By Evelyn Nieves | Alternet
This is a story about one tribal nation grappling with the stresses of life during oil time – housing, traffic, crime, crowds, their quality of life.
This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
NEW TOWN N.D. –When the black gold rush began, no one on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation expected it to take down Main Street.
A modest strip of one- and two-story buildings framed by undulating plains, Main Street doubled as the reservation’s community hub, in the tradition of small towns. Neighbors caught up at the Jack and Jill grocery, elders strolled to the library, children rode their bikes on the streets.
No one imagined tanker trucks barreling up and down Main Street, back-to-back like freight trains, seven days and nights a week. No one predicted construction zones that grind traffic to a halt as far as the eye can see, the deafening clatter of semis, the dust kicked up by 10,000 vehicles pulverizing the two-lane road every day or the smell and taste of diesel. No one anticipated the accidents, two or more a week on Main Street and all over the rutted reservation roads, costing lives and shattering families.
In fact, Fort Berthold, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, or Three Affiliated Tribes, did not reckon on a lot when North Dakota invited the energy industry to Drill Baby Drill. No one knew that energy companies in search of housing for their workers would buy private property and evict some of the reservation’s poorest residents from their homes. No one planned on police and fire calls multiplying. No one guessed that on a reservation of nearly one million acres, all the deer would disappear.
In the heart of the refuge of recession America, this little-known tribe is grappling mightily with the consequences of striking oil.
“It’s horrible,” said Becky Deschamp, a 41-year-old lifelong Fort Berthold resident.
Deschamp offered that verdict while packing her trailer, not by choice. In November, an oil company bought the run-down Prairie Winds Trailer Park two blocks off Main Street where she and her husband and two children have lived for seven years. With land and housing nearly impossible to find, the park’s 45 families—more than 180 adults and children in all— were given two extensions before the final Aug. 31 deadline to leave.
Just six weeks before the deadline, when the tribe cleared and prepared a lot three miles outside of New Town, the evictees still had no idea where they would go. But they were luckier than some. Last year, a nearby trailer park was sold and its residents given 30 days to move. The tribe offered them a field about 10 miles away, but soon after they moved there, the lot buckled under sewer and water demands. When the ground began to sink, families had to relocate again, even farther away from town.
“The tribe didn’t count on these disruptions,” Deschamp said, surveying the boarded trailers and junked cars left behind by neighbors. “I know I didn’t.”
What the tribe counted on when the boom hit two years ago was money. It never had any to spare and the recession made things worse. About 40 percent of the tribal workforce was unemployed and people were leaving the land where the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara have lived for more than a millennium. For a nation with only about 4,500 of its 13,000 enrolled members living on the rez, the wretched economy threatened the community’s very survival. Then Fort Berthold turned into a black gold mine.
The reservation’s swath of prairie and pasturelands sits over the Bakken, the biggest sea of oil discovered in the United States in 40 years. Until a few years ago, the Bakken, which also stretches across parts of South Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan, was too deep to mine. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves blasting chemical-laced water and sand deep underground to break apart shale and release gas, has given oil companies the means to have their way with the Bakken. And so they have.
Several states have banned fracking as too environmentally taxing. Other states have limited the practice. Not North Dakota.
With few regulations and little protest, oil production is proceeding at a dizzy pace. Last year, North Dakota became the third largest oil producing state in the nation, bumping California. This year it replaced Alaska for the number two spot after Texas. The oil patch is now producing more than 600,000 barrels of oil a day. Thanks to oil taxes and related revenue, North Dakota is expecting its surplus to top $2 billion within the year. This in a state with only 641,480 people pre-boom.
New Town, with about 1,500 residents pre-boom, now boasts North Dakota’s fastest growing economy. But while it is on Fort Berthold, it is considered part of Mountrail County, not part of the tribal nation.
Still, the tribe is raking in cash. The Fort Berthold reservation received more than $117 million in royalties in 2011, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Individual tribal members who own mineral rights on their private land, or allotments, receive anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars a month. That’s about two-thirds of the tribe’s total royalties.
Unemployment, now between six and seven percent, keeps dropping. Businesses are thriving. The Four Bears Casino is adding 160 rooms to its 97-room hotel and plans to offer ferryboat gambling on Lake Sakakawea, the Missouri River reservoir that runs through the reservation.
People who used to come to the tribal offices asking for help no longer do. “We appreciate the money that’s coming in and helping to improve incomes and the socioeconomic status of our members,” said Dennis Fox, the tribe’s CEO.
But, Fox added, despite all the oil money coming in from royalties and taxes, Three Affiliated Tribes is spending all of its new income—and then some –dealing with the oil production’s impacts.
In an interview at tribal headquarters, Fox offered a “but” for every positive impact of the oil rush. The tribe’s budget for special projects is now double its average yearly operating budget of between $40 and $50 million, he said. But the tribe estimates that it will cost more than $100 million just to repair the reservation’s road system.
“It’s a matter of playing catch up,” he said. “We’re trying to beef up all of our infrastructure. Nobody anticipated the great influx of workers and the impact on the roads and housing and everything else.”
The tribal chairman, Tex Hall, regularly treks to Washington, D.C. to plead for road relief. “I already receive almost daily calls telling me of serious accidents involving our members,” he told a Congressional appropriations subcommittee in April.
“In fact, we now have so many accidents on my reservation that my staff does not even both to call me unless the injuries are life-threatening. The situation has now gotten to be that bad.”
All over the Bakken lands of Western North Dakota, known as the oil patch, towns are going through many of the same challenges. Highways are getting pounded to dust, police, fire and social service departments are scrambling and housing is beyond hard to find.
In a way, history is repeating itself. Cities and towns across the country have gone through similar upheavals for the sake of energy production and jobs, including the small towns of southwest West Virginia and eastern Kentucky during the heyday of coal. That part of central Appalachia is still struggling to pick up after booms went bust.
Of course, North Dakota invited the oil companies. But the oil patch is like the high school wallflower who announces a backyard kegger on Facebook, only to find the entire student body has shown up. Before it gave oil drilling a go, North Dakota was the nation’s least-visited state. The once-overlooked, now overwhelmed oil patch never dreamed it would become the center of the biggest, messiest migration to one state since the California Gold Rush.