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North Dakota Flights Spark Discussion on Oil Boom Impacts

Lighthawk passengers (from left) Kenton Onstad, Theodora Bird Bear, and Bobbie Larson (far right) speak with Rae Ann Williams of Dakota Resource Council (second from right) about their LightHawk flight. Photo courtesy Chris Boyer.

The Mandan people moved northwest from the Ohio Valley and settled in what is now northwestern North Dakota around 1250. They were joined by the Arikara and Hidatsa people in the 1400s and eventually the three groups united as the Three Affiliated Tribes. Over the next four hundred years the tribes hunted, trapped and cultivated crops along the Missouri River while weathering devastating smallpox and cholera epidemics, intense conflicts with the Sioux, and growing turmoil with the U.S. government.

In the 1870s, the Three Affiliated Tribes were consolidated on the Fort Berthold Reservation and most tribal members settled in the cottonwood groves in the rich bottomlands along the Missouri River. Eighty years later, the US Army Corps of Engineers dammed the river for flood control, hydroelectric power, navigation and irrigation, which created Lake Sakakawea, the third largest man-made lake in the U.S. The lake flooded a quarter of the reservation, including the tribes’ three main towns and the people of the Three Affiliated Tribes were forced to start over in Twin Buttes, Mandaree and New Town. Recovery from the forced relocation was difficult, kinship groups were torn apart, and unemployment rose to 70%.

Increasing opportunity


Tribal leaders have worked through the years to increase economic opportunities, including various manufacturing efforts and opening the 4 Bears Casino in 1990. Oil was discovered in the area in the 1950s and drilling has occurred sporadically since then without great success. The recent advent of hydraulic fracturing technologies has made extraction of oil from shale suddenly both possible and profitable. In the past year and a half, oil companies have flocked to the Bakken Formation, a layer of compressed shale that lies 10,000 feet below the surface of 24,000 square miles of eastern Montana, northwestern North Dakota and southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The US Geological Survey estimates that as many as 4.3 billion barrels of crude oil are recoverable from the Bakken shale using existing technologies, making it the largest oil find in U.S. history.

A new oil rig facility abuts a farmstead on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Photo courtesy Chris Boyer.

The Bakken oil boom has brought millions of dollars to the Fort Berthold area and attracted thousands of new residents drawn to high-paying jobs in the oil fields and in supporting industries. In 2009 North Dakota surpassed Louisiana to become the nation’s fourth largest oil producer. While the economic benefits of the oil industry are welcomed by the state and by many residents in this poverty-stricken area, little attention has been paid during the boom to the non-economic costs of the oil drilling and transport on both the landscape and the people.

Viewing Impacts of the Boom


LightHawk volunteer pilot Chris Boyer, fueled by a personal interest in the landscape of the Great Plains and the pressures of oil development in the region, worked with LightHawk staff and the Dakota Resource Council (DRC) to arrange flights for the editor of the New Town News, two tribal leaders and a ND state representative. The purpose of the missions was to give these community leaders a sense of oil development in the area, including oil well activity, heavy truck traffic on rural roads, water drainage areas and land reclamation activities. DRC and the passengers are using photographs and news stories from the flights to help spur discussions in the community about the long-term ecological and social impacts of the oil industry on the Fort Berthold Reservation.

“This flight helped me get information out to the readers that I've been wanting to for quite some time. Everyone here on the reservation wants the money from oil exploration, but nobody wants to own up to the social problems that this is bringing with it. .. Everyone on the ground knows of the traffic, but to see it from the air and the dust it is creating is quite dramatic.” --Marvin Baker, Editor, New Town News

A drilling pad on the banks of Lake Sakakawea. Photo courtesy Chris Boyer.

On the surface, it seems that the environmental and social tradeoffs may be acceptable since the oil boom is infusing the poverty-stricken reservation with millions of dollars in cash. Grocery stores can't keep food on the shelves and business at the 4 Bears Casino is up 60%. While the state and local economies are surging, however, the oil boom is creating two classes of people within the Tribes – those who own their mineral rights and those whose mineral rights were previously separated from their land. Mineral rights owners who allow the oil companies to drill on their properties receive thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars in leases and ongoing royalties, while surface rights owners receive much smaller one-time payments for access to their land.

The influx of workers from around the country has quickly exceeded available housing in the area. Motels are booked solid, trailer parks and RV campgrounds are overflowing, and many workers are living in their cars. The high demand has caused housing costs to soar, and many local people who can no longer afford their rents are forced to move in with family and friends, or leave the reservation. Local services – from law enforcement to sewage treatment – are being stretched thin. Millions of gallons of water are being trucked to well sites to enable the fracking process, a practice which also leads to concerns about groundwater contamination.

Truck traffic on rural roads creates a constant haze on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Increased traffic and potholes have made these roads some of the most treacherous in the country. Photo courtesy Chris Boyer.

The Most Dangerous Road

The region’s roads are disintegrating under the heavy truck traffic, up over 600% in some areas just over the past year. According to a recent eight-part series about the oil boom published by Forum Communications, Co. entitled "Running With Oil ," Steve Kelly, owner-manager of Trustland Oilfield Service, said that in the past two months he’s had five trucks hauling water, gravel, oil tankers and crews 24 hours a day, seven days a week – his drivers putting more than 700,000 miles on State Highway 23 and surrounding roads.” Highway 23 is a two-lane highway with no shoulder that is riddled with potholes. It’s been called “the most dangerous road in the world without a bomb hidden on it.”

Bobbi Larson, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, observed after the LightHawk flight that there were no animals to be seen in the drilling areas, remote areas that used to be frequented by mountain lions, deer, antelope, eagles, wild turkey, and occasionally moose and wolves. Larson saw that roads were being cut into areas that before had seemed untouchable and that haze seemed to hang in the air everywhere they looked. The flight also raised questions in Larson’s mind, “If the oil wells are producing income for the state, where are our new highways to protect tourist traffic from the oil traffic? Are there protocols to protect the land and people from oil spills?” Larson summed up her feelings by saying, “The whole scenario could turn into a huge disaster...”

A fresh drilling pad amongst prairie potholes in rural northwestern North Dakota. Photo courtesy Chris Boyer

The Road Ahead


For the people of the Three Affiliated Tribes, North Dakota’s oil boom is the latest chapter in a complex story spanning 800 years. While it’s likely easier to focus only on the economic boon as money flows in from the oil patch, an ongoing conversation about the big picture – about health, environmental justice, economic fairness and the impacts of the oil industry on the people and culture of the Three Affiliated Tribes – is critically important. In the months since the LightHawk flights and subsequent articles in the New Town News, several larger papers including the Billings Gazette and the Minot Daily News have run articles chronicling the side-effects of the oil boom. The power of LightHawk flights sometimes lies simply in the ability of an airplane to form a platform for sparking dialogue, as the view from above reveals the true condition of the landscape below. 

"Without LightHawk's commitment to conservation, I would not have had the opportunity to view from above and photograph areas of Mandaree and New Town which are starting to experience the impacts of industrial energy development via wellsites, fracking, pipelines, roads, a high volume of truck traffic, noise, and dust. Little or no local public discussion appears to recognize or give any value to the pre-existing landscape of wildlife, undisturbed prairie lands and badland-terrain on Fort Berthold. As a tribal member - and a mineral owner - I believe our historic connection and relationship to the earth remains fundamental to our well-being. -- Theodora Bird Bear, Tribal Member, Three Affiliated Tribes



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