Can Fracking and a National Park Coexist?

On a partly cloudy night in August of 2012, amateur astronomers shared their telescopes and their knowledge with visitors to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As the clouds moved on, the magnificent night sky revealed itself. The Northern Sky Astronomical Society, which organizes these “Star Parties” in cooperation with the Park, chose the North Unit several years before because it is a rare place where the night sky isn’t masked by light pollution. But as the stars came into view other things began to reveal themselves. On the ridges surrounding the Park there was the fiery glow of excess natural gas being burnt off and to the north appeared a halo of light from a rapidly developing Watford City. The night skies of western North Dakota are no longer dark.

There is little left of wilderness in the Great Plains. But in western North Dakota this small national park offers a glimpse into a time when Bison roamed by the millions over the gently rolling hills and dramatic breaks of the Little Missouri River. But this memorial to the 26th President is under siege. The Great Plains have changed since Theodore Roosevelt first ventured west in 1883 anxious to hunt bison before they disappeared. It has changed since his namesake park was created to memorialize his conservation legacy in 1947. It has changed even from a few years before when the oil rigs were just beginning to transform this quiet corner of the Great Plains. It has changed because of the energy boom made possible by advances in hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

A bison stands on a bluff in the distance
A bison stands on a bluff in the distance

I spent five months working in the North Unit of the Park. And even in that relatively brief time, I came to understand what fracking is doing to western North Dakota and the national park that preserves a tiny piece of the Northern Great Plain’s undeveloped past. When I was hired to run the visitor services program of the North Unit for the 2012 summer season, I read about the energy boom that was transforming the western third of North Dakota. But it was impossible to truly understand the impacts, both subtle and obvious, without experiencing it. Even before I arrived at my new job those impacts were becoming clear.

The drive north on US 85 in Wyoming and South Dakota is, in some measure, the past—a narrow two lane highway meandering through the rolling landscape of the Great Plains. It is largely a quiet ride with very few cars or trucks interrupting the view of the passing landscape. But as one approaches Interstate 94 in North Dakota, a dramatic change occurs. While the road is still a narrow two lane highway, north of I-94 it is choked with thousands of trucks of every imaginable kind: tankers transporting oil, trucks filled with gravel for new roads, and pickups filled with workers and tools, all hurtling down this overwhelmed rural highway at suicidal speeds. But nothing was more chilling than trucks hauling wide loads taking up most of the highway. They are carrying pieces of oil rigs, mobile housing and construction equipment and everyone is trying to pass them. Accidents were frequent as I witnessed later. (One park ranger I know had to ditch his car to avoid an oncoming vehicle trying to pass.) Just before entering the North Unit, I nearly became a victim. Not of an oncoming vehicle, but of infrastructure that is not able to handle the weight of all those trucks. To call it a pothole doesn’t quite capture the size—it was more like a small crater and it was hard to see. I swerved just in time saving my old car from oblivion, and began my adventure in the very center of the energy boom.

The victims of traffic are not just humans. The Little Missouri Badlands is a refuge for the animals that were once so bountiful on the Plains. But dissecting it is US 85 and wildlife must cross this frantically busy roadway. Many do not make it. I always wanted to see a porcupine in the wild. I knew that they were common in the Badlands, so I was looking forward to observing these nocturnal creatures, but the only ones I saw were the dozens of dead animals that had attempted to cross the highway at night and didn’t make it. And it is not only US 85.

To extract the oil, you need a well, which sits on a pad, which requires a road so that vehicles can reach the wells. In the Bakken formation, (North Dakota’s main oil field), the state predicts that in 20-30 years there will be an increase in wells from today’s 7,000 to at least 35,000 and each well requires a road. It takes approximately 2,000 trucking events to prepare a site for fracking and the trucks continue to ply these new dusty gravel roads long after the construction is completed. The need for access to these sites and the desire for less congested highways has led to creation of new lanes on old highways and new highways where none had been. In this development frenzy we are losing many things.

To stand, as I have, at the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch and see a landscape that he would have recognized, is a special moment. To know, while you are standing there, that in this place Theodore Roosevelt began to formulate his ideas about conservation—ideas that helped create the conservation movement and spurred the President to protect millions of acres of land, is to appreciate its significance. The viewshed has already been altered by pumpjacks on nearby ridges. Soon, if oil interests have their way, a bridge will span the Little Missouri River within sight of the ranch because of a proposed new highway that will bisect the Little Missouri National Grasslands. Future visitors, who like me, want to quietly contemplate the “Walden Pond” of the west, will instead see and hear the parade of trucks to and from the oil pads that are extracting the energy of our carbon past. And that past, among other things, is very noisy.

I experienced noise pollution every day as I went to my office at the visitor center. It seemed incongruous, the constant drone of trucks at the entrance to this formerly isolated unit of a national park. Quiet contemplation of natural soundscapes and viewsheds is becoming increasingly difficult in the North Unit. Ironically, a place where one can enjoy natural sounds and views bereft of development is needed more than ever and by those very people who are inadvertently causing them to disappear.

Never in my nearly decade working in national parks, have I experienced a place so needed by the public who used it. Oil workers from all over the country, crowded into so-called “man camps” (and with few exceptions the vast majority of these workers are men), separated from families for months at a time, working in a dangerous and demanding industry. They would come to the North Unit to restore themselves. It is the very essence of what a national park is and I was humbled by it. The saddest moments were when children and wives came for all too brief visits to the area—children clinging to the fathers, wives looking anxious. They would come to the park for a few hours of recreation. And that is the irony of the situation. While it is clear to me that this park, particularly the North Unit, is being overwhelmed and forever diminished by this energy boom, the tens of thousands of people who are migrating to the oil fields are increasingly finding the park a necessary respite from the stress of life in the oil patch. They are economic refugees from an economy that has little regard for working people and pays them accordingly. For them, this terrible industry is a godsend.

The Little Missouri Badlands in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt
The Little Missouri Badlands in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt

As in the California gold rush “camp followers” have joined the workers on their trek to the oil play. Prostitutes ply their trade in the “man camps” and I’ve seen them on Watford City’s main street. Petty crime is common. More grandiose schemes occur as well. In July I was warned to watch out for counterfeit bills. By the end of the month police had broken up a counterfeiting operation in Watford City. No national park is immune from its surroundings. And although the North Unit has thankfully seen little crime, and remains safe, there is a feeling among the staff and more than a few visitors that extra care needs to be taken with both valuables and their persons. This very real sense of insecurity pervades the place, and it adds to stress and diminishes, once again, that elusive quality that we seek to provide in all our national parks.

All these people, native-born, newcomers, workers and thieves need water. So does the process that is driving this boom. On average it takes two million gallons of water mixed with proprietary chemicals to break open the seams of shale that contain the oil. This water is being drawn from aquifers and water has always been a scarce resource in western North Dakota, which receives only 14” of precipitation a year on average. Without adequate recharge seeps, springs and creeks will dry up. Wildlife will have to travel farther to find water sources and expose themselves to the energy infrastructure that is fragmenting their habitats.

Even if skeptics were to concede that the fracking process is reasonably safe, one cannot ignore the greater impacts this industry is having on the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt. The cumulative effects of this industry on western North Dakota are far-reaching and unsustainable. In President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union, he called for speeding up development of oil, gas and sustainable energy sources on federal public lands which includes the Little Missouri National Grasslands that surround the Park. From my perspective this development is already going to fast. We need to slow down, take into account the capacity of this land to sustain these activities. We must consider wisely if, where, when and how these resources are developed, or we jeopardize these places for future generations. It is the least we can do to honor Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy.

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