LITTLE MISSOURI STATE PARK, N.D. — Gov. Jack Dalrymple spent more than nine hours Thursday touring nine western North Dakota sites of historical, cultural or ecological significance that are nestled smack-dab in the middle of oil country.
The tour, a first for a member of the state Industrial Commission since the legislative session, included a flyover of other areas from Belfield to Medora to Watford City. The Industrial Commission — chaired by the governor with members Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring — had said it would conduct the tour as a group, but Dalrymple said individual schedules have not allowed that.
Terry Steinwand, director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, and Mark Zimmerman, director of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, accompanied Dalrymple on the tour.
Cities and counties in the West, as well as tourist destinations, have felt the crunch of energy development as it has encroached near their boundaries.
Since the 1970s, Badlands Trail Rides has co-existed with the state park, catering to riders who bring in their own stock or guiding them along the 50-some miles of trails that wind through the Badlands.
Twila and Tom Benz are one of three families in the area who lease land to the state park for trails. They also have five rental cabins but in the past couple of years, visitation has dipped. Jesse Hanson of the state Parks and Recreation Department said that has also been the case at the state park.
State Highway 22, which runs north of Killdeer 19 miles to the park's entrance, has been under construction for the past two years, and Hanson said between the construction, gas prices, the economy and truck traffic, visitation has been down.
He said last year the park had about 1,400 campers total. "We had been going up steadily," Hanson said.
It's a crunch other areas in the West have been feeling as well.
Dalrymple's tour included visits to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park north and south units, the Long X Divide, Lone Butte, Killdeer Mountains Wildlife Management Area, Killdeer Mountain Battlefield, Elkhorn Ranch and Twin Buttes.
Rob Sand, who lives in the Killdeer Mountains near the historic battlefield, is a member of a loosely formed group known as the Killdeer Mountain Alliance. The group has been urging the governor and the state to proceed cautiously during the permitting process with drilling and other oil activity near sensitive areas, as in the case of the battlefield.
Sand said he is not opposed to private landowners developing their land and minerals for energy production, but he would like to see some sort of strategy to establish infrastructure like roads, water and electricity ahead of time.
"Whatever they can do to mitigate things," Sand said.
Dalrymple said once Stenehjem and Goehring are able to tour the region first-hand, that type of planning can begin.
"We're not blind to the situation and the effect it has on the environment," the governor told reporters at the state park.
He said while landowners have the right to develop their property, the state can add special provisions to permits in sensitive areas. Dalrymple said those provisions, some of which have already been added by oil companies, could include altering locations of pads or roads.
"We have the power of the permit over them," he said. "That has been the new regime since I became governor ... and I think it has been working well."
Aside from the ecological and cultural issues, some worry about quality of life issues. With big oil and big money moving in at a frantic pace, western North Dakota has lost much of its charm and natural beauty, they say.
Florenda Holen is the volunteer host at the state park. From Wallhalla, she said, her family has moved to the western part of the state to earn a living. She has seen her son and his family move from Williston to Alexander because of an increase in crime and the high cost of living.
Holen said they are now considering a move to Bismarck to further distance themselves from the boom. She said she worries about the future of not just western North Dakota, but of North Dakota's way of life, which appears to vanishing.
"You look at the rim (Badlands horizon) at night and it's lit up by flaring," Holen said. She said when the boom is over one day, she hopes there will be something left for people to come back to. In the meantime, she said, it's tough to make a living and a life right now for many younger people who want to call western North Dakota home.
"We need something now so these people can keep a job ... they want a life, not a gold rush," Holen said.