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What Happened To The "White Paper" Stenehjem, Goehring and Dalrymple Were Preparing?
Written by Chet   
Thursday, 16 January 2014 10:00

Helms_6093Short version:  

Nothing. They never were preparing one, despite what they told the newspapers. Maybe a "white wash paper" is (or was) being prepared by oil companies; but these guys never lifted a finger to get an objective one done.

Long version:  

First, let's clear something up: Wayne Stenehjem, Doug Goehring and Jack Dalrymple make up the State Industrial Commission. "Oil & Gas" is a division within the State Industrial Commission. The head of the Oil & Gas Division is someone named "Lynn Helms."  Lynn Helms is not an elected official; he is an at-will employee whose every action is authorized, controled and monitored by Wayne Stenehjem, Doug Goehring and Jack Dalrymple. When Lynn Helms does or says something, he is doing it or saying it because Wayne Stenehjem, Doug Goehring and Jack Dalrymple told him to.  If he didn't have their permission to do so, they would fire him.

Second, there's a bit of recent history that's part of this, so I'm going to try to do my best to walk you through it as part of the story. This is long-ish, but it's probably just "part one."  You'll have to come back for the rest.  Here's what you should know:

On July 6, 2013, a runaway train carrying millions of litres of crude oil derailed in the heart of Lac-Mégantic. The tangled wreck exploded, transforming the town’s main drag into a river of fire. Many of the 47 people who died in the disaster were inside the Musi-Café, a popular bar packed with friends, lovers, neighbours, husbands and wives.

The Globe and Mail

The oil on the train that killed 47 people in Canada was Bakken oil, onloaded at New Town. But the oil didn't act like normal crude oil.

“The explosions and everything, I didn’t think crude oil did that,” said Ed Pritchard, a former accident investigator with the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board agreed. During an August briefing on its investigation into the crash, Ed Belkaloul, head of the federal TSB in Quebec, said the oil carried to Lac-Mégantic is undergoing testing because the crude reacted “in a way that was abnormal.”

The potential explosiveness of the crude should not have been such a mystery. An investigation by The Globe into the Lac-Mégantic explosions shows there were warning signs that crude from the Bakken region straddling North Dakota and parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan was not like other oils.

In New Town, N.D., where the ill-fated train was loaded with Bakken crude, locals like to boast that the honey-coloured oil is so light they can take it right from the well and pour it into truck engines because it requires little refining. Long before the crude exploded at Lac-Mégantic, there were signs that shippers, regulators and rail officials did not appear to consider the variable characteristics of oil loaded onto trains that travel through towns and cities.

The Globe and Mail (emphasis added)

Another train hauling Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded in Alabama in November of 2013, "causing flames to shoot 300 feet into the air" and dumping thousands of gallons of oil into a marshy wetlands.  

On December 5, 2013, Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, became concerned about Bakken crude. He wasn't so much concerned that 47 people had been killed in Canada, or that a dangerous explosion had happened in Alabama too, polluting sensitive wetlands.  He wasn't concerned that trains full of this same explosive oil travels through downtown Bismarck, Jamestown and Fargo every day.  

No, Kringstad was concerned about the "almost daily reports" about Bakken oil's "volatiility, corrosiveness, etc."  He had read a story at "NewTimes.com" about a lengthy report relating to a proposed California oil refinery, in which it was noted much of their oil would likely be "volatile" Bakken crude oil.  The story was about how locals in California were upset about the dangerous Bakken oil coming through their communities. Opposition was mounting.

Kringstad was so concerned that he decided to contact Ron Ness -- President of the North Dakota Petroleum Council -- to suggest that Ness work on getting a white paper put together, promoting the idea that Bakken crude is safe for unicorns and butterflies to drink.

I wonder how helpful it would be for someone like the EERC [the UND Energy & Environmental Research Center] to publish a formal report about exactly what Bakken crude is or isn't (also compare WTI, heavy Canadian, ethanol, gasoline, etc.)?  I would suspect that there are many companies with big projects hanging in the balance would benefit from such a report and be willing to support it financially.

Email from Kringstad to Ron Ness dated Thursday, December 5, 2013, 11:43 a.m.

See, because the best people to put behind a study of the explosiveness of Bakken crude are big companies that have "big projects hanging in the balance."  Keep in mind, too, that if the results of the study aren't good for the businesses that paid for it, the results of the study/research never ever ever ever sees the light of day.

Kringstad copied the email to Lynn Helms who is, as noted above, Dalrymple, Stenehjem and Goehring's hatchet man. Kringstad apparently didn't think the Sierra Club or the Dakota Resource Council -- or the citizens of North Dakota -- would have an interest in funding such a report.  Of course the oil companies "with big projects hanging in the balance" were more likely to want to control the study process.

On December 16, the Associated Press released a story about how "North Dakota officials are considering crafting a report that the state's top oil regulator said will disprove that hauling crude by rail from the rich Bakken and Three Forks formations is dangerously explosive."  (the Billings Gazette)  Helms said the purpose of the study was to "to dispel this myth that it is somehow an explosive, really dangerous thing to have traveling up and down rail lines." (the Billings Gazette).  Kringstad seemed to downplay the status of the report, noting "It's just discussion at this point."  

On December 30, 2013, a train loaded with Bakken crude oil passed through downtown Bismarck, downtown Jamestown, looped around the north end of Valley City, and crossed the highliner bridge. Just before it pulled through downtown Casselton, it hit a grain car that had derailed. The deadly Bakken oil spilled everywhere. The oil that didn't spill all over the rail-side acreage exploded hundreds of feet into the air in an amazing mushroom cloud.


A few days later, on January 2, 2014, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (a department of the US Department of Transportation) issued a "Safety Alert."  The warning included the following:

Based upon preliminary inspections conducted after recent rail derailments in North Dakota,Alabama and Lac-Megantic, Quebec involving Bakken crude oil, PHMSA is reinforcing the requirement to properly test, characterize, classify, and where appropriate sufficiently degasify hazardous materials prior to and during transportation. This advisory is a follow-up to the PHMSA and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) joint safety advisory published November 20, 2013 [78 FR 69745]. As stated in the November Safety Advisory, it is imperative that offerors properly classify and describe hazardous materials being offered for transportation. 49 CFR 173.22. As part of this process, offerors must ensure that all potential hazards of the materials are properly characterized. 

Proper characterization will identify properties that could affect the integrity of the packaging or present additional hazards, such as corrosivity, sulfur content, and dissolved gas content. These characteristics may also affect classification. PHMSA stresses to offerors the importance of appropriate classification and packing group (PG) assignment of crude oil shipments, whether the shipment is in a cargo tank, rail tank car or other mode of transportation. Emergency responders should remember that light sweet crude oil, such as that coming from the Bakken region, is typically assigned a packing group I or II. The PGs mean that the material’s flashpoint is below 73 degrees Fahrenheit and, for packing group I materials, the boiling point is below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. This means the materials pose significant fire risk if released from the package in an accident.

DOT Safety Alert (emphasis added)

The press got hold of this Safety Alert, of course.  Rather than contacting Public Citizen or the Dakota Resource Council or non-oil-industry hacks, the media immediately contacted cheerleaders for the oil companies.  Because that's what they know how to do. They were apparently asked about the status of the "white paper." 

North Dakota regulators had said last month that they were considering crafting a report to disprove that hauling the state's crude by rail is dangerously explosive. On Thursday, a state official said those plans had been dropped in the aftermath of the Casselton derailment.

"We have no plans to go forward with anything," said Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.

Construction.com (AP) (emphasis added)


Sidenote:  The Bismarck Tribune also carried this exact same AP story.  When the published it online, it contained the highlited quotation from Justin Kringstad, above.  I know this is true because on January 2nd -- the day the story was published online -- a friend of mine copied and pasted those two paragraphs from the Tribune's website and sent it to another friend. That friend sent it to me. So -- without question -- the Tribune altered its story after it published it, removing Kringstad's quotation. But it gives no explanation as to why it did so. If you go to the Tribune's website today and read this same AP story, you'll see the Tribune's version of the story, which they've altered without explanation.  

I don't know why they would do this.  If you Google any uncommon phrase from the story, you'll see the same story went out on the AP Wire and appears all over the internet - over twelve hundred times - with Kringstad's quotation in it. I'm not sure why the Tribune felt compelled to delete that quotation from its story.


So last week Friday I asked Lynn Helms to provide copies of all of the public records in his office that relate, in any way, to drafting, researching, preparing, etc., the alleged "white paper" he had mentioned in the December 16th AP story about "dispelling myths."  

Tuesday (January 14th), Helms apparently participated in some sort of press event responding, among other things, to questions about the "white paper."  During his comments, he claims his earlier statement about "dispelling the myth" of Bakken oil being dangerous was made not because he thinks it's a myth, but because he's such a big fan of the TV show "Myth Busters."  (Audio of Press Event at approx. 16:20) (See, also, the Fargo Foolums coverage of the press event.)

. o O (Sometimes I wonder if Lynn Helms realizes how obvious it is to everybody around him when he's lying.)

Yesterday (January 15th), in response to my request for records at the Oil & Gas Division relating to the drafting, etc., of the "white paper," I got a pdf file.  It's the email I mentioned above.  It's the email from Justin Kringstad to Ron Ness (oil industry advocate), which was copied to Helms. Other than that, the Oil & Gas Division has no records that would show it had any involvement in drafting a "white paper."  (Translation: It received an email about a possible white paper. It was not actually working on one.)

Because the Kringstad email more or less suggests the possibility of getting the EERC to prostitute itself out to oil industry financiers, I sent a FOIA request to the EERC, asking for records it may have relating to any possible "white paper" drafting. The response, so far, has been disappointing. I've been using the exact same public records request format for about six years.  For the first time, ever, some character at EERC has apparently decided to make things extra special difficult for me. Considering the EERC is supposed to be a government funded non-profit, working towards the public good, it would be an understatement to say I'm disappointed.  But I'm going to wait this one out and see how they do. My full expectation is that they are going to tell me it's going to cost a LOT of money to satisfy my request, and they're going to want to bill me for all of that.  And then they're going to give me a minimal amount of heavily redacted nonsense. 

When they do (or don't), you should expect I'll be writing about this again.  In anticipation of the possiblity (probability?) that EERC is going to want a bunch of money from me, I'd ask that you consider making a donation to NorthDecoder.com. You can do that by clicking the orange colored  "Donate" button over in the right-hand column, under the words "Support NorthDecoder."  Keep in mind they might grab some sense and tell me they're not going to charge me. If they do that, I'll just sock your money away to pay web hosting fees or to buy myself a beer or something.


</part one>

Murder For Hire And A Plot To Kill Tex Hall
Written by Jim Fuglie   
Thursday, 16 January 2014 09:46

(Cross-posted, with permission, from The Prairie Blog.)

“The lawlessness, big money and complex business dealings of the North Dakota oil fields likely prompted the shooting death of a South Hill man in his home last month, according to investigators. Spokane police detectives stitched together an intricate web of speculative business deals by Doug Carlile, who solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars each from several investors to get in on the ground floor of a piece of Indian reservation land with the potential to produce billions of dollars worth of crude, according to one speculator. Carlile was found dead of a gunshot wound in his home at 2505 S. Garfield Road the evening of Dec. 15.”

–Spokane Spokesman Review, Page 1, Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The last trace of the age of innocence in the North Dakota Oil Patch trickled down the drain this week amid charges of a likely murder-for-hire scheme and an unfulfilled assassination plot on legendary Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall.

Got your attention now? Well, this story sure has mine. Tuesday morning I saw what looked like an innocent, but interesting, Facebook post from an old acquaintance (and Facebook friend) of mine, Calvin Grinnell, who’s a tribal elder and historian, and the curator of the Three Affiliated Tribes Museum at New Town. It was a link to a website called the Ripoff Report, which is a fairly sophisticated site that is designed to “Help you, the consumer…Search the Ripoff Report before you do business with retail stores with bad return policies, checking & credit theft, rebate fraud or other unscrupulous business policies such as phony auto repairs, auto dealer bait-and-switch tactics, restaurants with bad service or food, corrupt government employees & politicians, police corruption, home builders, contractors, unethical doctors & lawyers, online stores that sell non-existent products, dead beat dads & moms, landlords & tenants, fraudulent employment & business opportunities, and individual con artists who scam consumers.

I know, that covers some big ground, but it really is a very credible site. Consumers are invited to write reports about companies that have ripped them off, and submit them to the Ripoff Report, and they are posted to help other consumers. Here’s what was on the page that Calvin sent the link to:


Bridgewater Energy,Blackstone Crude and its affiliates are trucking, construction and service companies in the oil industry located in North Dakota. These companies are owned by James Terry Henrikson and his wife Sarah Creveling. James and Sarah are con-artists and thieves and should be considered extremely dangerous. James is a convicted felon with dozens of arrests including fraud, theft, drug trafficking and rape. They currently owe millions of dollars to vendors, former employees and investors whom they refuse to pay and may be involved with the “disappearance” of an employee and the murder of a business partner.

This post is dedicated to protecting the people of North Dakota, especially those who work in the oil industry, from dangerous people like James and Sarah . . . In this website you will find a timeline of James’ criminal history and the fraud that he and Sarah are perpetrating in North Dakota, especially on the Fort Berthold reservation. There are also several court documents included. At the bottom will be a list of contact information for the various courts and/or probation offices where James’ criminal history can be verified.

Our goal is to expose the fraud that James Henrikson (he goes by the alias Henricksen) and his wife Sarah Creveling have committed in North Dakota in an effort to prevent them from stealing from honest companies and harming innocent people working in the oil industry in this great state, and to keep our people safe from these dangerous convicts and con-artists (Robert Delao, a manager at Blackstone and James’ right hand man, was convicted of double homicide for killing two rival gang members in cold blood – and he’s working in the Blackstone office on the Fort Berthold Reservation!)

Let’s get these people out of North Dakota so they can’t continue their crimes here.

Well, okay, I thought, I’ll bite. So I read the report. Indeed, the first few paragraphs had summed it up well. You can read the whole thing by going here. I was kind of intrigued, so I Googled around a bit, but I didn’t find much more, so I moved on to writing a story about the pinochle game I had played the night before.

Then Wednesday morning I was back on Facebook and a couple of people, including my friend Jeff and the folks at Bakken Watch, had a link to another story that sounded interesting, titled “Bad blood, black gold and the death of Doug Carlile.”

Well, I thought I recalled seeing the name Doug Carlile in Tuesday’s Ripoff Report posting, so I checked back to see if I remembered correctly, and sure enough, I found this in the timeline history of James Henrikson:

An intruder broke into the home of Douglas Carlile at 2505 S. Garfield Road, and killed Douglas Carlile in what the police are calling a”targeted” killing which may be “linked to a business dispute involving the victim’s dealings in North Dakota.

Well, sure enough somebody at the Bakken Watch, another public service website (from their website: “Bakken Watch is a group of citizens from North Dakota (and around the world) who are keeping an eye on oil and gas development in North Dakota and all the issues associated with it: health, infrastructure, surface rights, and other topics.”) had made the connection between a murder in Spokane and the oil fields of North Dakota. The reason Douglas Carlile’s murder was included in James Henrikson’s record in the Ripoff Report is because the two were business partners, and Henrikson may be a suspect in Carlile’s murder.

Well, now I was fully engaged, thanks to “social media” and the two websites, so I started looking further. Here’s what I found.

A wealthy Spokane businessman, Douglas Carlile, opened the door of his house in a trendy Spokane neighborhood last December 15 and was greeted by a man with a pistol who shot Carlile numerous times in the head, killing him instantly. After some very good detective work by Spokane police, Tuesday, almost a month to the day after the murder, they arrested 50-year-old Timothy Suckow and charged him with the murder. Suckow is in jail in Spokane. Here is the lead sentence from the lead story on the front page of Wednesday’s Spokane Spokesman-Review newspaper:

The lawlessness, big money and complex business dealings of the North Dakota oil fields likely prompted the shooting death of a South Hill man in his home last month, according to investigators. Spokane police detectives stitched together an intricate web of speculative business deals by Doug Carlile, who solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars each from several investors to get in on the ground floor of a piece of Indian reservation land with the potential to produce billions of dollars worth of crude, according to one speculator.

“Carlile was found dead of a gunshot wound in his home at 2505 S. Garfield Road the evening of Dec. 15.

“Police used DNA evidence from a leather glove left at the scene to arrest Timothy Suckow, 50, on a first-degree murder charge early Tuesday”.

Pretty much everybody who knows anything about the case believes Carlile’s death was a murder for hire, and that Suckow was hired by Henrikson to do the job. Henrikson denies any involvement. As far as I know, Henrikson still lives in Watford City, and has not been charged.

There’s more:

Henrikson also is a suspect in the 2012 disappearance of Kristopher “KC” Clarke, who had worked as an operations manager for one of Henrikson’s companies, according to court records.

“And federal investigators are investigating Henrikson for bilking an energy company run by the Native American tribes for millions of dollars, according to police.

The reference to an energy company run by the Native American tribes likely refers to a company named Maheshu Energy LLC, owned by current Three Tribes chairman Tex Hall.

Tuesday, Spokane television station KXLY reported that a witness whose identity is being protected by Spokane police, but is likely a North Dakota employee of Henrikson’s, told him in mid-September 2013 that Henrikson had approached a fellow employee, Eric Guerrero, “to see if he knew anyone that could kill Tex Hall, the elected leader of the MHA Nation.”

The TV station reported that Henrikson and two others who had done work for Hall’s company are under federal investigation for defrauding Hall’s company out of millions of dollars.

Henrikson is also suspected of hiring someone in early 2012 to kill one of his employees, Kristopher D. Clarke, who may have been his partner in a drug operation in Texas before coming to North Dakota with Henrikson. The Ripoff Report says this:

Blackstone Employee Kristopher D. Clarke, Nickname-K.C., disappeared after an argument with James Henrikson. KC was a long-term friend of James and may have been involved with James in the Texas drug manufacturing operation. KC was owed $600,000 by James Henrikson, who refused to pay him, so KC decided to quit working for Blackstone (one of Henrikson’s companies). KC was leaving to work for another company and was taking Blackstone’s subcontractors with him. KC was last seen in an argument with James at the Blackstone office building. James is a suspect and was questioned by BCI Special Agent Steve Gutknecht, but he refused to take a lie detector test. Currently, there is no concrete evidence linking James to KC’s disappearance.

But KXLY TV reports:

Henrikson has been interviewed by detectives investigating Carlile’s murder, but authorities have not said whether or not he is a suspect or a person of interest in the killing. However, he is a person of interest in the February 2012 disappearance of Casey Clark, the one-time operations manager for Henrikson. (emphasis added)

Detectives were tipped off by an individual who was roommates in North Dakota with Robert Delao, a known criminal in Spokane with a long history of offenses including theft and assault. Delao would often receive visits from a man identified as Todd Bates, who Spokane Police know is a friend of Delao’s.

“On one occasion the witness said he overheard Henrikson and Bates talking about a job from February 2012 and that “this job would pay the same as the last job.” The witness speculated the last job was Casey Clark, and that Bates, who court documents confirm has multiple convictions in Alaska for assault, was an enforcer for the company, who would beat up or intimidate people who caused Henrikson problems.

“The witness, concerned for his safety, left the company and moved home to Texas.

Clark simply disappeared in February of 2012, and his body has not been found, but his relatives told television station KREM in Spokane that they think Henrikson had him killed.

That’s about what I can figure out reading newspaper and television reports and the Ripoff Report. I didn’t call information to see if there is a phone listing for James Henrikson in Watford City, but I’m guessing lots of people there know him. He’s not exactly a low profile person. I also didn’t call Tex Hall to ask him how he feels about being targeted. But Tex is a pretty big boy. He can generally take care of himself.  Still, this is another ugly North Dakota Oil Patch story, reinforcing casual observers’ image of North Dakota as the “Wild West.” Not the Legendary wild west of North Dakota tourism advertising, but the real deal. I think you’ll be seeing more about this whole episode on TV and radio and in North Dakota newspapers. For everyone’s safety, I hope so.

(Update: The Bismarck Tribune picked up the Spokesman-Review’s story and ran it Thursday morning. Also Thursday morning, Bakken Watch carried a link to a Spokane TV station KXLY story reporting that FBI agents raided Henrikson’s home in Watford City Wednesday, looking for evidence to link him to Carlile’s murder.)

Here are some links to story details:

Ripoff Report


Today’s KXLY TV Update


This morning’s Spokane Spokesman-Review story

Another Spokane Review

One more Spokane Spokesman-Review story

Capital One and Samuel L. Jackson. Every Damn Day.
Written by Chet   
Monday, 09 December 2013 09:26

I don't think I'm a prude. I swear sometimes. I curse. Not a lot.  But I do. But not around my kids. I know I can't protect them from swearing everywhere, every damn day, but I'm pretty good at shielding them from profanity -- words they simply don't understand -- at home. I have friends who swear around their kids, and I don't have any desire to impose my parenting methods on them. But I like to think I get to decide things like this around my own home.

I'm pretty sure my four-year-old made it through his first four years of life without learning any curse words at home. (We once got a note from a daycare provider when the 12-year-old was younger and at daycare when he used an "inappropriate" word. We asked what it was and were relieved to find out he'd said "gosh.")

But then we trusted the TV people to run child-friendly commercials during Scooby frickin' Doo.  And this is what they ran with:

(It appears they're going to try to make the video disappear.)

"Every Damn Day."

Last week, while we were out of town, our four-year-old showed his grandparents he listens to the commercials when he watches shows his parents let him watch, like Scooby Doo. The grandparents' reaction? They thought maybe one of them had let a "damn" slip at some point, but they couldn't think of when they might have done it. They had no idea the four-year-old's parents had made the mistake of letting him watch Scooby Doo. On the DVR. Not every damn day, mind you, but apparently enough so he picked up a new word.

So thank you Capital One.

Thank you Samuel L. Jackson.

I know my baby will learn curse words eventually, but I'm appreciative that you helped get it out of the way when he's four and still in preschool. This way he can help teach the other kids how to curse. 

[P.S. Capitol One apparently re-cut the commercial after a grown-up at apparently realized how remarkably stupid it was for the company to do what they did.The new ad changed "damn" to "single." Thanks for too little, too late, Capitol One. Thanks, Sam.]

Special Places? How About American Treasures?
Written by Jim Fuglie   
Saturday, 23 November 2013 13:04

Butte(Cross-posted, with permission, from The Prairie Blog.)

A short history lesson on the Little Missouri National Grasslands of western North Dakota.

For thousands of years Indian nations hunted and thrived on the grasslands. A spiritual tie to the land based on Indian beliefs developed and is still honored today. However, as America pushed west, the grasslands became home to new settlers in the form of homesteads. It was U.S. government homesteading policy that encouraged these people to settle the prairie.

These new homesteaders tilled the land and raised crops to “prove up” the land for ownership. But when drought came in the 1930s, crops shriveled and the fragile, exposed soil blew. The “Dust Bowl Era” drove people away from the land and devastated local economies.

The homestead policy wasn’t always compatible with available land. Drought, temperature extremes, insects and fire played a significant role on the prairie. The grasslands could not sustain large-scale farming, but the land would grow grass in most years. With government help, farmers became ranchers and some of the natural processes that sustained the prairie throughout time began to take hold once again.

In an effort to add economic stability to failing local economies, the U.S. government began buying private lands, under programs called Land Utilization Projects. What began as a program to purchase and develop submarginal land, gradually evolved and expanded into a program designed to transfer land to its most suitable use: ranching.

Much history remains to be written about the national grasslands. These lands can help people maintain a quality of life, both for the people who live and work on these lands, and for the people interested in spending time visiting these American treasures. People come to the grasslands not only to seek solitude, but also to teach their children how to canoe, to camp, or to hunt – to appreciate nature. The potential for outdoor recreation to help sustain local economies is great, as is the potential to continue the tradition of providing our children and future generations with special places to develop an appreciation for the natural resources of the country.

Those words come from the U.S. Forest Service’s Record of Decision on use of the million-acre Little Missouri National Grasslands in western North Dakota’s Bad Lands, written in 2002 by Bradley Powell, Regional Forester for the U.S. Forest Service. Powerful words and an insightful analysis by a mid-level federal employee who obviously had found his calling in life.

Take serious note of the last line of that introduction, and its use of the phrase “special places.” Go back and look at that last sentence. Because you’re going to continue to hear, over the next few months, that phrase “Special Places” in the context of what the North Dakota Industrial Commission may or may not do to begin an awareness program that will recognize that there are pieces of land in North  Dakota—even very small pieces—on which we should not drill an oil well. If the North Dakota news media does its job, and those of us who watch both the Industrial Commission and the news media do ours, and the public responds to what they read, see and hear in the media, then the Industrial Commission is going to have to follow through on something they’ve been talking about for almost a year now. They’ve crossed the River Rubicon. Now they must take at least a first tentative step on shore to see what lies there.

It all began about a year ago, when someone, I think it was Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, said at an Industrial Commission meeting last January that perhaps it is time to make a list of places should get some consideration beyond rubber-stamp approval when a drilling permit application is received which might impact them. Then, in May, Jack Dalrymple (perhaps feeling a little cabin fever on a much warmer day than that one back in January on which Stenehjem spoke up) proposed the Industrial Commission take a tour of some of those places.

What prompted Dalrymple’s suggestion was a letter the Commission had received from a group of conservation organizations that said, in part,  “We strongly urge you to identify special places of natural and cultural importance that are deserving of protection, like the Elkhorn Ranch and lands adjacent to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and implement regulations to deny oil and gas development in those areas.” (Emphasis mine.) The letter was signed by representatives of the Friends of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Badlands Conservation Alliance, the Dakota Resource Council, the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club, The Environmental Law and Policy Center, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Parks Conservation Association. An impressive group.

It’s the first time, I think, that the term “Special Places” was attached to the idea of protecting some areas of the state from oil development, and it is a phrase that has stuck. It has been the subject of much discussion. Discussion. But no action.

After getting some big headlines, and kudos in newspaper editorials, Dalrymple changed his mind and said that busy government officials just couldn’t find time in their schedules for such a tour. He did take a little one-day pilgrimage himself in August, and held a press conference with a dramatic Bad Lands background, but has proposed no action. Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring just blows the issue off, saying “all of North Dakota is special.” Stenehjem, though, has been a bit dogged in his determination to see SOMETHING done, and we might see the beginnings of a list and a special new rule for an approval process for drilling permits come before the Commission next month. It will be interesting to see if he can convince Dalrymple and Goehring that any new rules are necessary.

Earlier this month, I posted here, and sent to the Attorney General, my list of “Special Places.”  For the most part, they involve public land, because sometime in the past, someone in a leadership position in government recognized that they had some important scenic, agricultural, historical, archeological, paleontological, recreational or environmental value and saw to it that they became publicly owned. Many of them are located in or near the million-acre Little Missouri National Grasslands which Forester Powell was writing about in his Record of Decision.

A Record of Decision is essentially a plan for the use of federally owned lands, and the process used to write that plan is painfully slow because it pauses, along the way to completion, for numerous public input sessions (something the North Dakota  Industrial Commission has studiously avoided). The land, after all, belongs to all the people of the United States. We entrust its care, in this case, to the U.S. Forest Service, but the Forest Service must care for it the way we want it cared for.

Another short history lesson. The land purchase by the government that Powell refers to was specifically an effort to help keep ranchers on the land in western North Dakota during the “Dirty 30’s.” Generally what happened is that a rancher kept ownership of the “home place,” anywhere from a quarter section to a couple of sections, and sold the rest to the government, which then leased it back to the rancher, generally for pennies on the dollar. The cash infusion to the rancher from the sale of his land allowed him to pay some bills (maybe the mortgage on the home place) and remain on the land during those awful Dust Bowl days. In North Dakota, the government bought up about a million acres, and leased it all back to the ranchers for grazing cattle. Today, most of those ranches remain intact (thanks to what many term embarrassingly low grazing fees on the federal lands), either from having been passed down in the family to sons and daughters, or through sale to newcomers who wanted to be Bad Lands ranchers. For the most part, the ranchers who use our public lands now to sustain their operations have been pretty good caretakers. For the most part, it is a government program that has worked the way it was intended.

But because those million acres are publicly owned, there have been some restrictions placed on them over the years. The Grasslands Management Plan that came about as a result of that Record of Decision requires the National Grasslands to be managed under a “multiple-use” concept. In addition to allowing for ranchers to run their cattle, the Forest Service manages the land for outdoor recreation and mineral development, as well as habitat for wildlife and healthy, diverse vegetation. That was a land use policy championed by Theodore Roosevelt, who created the U.S. Forest Service during his presidency, and believed that each acre the government owned ought to be put to its best use—commercial, industrial, residential, agricultural or recreational.

Because of that policy (Roosevelt coined the phrase “wise use” to describe it), it wasn’t so long ago that half a million acres of the National Grasslands in North Dakota were still pretty much in a pristine state, used only for the grazing of cattle and recreation. Those were the wisest uses of the National Grasslands in North Dakota. That’s changed since we discovered they are underlain with oil. All but about 50,000 acres of the million acres of National Grasslands—about 95 per cent—is now leased for oil development. Wise use? Well, in some cases, with proper reclamation laws, I’d guess so. But there probably are some places where oil development is not the best use. And so there are efforts underway to protect that remaining 50,000 acres permanently, which I have written about before.

Soon, the drilling rigs are going to march south, across the Missouri River and its great Lake Sakakawea, and into the National Grasslands, an area we more commonly call the North Dakota Bad Lands and the Missouri Slope. And that’s where you’ll find most of the “Special Places” on anyone’s list for which the North Dakota Industrial Commission is being asked to provide protection.

Theodore Roosevelt recognized long ago, when he created the Forest Service, that there was a need to develop a “wise use” policy for millions of acres of “special places” in America. Forester Powell reaffirmed that in his Record of Decision for our own National Grasslands here in North Dakota. Now we just need to encourage our own Industrial commission to follow Roosevelt and Powell’s lead.

Let me ask you just one more time to join with the Friends of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Badlands Conservation Alliance, the Dakota Resource Council, the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club, The Environmental Law and Policy Center, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Parks Conservation Association in urging the North Dakota Industrial Commission, at its next meeting in December, to adopt its list of “Special Places,” and a process for dealing with oil and gas drilling permit applications that impact them. Remind them of Forester Powell’s words, worth sharing one more time:

These lands can help people maintain a quality of life, both for the people who live and work on these lands, and for the people interested in spending time visiting these American treasures. People come to the grasslands not only to seek solitude, but also to teach their children how to canoe, to camp, or to hunt – to appreciate nature. The potential for outdoor recreation to help sustain local economies is great, as is the potential to continue the tradition of providing our children and future generations with special places to develop an appreciation for the natural resources of the country.

American Treasures. Perhaps an even better phrase than Special Places.

What is Craig Cobb Accused of Doing, Specifically?
Written by Chet   
Wednesday, 20 November 2013 10:15

Craig CobbThose of you who don't follow us on the Facebook missed a bit of a discussion about whether Craig Cobb and his redneck buddy were properly arrested last weekend. The Bismarck Tribune's story was entitled "Cobb taken into custody for toting guns in Leith."  My Facebook comment suggested "Toting Guns" is not a crime in North Dakota.  I stand by that.  

But that's apparently not what Cobb and his buddy were arrested for.  I'm not a regular reader of the Tribune or its website, so I don't know whether they've written a correction to their misleading story title, if not the entire story.  I thought I'd fill in the gaps.

Craig Cobb is not charged with "Gun Toting."  He's charged with seven (7) counts of "terrorizing" in violation of North Dakota Century Code section 12.1-17-04. a Class C felony.  The maximum penalty for a person convicted of a Class C felony in North Dakota is up to five years in prison, a fine of ten thousand dollars, or both. The complaint alleges there is a mandatory minimum two (2) year sentence (with no parole) for a conviction under NDCC § 12.1-32-02.1.  NDCC § 12.1-32-02.1 sets mandatory minimum sentences for "armed offenders."  It sets the minimum at two (2) years for armed offenders who commit Class C felonies.

I'll walk you through the seven terrorizing counts, summarizing my perceptions of what they're about, with a very brief analysis. At the end of this, I'll provide a link to the actual criminal Complaint so you can read it for yourself. Maybe you'll disagree with my characterizations and/or analysis.

Count 1:  On November 16th, 2013, Cobb allegedly walked up to the property of Leland Cook "in a terrorizing manner" with a loaded, long-barreled weapon. Cobb's finger was on the trigger. Cobb watched Cook installing a security system on his property. There is no indicating this count involves any kind of verbal threat, "gun-levelling," trespass or other noted behavior. I don't see any clear indication from the Complaint as to what constituted Cobb's "terrorizing manner." 

Count 2: On November 16, 2013, Cobb allegedly walked up to the property of Leland Cook "in a terrorizing manner" with a loaded, long-barreled weapon. Cobb "continued" watching Cook install the security system while Cobb's finger was on the trigger. This count also mentions that another party -- Gregory Bruce -- was with Cook. Otherwise it appears to be a repeat of Count 1. Again, no indication here as to what Cobb did that was done in a "terrorizing manner."

Count 3: On November 16, 2013, Cobb allegedly followed "Miller Ferrie" along a road to her home while carrying a loaded, long barreled weapon. Cobb allegedly followed Ferrie until she reached her home.  

Count 4: On November 16, 2013, Cobb allegedly walked up to the home of Paul and Miller Ferrie and stood outside while holding a loaded, long-barreled weapon.  This count alleges that at one point, Cobb "did raise the weapon from a vertical position to a horizontal position."  Cobb is alleged to have had his gun "at the 'ready position' as he stated 'I'm not shooting you, am I? Fuck you."  (My apologies for Cobb's language.)

Count 5: On November 16, 2013, Cobb is alleged to have approached "Barry Striegel in a terrorizing manner with a gun slung over his shoulder."  Again, as with all the other counts, there are no specifics provided to explain what constituted the "terrorizing manner" of Cobb.

Count 6: On November 16, 2013, Cobb is alleged to have "approached Akriti Haberstroh in her vehicle in Leith, while screaming obscenities at her and wielding a cane at her in a threatening manner."  

Count 7: On November 16, 2013, Cobb is alleged to have approached "Bethany Haberstroh, a passenger in a vehicle driven by her daughter, Akriti Haberstroh" while screaming the aforementioned obscenities and wielding the cane "at them" in a threatening manner.

Click here to read the Complaint

Law enforcement also provided two separate affidavits in support of the Complaint. You can read the affidavit of Grant County Sheriff Steve Bay by clicking here, and the affidavit of Deputy Garrett Harding by clicking here.

I still don't know, guys. I definitely still think this Cobb character is an ass. But being an ass isn't a crime. I'm still not sure whether anything Cobb is accused of in this Complaint -- based upon the information provided in the Complaint and in the affidavits -- is or should be enough to send a guy away to the penitentiary for a mandatory-minimum two year sentence. Once again, there may be more to these charges and these allegations. But thus far I just don't see a C Felony in what's been alleged.  

Let's be clear: this is a "terrorizing" case; it is not a "gun" case.  There does not appear to be anything in the "gun" chapter of the North Dakota Century Code -- Chapter 62.1 -- that prohibits Cobb from doing anything he did in Leith. That's why Cobb isn't charged with a gun crime. You might not like what he did -- walking around town with loaded long-barrel guns -- but that doesn't make it illegal. It might be illegal in some other town, but -- unless there's a city ordinance to the contrary -- it doesn't appear to be illegal in Leith. 

Based upon what I've seen so far, these charges look to me like law enforcement may be trying to get a conviction for "anticipated attempt to commit terrorizing." But that's not a crime. I don't know that they have sufficient evidence to show that Cobb terrorized people. It doesn't appear he attempted to terrorize. I think everybody is anticipating he is going to attempt to terrorize people, and so that fear of what he might do is scaring them. But I don't know that a person should be convicted of a felony based upon other peoples' fear of that person, and not on the conduct (and specific intent) of the accused person.

I'm guessing the folks in Leith are pretty scared of this guy. But that doesn't mean that -- until they pass a city ordinance making it illegal to do so -- Cobb can't walk around with a loaded long-barreled gun in their town if he wants to. Following in someone's path isn't a crime. There's no indication he was chasing anybody. He said "Fuck you" to someone. Still not a crime. Telling someone you're "not shooting" them isn't a crime.  "Levelling a gun" isn't necessarily terrorizing.  (That depends on whether you're leveling it AT someone, I think.)  I'm not sure how waving a cane around and using obscenities is terrorizing. I suppose it could be, depending on what he was saying. But they really don't tell us what he was saying.  (Read Sheriff Bay's affidavit, and you'll see Cobb apparently thought these people were trying to run over his dog, and that's why he was using obscenities. I might swear at someone if I thought they were trying to run over my dog, too.)

I totally understand how people could perceive this is a legitimate effort to stop these awful people before they hurt someone. But, generally, our legal system isn't set up to anticipate when someone is going to commit a crime and then throw them in prison to try to stop them from commiting the crime when there isn't any evidence they had done a crime yet.

I could be wrong. What I'm writing here may be unpopular with some of you. That's fine. (Sorry.) I trust someone will tell me if I am completely wrong here. But I'm trying to look at this from the perspective of someone who doesn't want innocent people convicted of crimes, and whose job it is to protect against that.

Again, it appears these people are terrible people. I just haven't yet been convinced they committed the crime they're accused of committing. I'm still open to the possibility there's more to one or all of these allegations. I'm just not seeing it in the affidavits or the Complaint.  

Again, I'd welcome others' input on this. I'd like to be told I'm missing something here by someone who knows more than I do. Have at it.

Here’s How We Can Help Wayne Stenehjem Tackle The Oil Industry
Written by Jim Fuglie   
Saturday, 16 November 2013 13:40

WesternND(Cross-posted, with permission, from The Prairie Blog.)

I’m beginning to think that Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem might just be ready to really start looking at oil and gas drilling permit applications instead of just giving them blanket approval at monthly meetings of the North Dakota Industrial Commission. That would be the best news to come out of the Oil Patch since fracking was invented.

Stenehjem and some in the conservation community coined the phrase “special places” last May after a couple of controversial permit applications made a lot of news and noise. The first was approval of an application to drill 8 wells near the Killdeer Mountains, in an area that residents and historians felt was “culturally significant.” The other was an application, later withdrawn after media exposure, to drill a well next to the Elkhorn Ranch. Stenehjem said it might be a good idea to make a list of some of the areas that needed to get special consideration when permits are issued. Jack Dalrymple agreed that it might be a good idea to come up with that list, and even go on a little tour to see some of them. Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring nodded.

That was six months ago. Since then, a couple thousand permits have been issued with still no formal procedure in place to see if they might be for places that really shouldn’t have an oil well. But there’s been activity on “making a list” on a couple of fronts. Jack Dalrymple went to Little Missouri State Park, where the Commission had already issued a number of drilling permits, and held a press conference to say that he was concerned about issuing drilling permits in places like Little Missouri State Park. Uh huh. And Stenehjem convened a panel of people whose opinions he respected and asked them for advice, but once the news media found out about it, he unconvened the panel.

But as the media (and bloggers) stayed with the story, Stenehjem’s been using some interesting language lately in news stories, where phrases like “extraordinary places that also will include the Little Missouri River and Bullion Butte,” “requirements spelled out in administrative rules,” “requiring pipe placement to avoid flaring natural gas,” and “formal procedure.”

And the latest story in the newspapers says he is going to make some kind of proposal at a December 19 Industrial Commission meeting. All of those reports give those of us concerned about rampant, unrestrained drilling cause for some hope. I’ve been about as critical of the Industrial Commission and its members as anyone, but I’ve never felt it was good to just be critical, without offering some alternative. So last week I sent to Stenehjem my ideas for how the Industrial Commission could begin to examine each drilling permit application and make a decision based on information provided to them by their own state government agencies.

I’m not the only one to do this. Others have also proposed ideas for actual administrative rules, perhaps the ones Stenehjem is referring to, which would require that staff with expertise on the scenic, agricultural, historical, archeological, paleontological, recreational and environmental values of land proposed for oil and gas drilling sign off on permits before they are approved. That would be the best of all possible worlds.

So I’m just going to share with you the proposal I sent to the Attorney General. This is only one idea. I think it would be good if he heard from a lot of people between now and December 19, so please send him yours as well. There’s a nice lady in his office named Liz Brocker who takes e-mails at lbrocker@nd.gov and passes them on to Wayne. I think he reads them. So please let him know what you think as well. There are a whole lot of “special places” in western North Dakota that will thank you. Here’s what I sent to Stenehjem.


The reality of the Bakken Boom is this: We now have somewhere around nine thousand oil wells in North Dakota, a number which is growing rapidly, on our way to 40 or 50 thousand. The best sites have been cherry picked for ease of access to oil and avoidance of public criticism. There is going to be more and more pressure on permitting agencies to allow development in more sensitive areas as the boom progresses.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission, which grants drilling permits, has indicated a willingness to consider developing some kind of criteria which will require oil companies to consider scenic, agricultural, historical, archeological, paleontological, recreational and environmental values when locating drilling sites.  For the purpose of discussion, I have divided sites with these values into three categories.

The first category is for federally owned lands, such as National Parks and National Grasslands roadless areas, which already have restrictions on surface occupancy, but on which the state could add other protections, such as viewshed or noise buffer zones, in the location of drilling sites. In the case of a National Park, for example, a buffer zone could be created that would protect the viewshed from the park. A well might be located as close as a quarter mile from the Park boundary but out of sight of visitors to the park. Or, the Commission might require a well site to be moved two miles from the Park if there is no other way to access a lease without visual interruption to Park visitors. Likewise, if a permit application placed a well too close to a National Wildlife Refuge offering critical wildlife habitat (protected piping plovers, for example), the Commission might create a two-mile buffer zone around that refuge, requiring oil companies to access their lease horizontally—these days not a burdensome requirement.

The second category is lands owned or managed by the State of North Dakota. Generally, except for state school lands given to us at statehood, these are lands which have been acquired because they have some special value—parks, forests, wildlife areas and historic sites. On these lands, state agencies could make recommendations to the Commission about surface occupancy to protect those special values for which they were acquired. That’s already being done on state school lands. So the same process could be applied to other drilling permit applications, using the stipulation criteria already being used on school lands.

The third category is for areas such as buttes, trails and river valleys with scenic or other non-commercial values. These lands generally include a mix of public and privately owned land, so any restrictions placed on them would generally be well-site location recommendations to drillers to protect the scenic value of the areas. An example would be placing a well site out of sight of the front porch of a hunting lodge in the Bad Lands or away from a well-used hiking trail. Oil companies who are good partners and good corporate citizens should be receptive to recommendations from experts on well site locations which are not onerous.

Of course, all of these tasks are going to require sufficient staff at state agencies to review drilling permit applications to look for areas that need special consideration or permit stipulations. It’s a logical assumption that a request from the Industrial Commission to the Emergency Commission for additional FTE’s and funds to hire them will be met with favor. Because state agencies generally have access to GIS map layers, this task is not overly burdensome. It will just require time from agency staffs, and the knowledge, which will increase over time, to make recommendations on oil well placement. Nothing in this proposal will diminish the number of permits issued, nor will it, once implemented, slow the process of issuing permits. It is going to cost the state some money, but in the end it is going to make for better partnership between state regulators and the oil industry. In time, in fact, the industry will come to recognize areas the state is interested in, and incorporate that interest into their permit applications, speeding up the process of permit approval.

The lists below are not intended to create a priority ranking. As one state agency head said recently, “They are all important. They just need different kinds of consideration.” These categories are intended to show that there are numerous areas of special interest—Special Places—which require different kinds of attention in the permitting and drilling process.


Areas managed by federal agencies, that already have some surface occupancy restrictions or stipulations, around which we should create either a buffer zone or require viewshed and noise protection stipulations.

  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park, all three units
  • Lake Sakakawea, the Missouri River Valley above the lake, and the Yellowstone River Valley
  • All non-motorized areas of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, including interior and adjacent state lands
  • National Wildlife Refuges, Federal Waterfowl Production Areas, and other areas identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical habitat areas
  • National Historic Sites, Districts and Landmarks


Areas managed by the State of North Dakota in which appropriate state agencies should make recommendations to the Industrial Commission on buffer zones, surface occupancy, well site locations and/or other appropriate stipulations (a model of which is already in use for state school lands), to offer some level of protection to areas in which the state has a significant investment.

  • North Dakota State Parks, Forests, Recreation Areas, Preserves, Natural Areas and other lands managed by the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department or State Forestry Department
  • North Dakota State Historic Sites and other historic areas managed, or identified as having historical significance, by the State Historical Society of North Dakota
  • North Dakota Wildlife Management Areas and other areas identified as critical habitat by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department
  • North Dakota State School Lands (already included in this category and already  subject to stipulations)


Areas of particular scenic, agricultural, historical, archeological, paleontological, recreational or environmental significance, not necessarily owned or managed by a government agency, around which we should create viewshed protection, noise buffers and/or attach other surface occupancy stipulations to drilling permits to retain the non-commercial value of these areas. A partial list, which may be enhanced by agencies, organizations or people with expertise in these areas, is included here.

  • The Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley
  • The Killdeer Mountains
  • The west slope of the Turtle Mountains
  • The Maah Daah Hey Trail
  • Paleontological sites in Bowman and Slope Counties
  • Knife River Flint Quarries
  • Areas identified by the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commissioner or Tribal officials as having historical, religious or other special significance to Native American Tribes
  • Bad Lands scenic areas such as White Butte, Chalky Buttes, Black Butte, Square Butte, Sentinel Butte, Camel’s Hump Butte, Pretty Butte, the Teepee Buttes, the Burning Coal Vein area, the Ponderosa Pine, Limber Pine and Columnar Juniper areas, and Tracy Mountain

In summary, this proposal generally proposes that each drilling permit application from this point forward be looked at by state agency professionals to make sure well sites and other surface disturbances related to oil and gas production are properly located. Such scrutiny will allow our state agencies to also consider the cumulative impact of the oil and gas industry on our natural and cultural resources and recommend to the Industrial Commission additional management practices to deal with that as well.

Happy Birthday to this!
Written by Chet   
Thursday, 14 November 2013 13:01

BirthdaysOn this day, eight years ago, I posted the very first blog post on this blog.  Actually, it wasn't NorthDecoder, but it was NorthDecoder's predecessor, which -- in June of 2007 -- evolved into NorthDecoder.  So we've been at it, off and on, for eight years.

Have some cake.

Journalism 102
Written by Chet   
Wednesday, 06 November 2013 11:14

TeabuneImbalancedAnother Bismarck Tribune story caught my eye yesterday.  I meant to write something about it, but things were a little hectic around here. The Teabune's government/politics cub half-reporter, Nick Smith, wrote a story entitled "Residents Gather to Talk Property Taxes."  He clearly had decided to start writing a balanced teabagger story, so he approached the radical, right-wing guy who "spearheaded" the failed Measure 2 effort in the June 2012 primary, to eliminate property taxes in North Dakota. 

Robert Hale, a Minot attorney for the property tax abolition group Empower the Taxpayer, sought to educate local landowners on property taxes. Information on how the property tax funds K-12 schools as well as local property tax data was shared with the more than 30 people at the Bismarck Public Library.

[ ]

Hale said opponents of the measure claimed at the time that the state could address the issue of increasing property tax burdens through other means.

"The question is, did they fix them?" Hale said. "They were dead wrong. They've done nothing to fix them."

Bismarck Teabune

Okay, so they got the radical, right-wing teabaggeresque perspective on the dismal failure of Measure 2 in 2012.  "Next," Nick apparently thought, "let's get the perspective of the 'other side' on the topic."  So, of course, Smith went to...

Jon Godfread with the Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce said it’s still fairly early but the meetings are on the chamber's radar. Godfread was speaking on behalf of Keep it Local North Dakota, a business coalition that fought the property tax abolition measure in 2012.

[ ]

Godfread said while the Keep It Local group would likely oppose any new property tax abolition measure, the rising cost of the tax is an important problem to resolve.

"I definitely give them credit for keeping the discussion going," Godfread said.

Bismarck Teabune

There!  Do you see what Nick did there?  Nick smartly got the radical, crackpottish, teabaggy, right-wing view on property taxes, and then he got the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce right-wing corporatists, polluters and poisoners perspective.

All bases covered, right?

Nice work, Nick.

Crazy idea for you next time, Nick. When you're trying to do a political story and are going to try to pretend to present a balanced view in the Teabune, if you're doing a story about some right-wing crackpottery, call someone from the left to respond. And vice versa.

Sure, it sounds crazy.  But it just might work.

Journalism 101
Written by Jim Fuglie   
Friday, 01 November 2013 12:41

(Cross-posted, with permission, from "The Prairie Blog.")

A friend of mine once described me as a “lapsed journalist.” I corrected him and said I was a “recovering journalist.” In either case, the title gives me the credentials to tell you a story about the sorry state of journalism in North Dakota.

Last Sunday, the Forum Communications Company’s North Dakota papers ran a story written by a young reporter that was generated by a blog post I wrote a couple weeks ago. (My blog, coincidentally, is hosted by Forum Communications, and shows up on the Area Voices sections of the websites of their newspapers, four of which—The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, The Grand Forks Herald, The Jamestown Sun and The Dickinson Press—are in North Dakota. It’s on their websites for now, at least. That may change after I finish writing this. I hope not, though.) In the blog post, I was pretty critical of Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. The issue was the list of “Special Places” the North Dakota Industrial Commission is compiling, places which may or may not get special consideration when the Commission issues oil and gas drilling permits. You can read the story here if you want to.

The story was a summary of a long interview the reporter did with the Attorney General. Wayne defended what he had been doing that I was critical of, refuted a few things I said, but generally was kinder to me than I had been to him. That’s his style, and it’s why I still kind of like him. The reporter, however, was not so kind. He summarized what my blog had said in two sentences and then wrote “Fuglie did not return a phone message left at his home Thursday.”

As I said, the story ran on Sunday. Three days after he said he left me a message. Except that he didn’t leave me a message. Because I don’t have a phone at my home. When Lillian and I moved back to Bismarck in 2009, we both had cell phones, all of our friends had our numbers, and we couldn’t see wasting 50 or 60 bucks a month on a land line. So we didn’t.

Now, the fact that the story said I didn’t return the reporter’s call could have left, and probably did leave, a bad impression of me with the readers. Hmmm, Fuglie was afraid to respond to Stenehjem, or didn’t care enough to tell his side of the story, or something like that. Because the story ran on Sunday, and he got the message way back on Thursday. Surely Fuglie had time to return the call in three days.

All I know is, it really pissed me off. Not that I had much more to say (although I am usually not at a loss for words when a microphone is waved in front of my face), but that readers got a bad impression of me for not responding. So when I read the story, I found the reporter’s e-mail address and sent him an e-mail telling him I had no home phone and had never received a phone message from him.  After a brief exchange of e-mails (all of which included my cell phone number) he explained that he had done something called a Lexis/Nexis search for me which turned up an old phone number which had been assigned to me back in 1982 and which was disconnected when I moved out to western North Dakota in 2004. His search showed my correct current address, with no current phone number, but it did show the old phone number listed by Lexis/Nexis with a previous address where I had lived when I had that phone number—nine years ago. So he called that number and left a message. On the voice mail of the person who now has that phone number. And then waited for me to respond. And that was the extent of his search for me, to include my comments in his story.

In his e-mail response to me, when he sent me his Lexis/Nexis search story, he ended his e-mail with “Just curious, is the other Jim Fuglie (wife Rose) a relative of yours?

I wrote back that my wife’s name is Lillian, and that there is only one other Jim Fuglie in the whole world, my third cousin in Minneapolis, whose wife’s name is Kaye. But I puzzled over that question for a while, and then decided to become a reporter and do some investigating. I wanted to know whose voice mail he had left a message for me on. So I went to the online White Pages directory and did a reverse phone look-up for the number that used to be mine. Sure enough, it has been reassigned. To James Rose. Hmmm.  James Rose. Hmmm. Jim Rose. Light bulb came on. I called the number. Got a voice mail message: “Hello, this is Jim Rose. I can’t come to the phone right now . . .” Not “Jim and Rose.” Just “Jim Rose.” Articulated very clearly. Mystery solved. I did not leave a message.

Well, that, unfortunately, has become the standard for reporting the news in North Dakota. Write a story, make a half-hearted effort to contact people named in the story, then run it. My, how things have changed since my days as a reporter and editor. My editor at the Dickinson Press once told me “It is not good enough to say someone was ‘unavailable for comment’ (which I once tried to do in a story about coal development in 1975) until you have exhausted every possibility that you might be able to track them down.” In our case, that meant staying on the phone right up until our 9:30 or 10 p.m. deadline, or driving to the bowling alley where they might be in a league, or calling their cousin in Bowman to see if he knew where the person might be. I often was able to reach someone who was a principal in a story by simply staying with the effort. And in pretty much every case, it made the story better. Sometimes, when you could not get both sides of the story, you had to just hold the story until the next day (or until Sunday), until you finally reached everybody. Not in 2013. Today, you just say “Well, we left a message for the asshole, but he didn’t call us back, so screw him.” Usually, though, I think the reporters try to make sure they leave the message at the right house.  Usually. Not always. Of course, in my day there was no such thing as voice mail, so you couldn’t just say “He did not return a phone message left at his home Thursday.” You actually had to keep calling back until you either reached someone or you reached your deadline.

There’s a story I used to tell reporters who worked for me, or with me, that bears repeating. It was election night, 1972 at The Dickinson Press. The entire Press staff was working the phones, tracking down election results, including a young high school senior, who was a paid part-time staffer, but I suppose would be called an intern today.  County auditors in southwest North Dakota had been asked to call in the results of the election in their county. The Press was not only doing its own story, but forwarding the results to the Associated Press, which was compiling the results statewide and announcing the winners. There was a very close race for Governor between Art Link and Richard Larsen, and it was not going to be decided until every county’s results had been tabulated.

As the paper’s deadline neared, The Press staff had results from all of its assigned counties except Adams County, in extreme southwest North Dakota. There was no answer at the county auditor’s office. The office had been closed for the night and everyone gone home, without reporting in. What to do? Put the paper to bed without the Adams County results? Nope, said the editor, keep trying. We’ll hold the presses.

Well, it turns out one reporter happened to be from Adams County, and he told the young intern the auditor’s name and said to call her home. He did. No answer. Well, then, call the bars in Hettinger, starting with the Pastime, the reporter said to the intern. Sometimes they go out for a drink after they are done working.

Bingo. She was at the Pastime. She had the results in her car. She got them and gave them to the intern over the phone from the bar. With that, the story was complete and the paper went to print. In the morning, everyone knew that in spite of the fact Richard Larsen had beaten Art Link by 16 votes out of almost 2,000 cast in Adams County, Art Link had been elected Governor, by less than 5,000 votes statewide. (And, as an aside, that Byron Dorgan beat Richard Lommen for State Tax Commissioner by a vote of 1,350 to 377 in Adams County.)

It would have been easy for The Press to report “Results from Adams County were not available because the county auditor failed to report them.” Would have made the auditor look pretty bad. But the newspaper’s job is to gather the news, and report it. Not reporting it is cheating the newspaper’s subscribers, who paid to learn who won the election. And because that young high school senior, Clay Jenkinson, listened to that former Adams County resident across the desk from him, Jim Fuglie, and got back on the phone and started calling bars, earning himself the nickname “Scoop” from that day forward, the story was complete. That’s good journalism, the way it used to be practiced. And should still be. But these days, a voice mail is sufficient. Even if it is pretty clear that the voice mail was left on someone else’s phone.

In this case, the reporter tried to reach me on a Thursday. I did not respond immediately because I did not get the message. But the story did not run until Sunday. So he had Friday and Saturday to try to track me down to ask me whatever it was he was going to ask me. He didn’t do that. These days, it is pretty easy to track someone down, with all the communications devices available. I communicate regularly with a number of Forum Communications employees by e-mail and phone. I am Facebook friends with many of them, including both Bill Marcils. My e-mail is on my Facebook page. I have a comment section on my blog, which sends me an e-mail when someone comments, as he should have known, since the blog is on all the Forum Communications websites. Pretty much everyone who knows me or knows of me knows that I worked for the Democratic-NPL Party and the Medora Foundation, so they would surely know how to find me. I could go on.

But you know what? I don’t just fault the reporter. That story appeared in four North Dakota newspapers. It had to get past four city editors before it got into the papers. Every one of those editors should have said “Wait a minute, how hard did you try to reach Fuglie? Try again. The story is not complete, and you have a couple days to fix it.” But instead, they just ran with what they had. Bad journalism. Top to bottom.

To their credit, senior editors at the Grand Forks Herald, by far the state’s best newspaper, took a look at the story when it appeared in the paper and said “Well, that’s not good enough.” So they ran an editorial the next day, which you can read here. The Dickinson Press also reprinted it a couple days later. The Forum ran a correction in the paper the next day which said “A message left Thursday for former North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party executive director Jim Fuglie was left at the wrong phone number, so Fuglie did not have an opportunity to respond to a request for comment. This information was incorrect in a story on Page C1 of Sunday’s Forum about North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s effort to compile a list of ‘extraordinary places’ in the state for protection from energy development and other impacts.” I wasn’t able to get printed copies of the other three papers so I don’t know if they also ran the correction. None of them ran it on their website, where I first read the story, that I can tell.

Now, I hope readers don’t get the impression I’m feeling picked on or feeling sorry for myself. I’m not. This isn’t really about me, and it really isn’t about the young reporter who did this story. I’ve been bemoaning the sorry state of journalism in North Dakota for a long time, and this is a classic example of how the news media here operates today. Next time you read a newspaper story, and you come to the line “Fred did not respond to a request for comment” you’ll likely know that the reporter did not really make much of an effort to reach Fred, and his or her editor did not care. I am a newspaper junkie, having been raised in the profession. But I have a lot of friends who have just given up on subscribing to their local paper because of the quality of journalism they see, and have come to expect. Instead, they glance through the news online. They watch “The Daily Show” (but not the six o’clock news). Newspaper circulation continues to decline. So do television news ratings. There’s a reason. You just finished reading about it.

Footnote: A short crime story in Friday’s Bismarck Tribune, by an Associated Press writer, contained these three statements:

  • The man’s attorney, Henry Howe, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.
  • Pembina County State’s Attorney Barbara Whelan also did not immediately return a call seeking more information on the case.
  • The woman did not immediately respond to requests for comment made Thursday through Facebook. (!!!) (emphasis and exclamatory incredibility mine)

I checked online, and it ran in pretty much every paper in the state. Just like that. Apparently this is indeed the new standard for news reporting (and editing) in North Dakota. Isn’t that sad?

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