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Farm and ranch families feel big change admist oil boom

  • Fladeland Family
  • Stevens Family
  • Wheeler Family

View through this little valley changing dramatically  


ROSS, N.D. – As recently as five years ago, Scott Fladeland could still marvel at the untouched splendor of his ranch in the lower part of Mountrail County. Now, his ranch in the valley of the Little Knife River is engulfed in oil exploration, with its untouched splendor a thing of the past.

“Down here, it was pretty much the way it's always been since the beginning of time,” Fladeland says. “Our view down here in this valley was unreal. And now, you can't look anywhere and not see impact. I don't know if you can find a spot and not see oil wells and torn up ground.”

Scott Fladeland, with his spouse, Debbie, have a family ranching operation that includes land that his parents worked. Their adult children, Lance and Lacey, live and work on the family ranch, which includes a cattle operation, with cow numbers annually exceeding 700. With the cattle come 115 miles of fence to maintain and a hay crop to tend and harvest. “It’s definitely enough to do,” Fladeland says. The Fladelands are members of Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative, Williston. 

Fladeland struggles to describe what the endless procession of trucks and the large Caterpillar earth movers has done to his area. “A lot of it is kind of hard to describe until you actually see it yourself, on a daily basis,” he says. “The landscape has changed dramatically, especially down in this rougher coulee-type country. The traffic on some of these roads is absolutely unreal - almost overwhelming. We were pretty remote and all by ourselves down here, and now you've got traffic in and out all hours of the day. We’ve literally got several rigs right outside our window.”

Fladeland says the oil companies operating on his land – Fidelity and Whiting – are developing their mineral interests as they have the right to do. He says these companies “have been really good to work with” in the overall effort to minimize land disturbance and production interference for his ranching. The companies have placed multiple well pads in spaced, staggered intervals on his land, some of them extending for a couple of miles along both sides of section lines. He says this chain of well pads and sites has taken away 500-600 acres of productive rangeland.

Land impact compensation is negotiated and received from the oil companies, he says. These come in initial and sometimes annual payments, but Fladeland is concerned that payment amounts are not reflecting the increasing land values.  

While he understands and is compensated for intrusions oil companies make on his land, Fladeland is despondent over what the traffic load is doing to important rural roads. The steady parade of welding trucks, pickups and semis destroys drivable surfaces, which ranchers still have to traverse to move equipment, livestock and crops, he explains.

“The big thing is it's getting so tough for the ranchers that have been here, and make a living here,” Fladeland says. “We can hardly move equipment down the road anymore. We can't haul grain out and we have trouble getting cows out.” Making matters worse is the pounding bad roads give to ranch vehicles, which suffer extensive damage driving on them.
“Here we are, supposedly progressing with this oil boom and this ripping economy, but we're going backwards,” Fladeland says.

 Fladeland, a local township board member, says the rural gravel road maintenance responsibility belongs to the township, but funding is sorely short of what is needed for road upkeep. Early in the boom, money from the county helped with townships roads. But, as the boom has progressed, and traffic has skyrocketed, a gravel road in decent shape in the spring is impassable by fall.    

Fladeland says recent county distributed funds for township road development have been very inadequate, and he expects that state-distributed funds for roads will not improve this situation. Oil companies have provided some road upkeep monetary support, but Fladeland thinks that’s not right, given the extraction taxes they pay.

As a cattle rancher, Fladeland says the dust generated from all the truck traffic is affecting the health of his herd. Dust clouds from heavy traffic filters down into their valley, leaving a coating on equipment, windows and buildings. “It's tough on livestock breathing it and it gets to where you start fighting a lot of respiratory problems. And with people, it's tough on us, too,” he says.

Fladeland also has concerns about how oil companies will reclaim well site locations, once the sites are retired. Land reclamation is their responsibility, but Fladeland says the enormity of the land disruption presents a big reclamation challenge.
“You wonder about the reclamation, especially some of these sites, with the  huge amounts of dirt they've had to move, on this rougher terrain. It's not going to be an easy task for them,” he says.

The huge influx of newcomers is part of the spiked activity in his area. Fladeland, like his neighbors, gets acquainted with many newcomers. “Most of them that we've met are really good people, really nice people, but getting along with people is one of the big changes we've seen.” He said the culture of trust is diminished, however, and homes, buildings and vehicles get locked up these days.

While Caterpillars move giant mounds of dirt on his land, Fladeland says personal and community changes come in small, never-ending increments. “It's little things like that change your lifestyle, just bits and pieces, a little bit here a little bit there, and it isn't all bad,” Fladeland says. 

He adds that the huge infusion of new wealth has indeed saved local communities that were previously fading away. But, he remembers the view he used to have in his slice of the Little Knife River valley, and the close-knit community he once knew. He laments these losses. “There’s some things that money can't buy, and we had it,” Fladeland says.

And he feels the transformation has happened too swiftly. “If what's happened here in five years would have taken place over 25 years, it would have been much easier to deal with,” Fladeland says. “It just happened overnight. That's what a boom is, I guess.”

Story produced by Kent Brick, editor, North Dakota Living;

Glenburn farmer voices concerns, hopes for quality of life


GLENBURN, N.D. – The churning of nearby oil rigs been a reality for Clarke Stevens’ family for several generations. The Glenburn area farmer is situated in an oil region where vertical and horizontal drilling, without fracking technology, is being conducted, now at unprecedented high-volume levels.

The presence of oil rigs, pipelines, storage tanks and oil company employees has long been part of community life in this portion of Bottineau and Renville counties. Stevens has lifetime friends who work at local oil facilities, and appreciates their attentiveness to his and other landowners’ concerns. These days, he has an important message to convey to other parts of North Dakota, about what oil activity, in his area and farther west, is doing to transform landscape, commerce and communities.

“I think the people in the eastern and the southeastern part of the state need to realize the industrialization of the north central and western North Dakota is not coming without some costs,” Stevens says. He says improved oil-driven wealth and economic conditions in these regions have contrasting meanings. He says how one interprets what all the new wealth means “is different for you than it is for me. But out here, it's definitely changing. If that's good or bad, I guess it depends on who you ask.”

Stevens is a Glenburn native, and he now works the family grain farm with his dad and two brothers. He and his spouse, Lora, have three young children. The family also operates a grain cleaning service and his father does Web-based flax sales. His farm is served by North Central Electric Cooperative, Bottineau. 

Stevens says BER Energy manages oil operations in his area, including a rig and storage units adjacent to the family house. “To be perfectly honest, I don't have a problem with them. They're good people, any time I call and have an issue, they hear me out and are very helpful.”
But even with good people, attentive to Stevens’ needs, recent serious oil-related environmental problems have occurred.

Last year, salt water spills seriously damaged two parcels of land which Stevens farms. The spills occurred because of overflows at a malfunctioning salt water tank battery. These are tanks holding salt water that comes to the surface with extracted oil. 
Stevens knows the company personnel that work on these facilities, and knows they are conscientious. However, oil and salt water are being extracted in high volumes, and the tank storage malfunction produced big damage.   
“That land is ruined,” Stevens says. He says the oil company worked on land reclamation, to no avail. “They had to dig the dirt out, and they tried to haul new dirt in, and reclaim it, but it's just never going to be the same,” he says.

A current ongoing nuisance for the Stevens family is the powerful, putrid aroma from the accumulated natural gas, a byproduct of oil extraction.

“The gas smell is horrible,” Stevens says. “I mean, the smell of the sweet harvest air in North Dakota is pretty irreplaceable. But when you replace that with the gas odor from these oil wells to the point where you need to close your windows otherwise you're not going to be able to sleep because you've got such a headache, that gets old,” Stevens says. He says the stench is so powerful, it also produces nausea and breathing problems. 

The frustration for Stevens comes from knowing that company employees are expending efforts and money to flare gases trying to reduce odors. It’s not doing much good. Also, state air quality officials have tested air quality in this area and found it to be in compliance with regulations. Stevens hopes agencies or other groups will do studies “to see what the long-term effects of inhaling this will be. Maybe it's nothing, but it certainly doesn't feel like it’s going to be nothing over the long term.”

Like many farmers and ranchers in the state’s oil-producing region, Stevens laments the condition of the rural, gravel road network.

“These local township roads weren’t meant to be hammered like they are,” Stevens says. Large transport trucks do the damage, but Stevens acknowledges farmers operate equipment that also inflict damage to the roads.

He thinks local governmental units are short of the funds needed to do the gravel road repair and upkeep, but are equally concerned with employing the people necessary to do the road work. He says keeping public service people employed at competitive wages is a serious problem. “There’s many employees that need to be paid better because they always got that oil field calling them. They can go out there and drive a truck or something and make double the money,” Stevens says.

At the state level, Stevens hopes that burgeoning state financial resources will be directed to people being impacted significantly by oil development.  “I hope this state takes the money we have and puts it back where it needs to be. And a lot of it needs to be out west – making it a livable area for those people.”

While he and his family cope with health, and land and road issues, Stevens says his powerful sense of home on the Glenburn farm is enduring.

“My wife and I are never going anywhere. We love North Dakota. My wife teaches at the school. We love the people around here,” Stevens says. “I just hope the people realize that with the success in the state, with the level of prosperity that this oil has brought to our state, yeah, it’s great we are rich, but it's not coming without some costs to the local North Dakotans out in these rural areas.”

“As North Dakota people, we are going to deal with it, and probably not raise too much hell about it either, but it is frustrating,” Stevens says.

Story produced by Kent Brick, editor, North Dakota Living;

Wheeler family feeling gain and loss  

Wheeler Family

RAY, N.D. – Wheeler family roots, on a farm northwest of Ray, run 111 years deep. “We’ve got a lot of history here. My great-grandparents, my grandparents, my parents and now Lynnette and me,” Tom Wheeler says. He and Lynnette operate a cash crop and cattle operation; she is also a Tioga school teacher. They have two sons: Blake, 20, and Evan, 18, and the family is served by Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative. 

The story of the Wheeler family farm, and its long history, is undergoing a major transformation. The Bakken region oil boom is exploding all around them, reshaping their land, their business, their community and their future in unsettling ways.

Reflecting on his family history, and comparing current oil development with other oil surges he has known, Tom Wheeler looks at the present oil boom with deep concern. It is concern mixed with resignation, and the desire that the rest of North Dakota get familiar with the price his area is paying for hosting the boom.

Wheeler, a Ray school board member, travels to eastern North Dakota cities for meetings. When he mentions he is from the Ray area, his counterparts respond with varying degrees of envy. “Some have the impression we are like the “Beverly Hillbillies” - we all own an oil well in our backyard. That's not the case,” Wheeler says. He says he regularly educates people about how oil wealth does – and does not – happen in his region. 

“There’s a lot of people that bought land that have zero mineral interests. And some of these other people have a lot of mineral interests. And they're doing well. But you have no say over that.” Wheeler says mineral interest owners – and the oil companies that lease mineral rights from these owners – are having an enormous impact on the contours and quality of land. 

“Someone else owns the minerals and they lease to an oil company and the oil company has the right to come onto your land, whether you want them or not, and drill to find the oil and produce that oil,” Wheeler says.

Wheeler indicates his negotiations with oil company representatives concerning crossings and oil drilling on his land have been challenging. He and his neighbors are learning and applying lessons learned. Regarding negotiations, Wheeler says it is vital to “slow things down and make sure everything is in writing, making sure everything that they say that they will do is in writing.”

He says he had some difficulty negotiating annual payments for the crop loss and land disturbances he would experience. But, he held firm, and ultimately gained these concessions. He said area landowners are comparing notes, and holding out for contract terms that will assure long-term support for their land and operations.

“We are looking 100 years down the road,” Wheeler says. “Who's going to be farming this land? We want the best for the land.”

What Tom Wheeler and his neighbors cannot negotiate to preserve is the neighborly climate based on trust, support and familiarity that the deluge of truck and workforce traffic is disturbing.

He says they have been recognizing a distressing current fact of their lives: relationships are simply growing chillier. There is a sweeping feeling there cannot be immediate trust shared among strangers, and nearly all coming to that area to work are strangers.  

 “It's changed a lot of us,” Wheeler says, “I am not the same person I was before this boom. I am ruder. Out here in northwest North Dakota, and all of North Dakota, you could almost say we used to trust everyone. But at this point it seems like we trust no one.”

Tom says even though substantial new wealth is being generated in the area, it is coming at a price he didn’t expect to pay. “We’ve lost something,” Wheeler says, adding he would give up any and all dollars flowing his way to have his former way of dealing with people restored.

Wheeler remains a strong booster, and servant of his home town of Ray, primarily though his seat on the school board. “One positive of the boom has been our enrollment numbers,” Wheeler says.

At the same time, the school board struggles with staff and expense challenges it could never have anticipated. “Our school is in the housing business right now,” Wheeler says, adding, “There's no way we should be involved in housing. But the bottom line is if we don't provide housing, we won't get teachers.”  

Building materials costs have driven school expansion expenditures sky high, with recently added classrooms, a gymnasium, commons area and heating system costing $7 million. He talks of the frustration of learning that contractors bidding on work for this, and other local improvement projects, are typically tacking an additional 15 percent and sometimes as high as 30 percent on bids, “because of where we’re located – in the middle of the oil boom.”

“Everything is inflated in the oil patch,” Wheeler adds. “We experience that all the time, it’s with everything we do. We’re paying extra because of where we’re at.” He says no one person or group is to blame for these circumstances, but they are creating enormous burdens nonetheless.

 At the Wheeler family farm, sons Blake and Evan hold the future. Blake is a sophomore at North Dakota State University, and Evan will be a Ray High School senior. Tom says their family believes strongly in higher education, but is keenly aware that huge oil country job paychecks are luring young people from this path.
Tom hopes a son, perhaps both, can keep the Wheeler farm operating, although “I’ve never told my boys you have to farm.” He holds the equally strong hope that the Wheeler farm, the values it is built upon, and the special landscape around it, will adapt to the transformations the oil boom is creating.

“We’ve been here since 1902 on this farm,” Tom says, “and I hope in 100 years, we’re still here.”

Story produced by Kent Brick, editor, North Dakota Living;



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