April 12, 2015
Activist group has long history of work on landowner issues
April 11, 2015
Whether the topic is fair trade or clean air, Dakota Resource Council’s mission remains the same. The nonprofit, grassroots organization is all about making the voices of North Dakotans heard.
In that respect, the organization has been successful, said DRC board member Theodora Bird Bear, Mandaree.
“I would say the successes are that people are being empowered to speak out, whether in the Legislature, through letters to the editor, comments on radio programs. People are more willing to speak out now. I think that’s a real success,” she said.
These days, DRC members are speaking out about the impacts of oil and gas development on western North Dakota, particularly as they affect the land and water. Members have called for better regulation of radioactive oil-field waste, improved oil and saltwater pipeline safety and increased rules for oil transport. Bird Bear said people have a need and right to know when it comes to oil impacts, whether it involves siting of a landfill or requiring companies to disclose fracking chemicals.
“People want to know what’s going on near them and in western North Dakota. We love our land. We care for our land. Most of us will live here all our lives, so we have a commitment to this land,” she said. “We will just stand up to protect our commitment to this land and to express it and to let the folks in Bismarck know their decision-making impacts western North Dakota folks DRC members and we want a voice in that decision making.”
The Legislature this year killed a bill that reflected concerns of some members that state regulators are too lax with the oil industry. The bill had sought an audit of the North Dakota Health Department and Oil & Gas Division. Bird Bear said the bill had value even if defeated.
‘That’s never going to happen. None of us are wanting it to go away. We just want them to do it better. That’s all most of these issues are is trying to make it better. There’s better ways of doing things, not to just headlong rush into things the cheapest way or the easiest way. We have to think about the future.’
– Former DRC chairman Donny Nelson of Keene, on the perception that the organization wants to harm the oil industry.
“It was important to make a point that the regulators for North Dakota over the oil industry need to pay attention and that people are watching,” she said. “What they do or don’t do affects us directly out here in western North Dakota.”
DRC started in 1978 when landowners from three oil and gas counties came together to address shared concerns about the lack of surface owners rights. Nearly every existing law granting surface owner rights came from work that DRC did, said former DRC chairman Donny Nelson of Keene.
In recent years, DRC members have sensed a public animosity against them because of the group’s stance on issues related to oil development. Labeled a leftwing environmental group, DRC has had policy makers and lawmakers shy away and become less inclined to listen to members’ concerns, Nelson said. The labeling also hurts efforts to get landowners involved.
“They make it seem like everybody is an out-of-state environmentalist in DRC, and there really isn’t any. It’s North Dakota people,” Nelson said.
DRC as an organization has made statements that have rankled, such as blaming North Dakota officials for an oil train explosion in West Virginia because of weak state regulations for managing oil volatility.
“Over the top” is how The Forum in Fargo editorialized about the DRC response. Calling DRC anti-fossil fuels, The Forum said DRC’s voice is necessary in the energy debate but it will be tuned out when it goes from informed and measured to foolish and shrill.
Nelson had responded to the editorial in a letter, saying technology is available to stabilize the oil so it is safer to transport by train a process used in other states. State officials first denied the oil is explosive, then reluctantly imposed weak regulations, he wrote.
“The fact is North Dakota officials are allowing an explosive product to be sent by train across the continent,” he wrote.
At the time, the state was further looking at rules for hauling crude and on April 1 began requiring companies to remove certain liquids and gases from oil before it’s loaded onto rail cars. The action that had been advocated by DRC.
DRC doesn’t want to damage the oil industry, Nelson said.
“That’s never going to happen. None of us are wanting it to go away. We just want them to do it better,” he said. “That’s all most of these issues are is trying to make it better. There’s better ways of doing things, not to just headlong rush into things the cheapest way or the easiest way. We have to think about the future.”
DRC views itself from the perspective of its history of support for landowners and farmers.
DRC was active in the Minot area in the 1990s when it helped residents organize to protect their interests after a Sawyer landfill opened to accept out-of-state waste. A major accomplishment was having General Motors’ waste removed when it was determined it was not an approved waste for the landfill, Trechock said.
Those area residents helped start a Souris Valley chapter of DRC, which later disbanded. Among the group’s activities had been urging local groceries to institute country-of-origin labeling on meats.
During the 1980s and early 1990s when the oil industry was in bust mode, DRC focused on agricultural issues, such as genetically modified wheat and Canadian wheat and cattle imports. Nelson recalled Gov. Jack Dalrymple, then chairman of Dakota Pasta Growers, standing at the Canadian border with DRC to protest wheat imports.
DRC led a border protest over wheat imports from Canada, which farmers considered to be market dumping, aimed at lowering commodity prices. Spring wheat farmers were successful in getting a settlement in an anti-dumping lawsuit through the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Mark Trechock of Dickinson, DRC director from 1993 to 2012, said the biggest issue for DRC in the 1990s was genetically modified wheat. He recalled DRC fighting alongside other farm groups for three legislative sessions before Monsanto backed away from selling modified wheat seed. Farmers opposed genetically modified wheat because of the potential devastation to foreign markets, which were refusing the wheat.
“Our job was to primarily organize the farmers, and we had farmers all over the state who were very concerned about the loss of income that would come about. I think that was the biggest victory we ever had was to keep GM wheat out because it was going to be a terrible fiscal tragedy for our wheat farmers,” Trechock said.
In 1996, DRC presented a petition to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to protest consolidation and price manipulation in the cattle slaughter industry. The attempt to exert a national influence wasn’t effective, but supply and demand has influenced some improvement over the years, Trechock said.
“We haven’t cured the problem yet, but at least we made it so we can make a living,” Nelson added.
DRC hasn’t resolved all the issues related to oil impacts, either. Decades since first starting the conversation, DRC still is talking about property setbacks for wells and reclamation bonding. Those issues get overshadowed, though, by DRC’s efforts to restrict radioactive waste disposal and set rules to prevent exploding oil trains.
“There’s nothing really radical about any of that,” Nelson said. “None of that is really radical if you just sit with people and talk to them about it.”
Even so, spurring public involvement is an even bigger challenge for DRC than winning over policy makers. Nelson said times have changed since the days when people met together to address their concerns. These days, people are less likely to get involved and particularly aren’t inclined to attend meetings. DRC is learning to adjust its strategies and use new methods in modern culture to engage the younger generation.
Bird Bear said DRC recognizes that the building block for change in North Dakota remains the relationship between people. Although DRC has a few paid staff, the bulk of the work is done by through the grassroots relationships of volunteers.
“DRC is led by the people,” she said. “The members are the driving force in how DRC is going to focus its energy and its strength.”
Nelson added the value in people coming together hasn’t changed.
“You just get four or five committed people, and you can change the whole direction,” he said.