North Dakota's governor, not to mention scores of the state's 600,000 citizens, are fuming about an article published this month in one of the world's most prestigious magazines.
Under the headline "The Emptied Prairie," National Geographic shows images of ramshackle farm houses and talks about North Dakota's "irreversible decline ... and a sense of things ebbing, churches being abandoned, schools shutting down and towns becoming ruins."
All of that has prompted a vociferous "Whoa!" from North Dakota's political brass, current residents and others across the country with state connections. They're e-mailing the venerable 120-year-old magazine and venting their anger on North Dakota newspaper websites.
"They could have done the same thing in Minnesota. Pick any state, find an abandoned building or house or a car sitting in a field, take a picture and say that represents the state -- come on," Gov. John Hoeven said.
He made the comments in an interview Monday, after firing off a letter to the magazine's editor-in-chief in Washington.
"It's as if someone came into my back yard and took a picture of my broken lawn mower and then wrote a story trying to portray that as how my family lives," added North Dakota Commerce Commissioner Shane Goettle, whose family still ranches in the state's northwest corner.
The honchos point to North Dakota's low crime, job growth, improved farm exports and status as the continent's third-largest pasta producer. Even writer Charles Bowden acknowledges that the state population has stabilized and that "oil is booming, wheat prices are at record highs."
He calls North Dakota "one of the loveliest and most moving" states in the union.
'Puncturing the illusion'
So why all the rancorous reaction?
Clay Jenkinson, a scholar-in-residence at Dickinson State University, has a theory.
"These are prosperous times here on the whole," Jenkinson said. "People have a sense that if we jinx this magic moment we're having, it might go away.
"Somebody comes along and tells us that behind the surface prosperity and surface serenity and sense of confidence North Dakota is feeling, is really the same old story of depopulation and decline," Jenkinson said. "That's why it has upset us so much. It punctures the illusion that we're living under, that things are OK."
On the Fargo Forum's IN-FORUM website, people have lambasted National Geographic for "lazy journalism ... beyond cliché and stereotype."
Rick Montieth, of Grand Forks, was among those taking the magazine to task on the Forum's website.
"Do they ever challenge their writers to offer a fresh and different perspective? My freshman writing teacher would have refused to accept something with a point of view as clichéd. ... I'd think a magazine with National Geographic's reputation would set the bar a lot higher."
'A specific look'
National Geographic spokeswoman Beth Foster said Monday night she understands North Dakotans' sensitivity and love for their state.
"But the story was never intended to be a profile of the state in its entirety," Foster said. "It was supposed to be a specific look at a phenomenon in the North American landscape and that's the abandoned rural farm towns."
The story points out the growth in cities such as Fargo, Grand Forks, Mandan and Bismarck. "But that wasn't the point of the story," Foster said. "We were looking at the stories behind the abandoned buildings and what they tell about people's connection to the land and the powerful perseverance of North Dakotans."
She said editor Chris Johns, the recipient of the governor's letter, grew up in Oregon and drove across North Dakota to attended photojournalism school at the University of Minnesota, where he fell in love with the landscape and often wondered about the abandoned farm buildings.
Bowden writes that "there is almost a willful amnesia in North Dakota.
"... people cash in on their property and move someplace warmer and easier. The rest grow old and die. There are constant funerals." The magazine quotes one resident, whose grandfather's 1908 diary was full of talk of suicides caused by loneliness.
Jenkinson points out that most of the article is on target, if not a little old.
"We've heard this story 1,000 times, and furthermore we know it's true," he said. "The notion that all the intelligent people have left and the rest are slowly committing suicide really ticked people off."
But Jenkinson flashes back to the 1878 Arid Lands Report, penned by one-armed explorer John Wesley Powell of the U.S. Geological Survey.
"He was right when he said the land beyond Bismarck is too dry to be settled in the pattern that settled Minnesota and this would always be a sparsely populated region," Jenkinson said, adding that Bowden is merely the latest to unearth that.
"Someone is always coming out here and discovering that the plains are emptying out," he said. "This is yet another in a long, long series of dying town stories, and we all need to take a deep breath."
Goettle, the commerce commissioner, is too busy. He searched the Internet and found that on www.ghosttowns.com, the writer's home state of Arizona has more than twice as many abandoned communities as North Dakota.
State leaders have invited National Geographic back to take another look at the prosperity.
"I think people here are very proud of North Dakota," the governor said. "They're excited about what's going on with the economy, the natural beauty of our state and the spirit of the people."
Hoeven said he thinks the writer was "striving for an artsy piece, reflecting an older era or something that somehow represents the state now. It doesn't.
"So they're rightfully pushing back and saying: 'Hey, National Geographic: You got it wrong.'"
Staff writers Paul Walsh and Kevin Duchschere contributed to this report. Curt Brown• 612-673-4767