host at the Little Missouri State Park campground, can see oil wells on land adjacent to the campground.

Most people I spoke to about the changes seemed to view them as inevitable, a march of progress they were powerless to impede. But just 40 miles west, at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, it was a different story.

It was always clear that drilling would not be allowed inside the national park, but that didn’t mean the park was protected from the boom. Teddy Roosevelt National Park is 70,000 acres, but because it is split into three units, each section of it feels small. A visitor standing atop a high butte sees a mosaic of state, federal and private land. Your experience in the park is thus affected by what happens outside of it.

The park is renowned for its dark, starry skies, but when the boom began, rangers noticed a creeping glow on the horizon. When a team of researchers investigated, they found that between 2010 and 2013, the amount of manmade light visible in the North Unit had jumped by 500 percent — faster than at any other national park in the country.

So in 2011, when a facility to load crude oil onto rail cars was proposed less than three miles from the park boundary, national park staff sat down with the developers and asked them for a simple favor: Would you mind pointing your floodlights down? The company didn’t have to agree — the Park Service has no regulatory authority — but it did. Small adjustments like this can make a big difference. In a video two rangers made on an August night in 2015, they stand just outside a facility with downward facing lights. Their faces are dark, and the northern lights are visible in the background, streaks of green against the expansive, prairie sky. In a second shot, they’re outside a truck yard with floodlights that hadn’t been redirected, and they look as if they’re on a professionally lit film shoot.

“You can affect change outside that boundary by asking,” Superintendent Wendy Ross told me in September, as we sat in her office in Medora. Ross grew up in the National Park Service. She was born at Mount Rainier, where her father was a climbing ranger, and she lived in the Tetons, Yosemite and the Great Smoky Mountains. In 1990, her dad became superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Ross took the same job in 2015.

Ross wants the views from the park to look the way they did when her father oversaw it. “We don’t try to talk the companies into anything,” she explained. “We say, ‘If you put your well right here, you’re not going to see it from the park. There’s no impact whatsoever.’ ” Most companies have been responsive. XTO moved its well pad back from the Elkhorn Ranch. Companies have painted their tanks beige to blend into the landscape, relocated well pads to avoid building new roads, and hooked up to power lines in order to forego diesel generators, whose sputtering and backfiring echo throughout the Badlands.

Ross still has to assure some visitors that there are no oil wells in the park. You can see some pumpers from a 1980s boom from the scenic drive in the South Unit. There are wells visible from the North Unit, too, but they’re far away, fuzzy in summer heat, best seen through a camera’s zoom lens. The campgrounds are dark and quiet, and when you turn into the North Unit from Highway 85, you regularly see bison grazing alongside the fee booth.

Wells aren’t allowed in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, although some are visible beyond the fence line.
Andrew Cullen

Park Service staff felt empowered by their agency’s culture to take action — to look outside the park to preserve what’s inside it. “You have that national park brand,” Ross told me, “an arrowhead that is recognized for natural and cultural resource preservation throughout the United States.” State officials, for cultural and political reasons, didn’t share that sense of empowerment.

North Dakota is a place whose population peaked at 682,000 in 1930. It would not surpass that for 80 years, until 2011, when horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing and high oil prices unleashed a rush on hydrocarbons. North Dakota is a place whose other major industry, agriculture, cannibalizes itself, requiring fewer and fewer people as it becomes more efficient. It’s a place where officials were so desperate to reverse the population loss that they considered changing their state’s name to “Dakota” in 2001, because “North” sounded too cold and forbidding.

I’ve talked to Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem about this a lot. He is a tall man with big hands and a throaty laugh, like he’s constantly getting over a cold. Stenehjem grew up in Williston, at the heart of today’s oil boom. As the state’s top law enforcement officer, he is acutely aware of the rise in violent crime, drugs and sex trafficking during the oil boom. But he also remembers what life was like before. “Those towns and cities were dying,” he told me. “On balance, (oil) has been a good thing for us.”

There’s also a deep reluctance here to taking working land out of production. In order for land to have value, at least among the white, non-Native population, it must produce something. This attitude is so deeply ingrained that, by law, the governor must personally approve the sale of private property to any nonprofit conservation organization.

Energy development in Little Missouri State Park may have been seen as a way of extracting value, once again, from a place that had not been productive for decades. At an Interstate 94 rest stop overlooking Theodore Roosevelt National Park, I asked a man how he felt about oil development encroaching on the park. He stared at me with wide eyes. “I think we should see oil wells all along the fence line!” he yelled. “It’s about time we used our natural resources!”

Even minor government efforts to lessen the impact of oil development are sometimes met with resistance. Mark Zimmerman, the former head of the State Parks and Recreation Department, told me many people thought Wendy Ross went too far. “There were a lot of local folks who thought she was too tough, too strong on the oil companies,” he said.

Because of the local politics, and because industry is viewed as an economic lifeboat, the state parks department didn’t ask much from oil companies. “Sometimes I felt inadequate,” Zimmerman admitted. “I would have liked to have seen no development around Little Missouri State Park. But I don’t have the right to say that to a private landowner.”

Zimmerman confessed that he often felt envious when he went to conferences for state park directors. North Dakota has fewer park acres than any state besides Rhode Island. But he also envied the attitude he saw in places like Maine and New York, where well-to-do families will donate their estates for public enjoyment, in perpetuity. “Just the mindset of North Dakotans to set aside land. … ” He trailed off. “The culture is not there yet.”

The not-so-grand entrance to Little Missouri State Park in North Dakota, where a saltwater disposal facility is a sign of the oil wells that can be seen within the park.
Andrew Cullen

ConocoPhillips clustered its wells in the eastern portion of Little Missouri State Park, so over Labor Day weekend, I set out west on an early morning hike, seeking a more pristine experience. The trail traversed narrow ridges sprouting prickly pear and sage, and plateaued in a grassy valley. I stopped, listening. I heard the engine brakes of a semi going down the long grade towards the Little Missouri River, and could see clear to the Fort Berthold Reservation, where flares flickered on a butte.

I recalled something Zimmerman had told me about hiking in the state park. “I don’t want to sound like a jerk,” he said. “But I gotta put gas in my truck to go out there. If I look over and see a pumper, well, OK. I look the other way.”

There is a pragmatism here that I respect. More than anywhere else I have lived, North Dakotans are willing, even eager, to live alongside the production of the natural resources they — and all of us — consume. Yet I couldn’t help feeling that they had gone too far. If no landscape was too special not to drill, what would the West become? I was grateful that there was at least one place in the Badlands — a national park named for Teddy Roosevelt — that had been spared.

Here, though, the wells had arrived. So I took Zimmerman’s advice: I pulled my hat over my ears, turned my back to the flares, and hiked on.

Natural gas flares from oil pads cast an apocalyptic glow in the night sky, when seen from the campground at Little Missouri State Park in North Dakota.
Andrew Cullen

Emily Guerin previously reported on energy in North Dakota and is now based in Los Angeles.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.