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1. DONNY NELSON
On a sunny Monday afternoon in early September 2013, I sat in the passenger seat of Donny Nelson’s dark blue Ford pickup truck, heading along a bumpy dirt road. Nelson drove and his small, shaggy dog, Lucky, perched on the leather divider between us. The clouds overhead extended for miles across the horizon, shifting and dancing along the curves of grassy hills.
A country singer crooned on the radio as Nelson stared out his window. He’d been explaining how he ended up with the oil rigs around his home. It had to do with mineral rights, and the fact that he didn’t own what was below his property. We passed a pipeline construction site on the left. The side of the hill was carved out, revealing a wall of black dirt. Four yellow CAT excavators sat in a line like they were prepping for battle.
Nelson’s farmland was one of the most beautiful parts of North Dakota I’d seen so far. I’d been living in oil country for two months, and my impression of the area was that it had become a wasteland. I’d seen more traffic, dust, and heavy industry than in any major metropolitan city I’d visited—in a state that, a mere three years before, had the third-lowest population in the United States. But this area of North Dakota was different. It was part of the Badlands—instead of flat prairie, rolling hills and eroded rock formations speckled the golden landscape. Theodore Roosevelt, who lived in North Dakota as a young man, once described the Badlands as “so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.”
As Nelson talked, he leaned forward in his seat, looking off into the distance. “Do you see that smoke?” he asked, pointing to the hills on the left. I saw nothing at first, but as I stared at the spot he was gesturing at, I saw gray smoke billowing up into the sunny sky.
Nelson drove faster, and Lucky sat up, sensing something was wrong.
“I definitely smell smoke,” said Nelson. “It’s right in the middle of my pasture.”
We curved around a corner, and I held onto the door to keep from sliding. Nelson navigated the truck off the dirt road and onto the hilly pasture. My head almost hit the top of the cab. Finally we saw the source of the smoke: It was coming from an oil well site on Nelson’s land.
Nelson pulled up and stepped out of his truck, and I followed. About six Hess employees stood around the singed grass, with one guy hosing it down. The smoke from the blackened patch floated up in thin strands into the blue sky.
One guy recognized Nelson and walked over. “Hi, Donny, sorry about this. A bulldozer hit a rock and created a spark. Luckily we saw it before it got too bad.”
Nelson nodded, looking frustrated. He knew the guy, he told me later. He was a local. Nelson told them to update him if anything else happened, and we went on our way. “As you can see, nobody called the fire department,” he said as we lifted ourselves back into the truck. I learned later that the fire was never reported and Nelson didn’t receive compensation for the damage. Although he tried to be patient with the workers, knowing it wasn’t always their fault, he wanted them to be respectful of his home. “If they didn’t tell me about it, I’d make them pay,” he said. “Because then you just get mad.”
Nelson is 49 years old and owns about 8,000 acres of farmland, growing peas, oats, barley, durum, flax, and corn, and raises cattle, in what used to be in one of the most remote areas of the country. The entire 23,000-acre area he lives on has fewer than 10 families. Nelson went to elementary school with Wanda Leppell down the road, and almost every day he stops by the house of his neighbor Roger, whom he’s known most of his life, to see how he’s doing. When I visited Nelson, my GPS couldn’t locate his address, so he gave me directions by providing the mile marker for his dirt road.
Nelson’s grandfather came to North Dakota from Minnesota during the Homestead Act in the early 1900s. He took the train carrying a few suitcases of supplies to the small town of Tioga, 70 miles from Nelson’s farm, and had to wait until the Missouri River froze over to cross it. “He came over this hill right behind my house,” Nelson said, pointing, “and said, ‘This is where I’m going to stay.’”
The original farm is along Clark Creek (Nelson pronounces it “Clark Crek”), which was discovered by explorers Lewis and Clark. Nelson grew up working on the farm. His father never had hired help, so as a small child, Nelson hauled water, pitched hay, and rode in his father’s old Minneapolis-Moline tractor. His older brother did the tougher jobs. His father would strap his brother into a second tractor, stick it in gear, and tell him to turn off the key if he ran into any problems. “Everybody did stuff like that,” said Nelson.
“We knew everybody. You didn’t lock your doors. We had no traffic. That’s what we liked and that’s why we farmed out here and put up with the winters,” he explained. “This was one of the most beautiful places. Everybody thinks their home is the most beautiful, but it was. It’s a unique area and I’ll never see it the same. I’m afraid future generations never will either.”
Nelson drove up to a lookout point, and we stepped out of the truck. As we stood looking out onto the expansive hills, a blend of amber and burnt orange swirled as the prairie grasses waved in the wind. The clouds cast dark shadows onto the wheat fields, and we saw oil well after oil well, each one pumping up and down methodically—their black exteriors silhouetted as the sun dipped below the horizon. Because underneath our feet, two miles below the earth’s surface, lay the Bakken Formation, a layer of shale rock that held some 170 billion barrels of oil trapped in its crevices and pores. It was the largest continuous oil accumulation the country had ever seen—and the United States had recently discovered how to tap into it.
Copyright © 2017 by Blaire Briody