Theodora Bird Bear and Corey Sanders are the unlikeliest of protesters.
She’s 62 and works as a bookkeeper at a Catholic church just up Bureau of Indian Affairs Road 12 from the simple brown house she shares with her sister.
He’s 44, similarly soft-spoken and ranches down BIA Road 14 with his brother, running cattle on dozens of hilly acres climbing from a creek-lined ravine.
“When you have roots buried deep here, there’s something intangible that really connects you to the earth,” said Bird Bear, who has spent her entire life on this arid terrain that’s now in a bull’s-eye for the next burst of oil extraction in North Dakota’s frenzied Bakken boom. “Yes, it’s rough and hard out here. But this is our land, darn it, this is what we’ve got left and we’ve got to fight for it.”
In a state that’s embraced the oil industry’s massive expansion with giddy enthusiasm and scant regulation, Bird Bear and Sanders are among the few standing up and fighting for land they hold sacred.
Five years ago, their sprawling Fort Berthold Indian Reservation was a sleepy landscape of isolated ranches with a history of wrenching displacements. But since hydraulic-fracturing technology ignited North Dakota’s oil rush, Halliburton and other oil-field giants have zeroed in on the tribal land.
The numbers are staggering: More than $500 million in fracking leases and oil royalties have poured in to the MHA Nation, three affiliated tribes that share a reservation here. Its 930,000 acres sit atop billions of barrels of oil tucked deep in the shale below.
Tribal leaders are building a new refinery, the nation’s first in decades, near New Town — the reservation’s hub, which already boasts a casino, museum and golf course.
But 30 miles south, the hardscrabble tribal town of Mandaree, population 600 and amid all that oil, still has no gas station. It’s here where Bird Bear and Sanders are taking their stand.
Bird Bear testifies frequently at the Capitol in Bismarck and before state regulators, rallying others to pack committee hearings. Sanders writes letters to his tribal leaders, protesting how oil interests have invaded their land, asking everyone to slow down and consider long-term consequences.
There are 22 drilling rigs, 979 active wells and 148 on the verge of completion within the reservation’s boundaries — cranking out a quarter-million barrels a day and earning the tribes $1 million a month.
“You feel like you’re one person against a whole oil company system — what can you do?” Sanders said. “It’s like a spell and the money is too strong.”
Rocking the boat
As oil extraction shatters state records, nearing 1 million barrels a day, North Dakota has become the envy of other cash-dry states. Its coffers boasted a $1.6 billion surplus after its last two-year budget cycle. One oil tycoon calls North Dakota “the next Saudi Arabia.”
But national environmentalists are seldom seen here amid the soaring oil production. And locals have taken a wait-and-see attitude, suppressing anxiety about what all the drilling might be doing to their landscape.
“North Dakotans by nature aren’t generally protesters — it’s a very Scandinavian suck-it-up mentality and they don’t tend to rock the boat,” said Joshua Fershee, an environmental expert and former dean at the University of North Dakota Law School. “My concern is they won’t respond until there’s a big disaster. That’s what they’re waiting for, otherwise they trust it’s OK.”
Lately, though, a series of slow-to-disclose spills and leaks have made North Dakota headlines.
A Tioga farmer 80 miles north of Mandaree discovered a spill from a busted pipeline that oozed more than 20,000 barrels of oil on his wheat fields. It is one of the largest spills in North Dakota history, and neither regulators nor the Tesoro pipeline company informed the public for 11 days.
In October, a leak in an underground line sent 150 barrels of disposed salt water leaching onto U.S. Forest Service land west of Dickinson. Weeks later, a Nov. 7 explosion ignited 13 tanks and spilled 2,700 barrels of salt water and oil southwest of Alexander.
All told, North Dakota recorded 300 pipeline spills the past two years, many minor, without alerting the public.
“Our philosophy has always been: If there’s no threat to groundwater, surface water, public health and environment … we didn’t feel the public was threatened and needed a news release to know about it,” said Dennis Fewless, water quality director for the North Dakota Health Department.
His office is about to begin posting all spill reports on its website, acknowledging the Tioga spill “hit a nerve.”
Meanwhile, flaring of natural gas extracted along with North Dakota’s oil has started two grass fires near Bird Bear’s home, prompting her to join those calling for a flaring moratorium. Because of low prices and insufficient pipelines, nearly 30 percent of the state’s natural gas — an estimated $100 million a month — is flared off into the air like giant pilot lights. Texas and Alaska flare only 1 percent of their natural gas.
For Bird Bear, the recent spill disclosures and flaring debate are long overdue. She’s been insisting for years that it’s high time for a serious talk about just how much environmental havoc this boom is wreaking.
“I expect to live here all my life, and I have a commitment to this land that was my folks’ land,” she said. “I just feel like I have an obligation to protect it, not only for me, but for the families that come after.”
Historical déjà vu?
Bird Bear’s tribe has already been displaced.
In 1851, its tribal lands exceeded 12 million acres, ranging from what became the Canadian border to the Powder River of Wyoming. A series of federal treaties shrank that territory to less than 1 million acres as railroads came in, carrying immigrant settlers from Scandinavia and other lands.
The federal government chopped up the reservation, shared by the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes, into allotments of 160- and 320-acre parcels. Theodora’s father, Theodore Bird Bear, grew up on the rich farm and ranch land along the Missouri River among tribal members “in sight of complete economic independence,” according to a 1949 congressional report.
But after World War II, Missouri River flooding prompted a Missourian in the White House, Harry Truman, to push for a series of dams along the river that would irrigate prairies and provide power.
Five of those dams went up, flooding 550 square miles of reservation land and forcing 80 percent of Fort Berthold’s members to higher ground, their homes now under Lake Sakakawea, the nation’s third-largest man-made reservoir.
“It was the price of progress, I guess,” said Marilyn Hudson, 77, Bird Bear’s longtime friend, fellow tribal member and staffer at the MHA Nation’s museum. “I don’t think there was too much concern about the residents and the balance of who would benefit. Just like with today’s oil boom.”
Families such as Bird Bear’s and Hudson’s were forced to less desirable land around Mandaree. Many families moved away, especially as unemployment soared, and sold their land to the tribe. Roughly half of the 13,357 tribal members live outside the reservation.
Tribal leaders insist all this energy development can help make them self-sufficient again. Even as tribal lands contribute a sizable chunk of North Dakota’s oil production, some estimates call for another 2,000 new wells on the reservation, giving its tribal leaders unprecedented clout as oil companies jockey for leases.
After a decade of stalled talks, the tribes’ Thunder Butte Refinery is inching closer to reality. The $300 million project would be the first built in Indian Country and the first new one in the United States since the 1970s. A groundbreaking ceremony was held last spring, and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a permit in July.
Tribal Chairman Tex Hall, who declined numerous interview requests, has promised a grand plan that would include petroleum pumping, refining, storage, shipping, a truck-stop hotel and fleet of tribal-owned trucks running on natural gas captured on the reservation.
Bird Bear, Sanders and their allies have helped delay the refinery for years, arguing that tribal leaders know little about the oil industry and are jeopardizing sacred land for quick cash while health and safety questions cloud the project.
“Our entire tribal culture and existence is based on the principle that the land equals the people, us; destroy one and you destroy the other,” Sanders wrote to his tribal representative. “Yes, it’s true our tribe needs money, and it’s nice to get a royalty check every month, but what are we giving up to get it?”
Bird Bear is typically up past midnight, squinting into her glowing computer, researching the latest reports on what fracking is doing to the limited supply of water that North Dakota sucks from the Missouri River and its aquifers.
As winter arrives, she’ll once again start swerving down icy roads, rutted by 2,500 oil trucks pounding each day on the reservation, to testify at legislative hearings 75 miles south in Bismarck. She’ll go wherever she must to talk about the disposal of spent fracking gel and how injecting that blend of chemicals and water and sand into shallow wells and holding pits might damage her land.
She lobbied for a bill to increase setbacks for wells drilled near homes. She urged the state’s powerful Industrial Commission to slow down approving oil wells in the Killdeer Mountains, a spiritual place for tribal members.
“It’s equivalent to having an oil well right beside your Catholic church — what’s the rush? The rush is quick decisions and unplanned impacts,” she testified earlier this year before a 3-0 vote gave the Hess Corp. permission to drill on the picturesque Killdeer range.
Her improbable ascent from shy grandmother to environmental advocate, she admits, stemmed from ignorance. Originally she joined a group resisting the refinery. Learning the meaning of technical jargon surrounding things like volatile organic compounds proved daunting.
“It scared me because I thought: I don’t know what that means,” she said. “Maybe this is too much for me.”
Instead of giving up, she dug in, learning about volatile organic compounds and the technical aspects of fracking and flaring.
Now the new chairwoman of the Dakota Resource Council’s oil and gas task force, Bird Bear has amplified her position on the environmental advocacy group by using social media to share her message of caution. Her “This is Mandaree” Facebook page has nearly as many followers as residents here (523). One of her latest posts urged landowners to demand more oversight into the 2,000 oil and saltwater pipelines that have gone unregulated in North Dakota.
“There’s no end to it,” she said. “It’s relentless, and you have to be up to it.”
A fickle business
Championing environmental causes on the reservation can be treacherous. Even those raising questions are benefiting from the oil boom.
Hudson, like many tribal members, inherited mineral rights. She and her siblings share a $10,000 check each month, royalties she calls “a real blessing” in tough economic times. But she’s been through earlier oil booms here and knows it might not last. “Oil is a fickle business; if they can find a cheaper way to produce it, they’ll pull out of here in a New York minute.”
Neighbor Lisa Deville, 39, a mother of five from Mandaree, is less torn, despite her husband’s royalty checks that helped them pay off $70,000 of their home mortgage.
“We’re supposed to be keepers of the earth,” she said. “We’re supposed to be the water that makes things grow. We’re losing that connection.”
Deville, whose monthly e-mailed newsletters remind people that “oil is not forever,” has tracked more than 70 reports of oil-related pollution at Fort Berthold and cites environmental and lifestyle concerns from an exhaustive survey she conducted of tribal neighbors.
Sanders, too, receives monthly oil checks.
“I won’t lie, it’s nice to get that money every month,” he said. “But when you think what we’re losing to get that money, you wonder if it’s worth it.”
On a cattle-wrangling break last fall on leased land where his 38 cows graze, Sanders pointed out an oozing, oily sheen in a wet part of the pasture. He says it was always dry before a new oil well went in nearby. He’s talking to a lab about testing the water from the soggy hillside.
Nearby, in a roadside ditch, plant life has died from apparent chemical dumping.
“Yeah, there have been some spills, rather some that made the news lately,” he said. “We have known for years about a lot of things that go unnoticed.”
He has a stack of letters he’s written to tribal officials, detailing seismographic companies coming on his land without permission, surveyors leaving open gates allowing cattle to stray, dust from the road so thick it chokes his cows.
Sanders says he knows all this Bakken oil is good for America, but he wonders if there’s so much that oil companies will eventually bolster profits by selling it overseas.
“The only thing I can do is write letters and cuss people out,” he said with a shrug. “Maybe it’s not good to do that, but that’s what I do.”
In one letter he wrote to his tribal representative last spring, attempting to address the deteriorating conditions on BIA Road 14, now hazardous with craters, he ended with a larger question.
“I realize it’s too late to undo what has been done thus far,” he wrote, “but now is the time to find other ways of using the tribes’ oil revenue as a source of capital for other ventures, before what’s left of our land becomes a wasteland.”
His letters usually receive no response.
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767