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Can fracking preserve North Dakota's environment?


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    Cross Ranch Preserve is home to diverse wildlife like prairie flowers, grasses, and bison. 

    - Sam Harnett

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    Eric Rosenquist says conservationists work with private ranchers to preserve large swaths of uninterrupted grassland.

    - Sam Harnett

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    Park Ranger Eileen Andes says she now spends 50 percent of her time dealing with oil and gas issues.

    - Sam Harnett

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    Housing development from Bismarck is encroaching on the grasslands near Cross Ranch State Park.

    - Sam Harnett

North Dakota ain't what it used to be. The fracking boom has brought a population and development surge that you can see from outer space. Seriously—at night, flares from oil and gas wells light up the state. The tax revenue from growth in the energy industry has created a monster budget surplus. It's over 1.6 billion dollars already this year. Conservationists in the state want to start spending some of that money now on the environment.

Okay, but conservationists can't just walk up to North Dakota's conservative state legislature with a spending bill for the environment—it wouldn't pass. So instead, they're going straight to the people with a ballot initiative.

The initiative would operate like this. It'd set aside five percent of existing tax revenue from oil extraction, and mandate that a portion of the money be spent every year on conservation. An advisory board would select what projects get funding—whether it be protecting drinking water, creating wildlife habitat, or working with ranchers to manage land. If passed, the initiative would generate tens of millions of dollars a year for conservation.

Read the full text of the ballot intiative here.

Because of the growth in the energy industry, conservationists say now's the time to invest in North Dakota's nature. Their two biggest environmental concerns with fracking are the direct impacts of industrial operations and the subsequent increase in the state's population. The best place to see the immediate effects of oil and gas development is out in the west of the state. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is just south of Williston—ground zero for North Dakota's energy boom. The park is part of the largest national grasslands in the United States, and one of North Dakota's top tourist attractions. Now, oil and gas operations are popping up all around this rugged patch of grassy badlands.

Ranger Eileen Andes takes out a map in her office and shows me all of the new wells and gravel roads. She says now around the park there's more truck traffic, light pollution, and sound pollution. Some of the oil wells are as close as a mile from the park border. In the evening, she sends me out to Buck Hill, one of the highest points in the park. From the summit, you can see the orange flicker of a dozen oil flares and a blaze of blue light from a new truck depot.

“We're not against oil and gas development,” Andes says, “but we believe that the development can be done in a way where park resources aren't adversely impacted.” But the changes are happening too fast she says, and the park staff is scrambling to minimize the effects.

In the center of North Dakota, conservationists face a different problem—housing developments.

Eric Rosenquist works for The Nature Conservancy at Cross Ranch Preserve*. It's about forty miles north of Bismarck, the state capital, but the residential sprawl of the city is getting closer every day. Rosenquist takes me out in his pick-up truck to see all the recently constructed homes near the preserve's edge. “You can just look out over the horizon and you can see it's coming,” he says, “often it's in, couple-acre ranchettes. Most places don't even have grass in the yard yet.”

Much of North Dakota's prairie belongs to ranchers, and now some are selling off their land to developers. A year ago, Rosenquist says there were no houses on these rolling, grassy hills. It was just open Missouri River prairie. In the 19th century Lewis and Clark wintered at a spot a few miles up the river during their cross-country expedition. Today, the hills are home to all kinds of wildlife—grasses, prairie flowers, and buffalo.

Conservation is harder to do in North Dakota than it is in most states. Non-profits need the okay of two boards and the governor to acquire property. Voters like Eric Aasmundstad don't want the government managing land. “We pride ourselves here on not having a lot of government ownership of property,” Aasmundstad says “and we'd like to keep it that way.”

Aasmundstad is the former president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, a strong political force in the state. It opposes the ballot initiative, fearing that the money would make conservationists too powerful—that they'd use it to buy up valuable farm land. Aasmundstad says his state has other needs for the money. “We've got roads to build,” he says, “we've got water infrastructure to build, and we've got schools to fund.”

But conservationists say that's the beauty of it. The initiative wouldn't take away from any current spending. They say it would use existing tax revenue that's now piling up in the state treasury. As for the wild land grab? Eric Rosenquist says that's not an option in North Dakota.“Coming and buying up the countryside is just not going to happen,” he says, “it's not socially accepted in North Dakota and it's not financially feasible.”

It'll become more expensive for anyone to buy undeveloped land here as people continue to stream into the state. Percentage-wise, North Dakota now has the fastest growing population in the country.


*CORRECTION:  A prior version of this story incorrectly identified Cross Ranch Preserve. The text has been corrected. 

About the author

Sam Harnett is a reporter and contributor to Marketplace.

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