September 13, 2015
Ten years have now passed since I moved back to North Dakota. I drove in on Labor Day 2005 with the last of four big U-Haul rigs. I began writing this column for the Bismarck Tribune four weeks later, and I have appeared in this space on Sundays ever since. I’m fond of special anniversaries (the Lewis & Clark bicentennial, the hundredth year of our National Park System). They offer us the opportunity to look backward and forward, to step out of the iron tyranny of the present for a moment or two and engage in some serious reflection. With your permission, for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to try to make sense of the last decade. I will try to sum up, if I can find a way.
When I arrived home ten years ago, the great North Dakota agony of outmigration, school and farm consolidation, small towns on life support, and general rural decline was in remission. Things were not at all ok west of the Red River Valley, but the worst of the outmigration crisis of the 80s and 90s was over, and a kind of fragile (and nervous) stability had set in. I remember reading a book then entitled The Natural West: Environmental History in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains) in which the brilliant historian Dan Flores argues that the Great Plains are a formidable and forbidding place where humans come for a time (wet times usually) and then are eventually driven out by drought, wind, economic marginality, and geographic isolation. Back in 2005 it seemed that we were perhaps living through one of those macro-historic waves of human withdrawal. Something much bigger than human agency was taking place on the Great Plains (in rural America generally), and all we could do was try to adjust to the changing dynamics.
Officials in my hometown of Dickinson were having emergency meetings then to see if they could find a way to keep the hospital open. A newly arrived hospital CEO told me at dinner at my mother’s house that he had been brought to Dickinson “to manage decline.” One of my closest friends, also at my mother’s dining room table, speculated that the population of North Dakota would continue to spiral down, but perhaps it would find a sustainable plateau at about 500,000.
That was then.
Thanks to God and Harold Hamm, who saw the possibility of applying emerging technologies to the oil-saturated shale that lies beneath northwestern North Dakota and had the gumption to take the pioneering risk, almost every significant problem in North Dakota life has been solved. Thanks to the Bakken oil boom, North Dakota has finally reached a population of more than 700,000, for the first time in its history. The western towns that were ready to dry up and blow away—Grassy Butte, Killdeer, Stanley, Crosby, Epping, etc.—have staged a startling, almost miraculous, at times overwhelming comeback. Houses that couldn’t be sold for $35,000 or even given away in 2001 sold overnight for three, five, even ten times that in 2013. New businesses on main street; coffee kiosks and food trucks in whatever vacant lots remain; whole new subdivisions in towns that had thrown away their infrastructure development manuals; full employment—indeed long lists of unfilled jobs. Towns that would have fought against a highway bypass with fierce defiance back in 1995 now begged for traffic and dust relief. And perhaps best of all, many of the young people who left during the desperate years to find jobs and fulfillment in Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle, or Spokane, were now returning to spend the rest of their lives where they grew up, among their kin and authentic community.
Meanwhile, the state’s coffers are full to bursting. Finally, we are able to pay our K-12 teachers and professors something closer to what they deserve. Centers of excellence have blossomed all over the state, thanks to former Governor John Hoeven. The magnificent new Heritage Center would have been unthinkable before the boom. Property taxes are coming down. The Legacy Fund now exceeds $3 billion. Even at the low oil prices of the last year, when you are pumping 1.2 million barrels per day, the tax revenues pile up like manna from heaven.
When I came home in 2005, the question was how to manage decline. That was the period of the Buffalo Commons, “emptied prairie” trope. Who will be left to turn out the lights?
Now, just ten years later, the challenge for the people of North Dakota is how to come to terms with unprecedented success and prosperity. I know a few philosophers who believe we North Dakotans are masters of perseverance in hard times, of getting by on little or nothing, squeezing a trickle of life blood out the turnip, finding a way to hold things together—somehow–with some gray tape and hand-me-down overalls. But we are not, these sages say, trained to handle prosperity, because the history of North Dakota has largely been the history of hardship and gumption, of grinding a bare subsistence out of the soil in the face of inhospitable conditions: climate, isolation, and colonial predators. How we choose to manage success, how we invest these gargantuan surpluses, how we choose to imagine what North Dakota might be in an era of unprecedented prosperity and confidence, has become the challenge of the twenty-first century. We’re going to need some visionary leadership. We do not at the moment, I believe, have visionary leadership.
Perhaps the single richest conversation I’ve had in my homecoming years occurred five years ago during the pitchfork fondue on the Tjaden Terrace before the Medora Musical. My dinner partner was John Andrist, then a state senator and the emeritus editor of the Crosby Journal. He continues to write a lovely, lively, and insightful column for a number of North Dakota newspapers. I was asking him whether the social and environmental strains of the oil boom should be regarded as “temporary growing pains” or the “unavoidable cost of industrial extraction.”
Senator Andrist put down his fork and gave me a look that mingled annoyance and his characteristic wit. “Look,” he said, “I’ve spent the last thirty years watching my hometown Crosby decline—fewer businesses, our kids leaving and not coming back, empty and even abandoned houses, fewer farms. Every couple of years we formed a new civic group to try to attract new businesses to town and new citizens, yet no matter how hard we tried nothing very positive ever seemed to happen. It’s agonizing to watch a community you love die.”
I could see he was deeply moved, and so was I.
He continued, “So now the oil boom has reversed everything, and suddenly Crosby is back. The town is buzzing with new confidence, new hope, new enterprise, new citizens. And the children who left are starting to return, because they really do want to live in North Dakota. Do I wish it were happening a little more gradually, and with less social disruption? Of course. But it would be insane to prefer decline and death to the strain of sudden growth.”
Still, if the oil boom has solved many of our problems, it has created some really challenging new ones. How well we address them will determine what sort of place North Dakota will be for our grandchildren.
But there is no question that the main thing I have observed in the last decade is: renewal.