2013: A year of growth, changes
Southwest North Dakota continues to grow and change, and 2013 was not so much the exception than it was the rule.
For that reason, The Press’ rundown of the top stories of the year are centered around growth, the energy industry, business, education and, perhaps most importantly, the people who made the news this year.
-- If one thing became apparent in 2013, it is that Dickinson is growing.
With development in the Oil Patch continuing to grow strong, the city on the southern edge of the Bakken and at the heart of the growing Three Forks formation is garnering more attention from companies and their employees.
Dickinson’s construction and building explosion, with more scheduled for 2014, coincide with expansion stalemate due to infrastructure needs.
It was announced Monday that North Dakota’s population reached 723,393 a record for the state — and much of that growth is taking place in the western half of the state.
The official U.S. Census estimate for Dickinson is 19,697, up 10.7 percent from the official 2010 count, 17,787. Dickinson serves up to 30,000 people as a regional hub, at least 20,000 are expected to reside here, based on municipal city billing.
Registration at Dickinson Public Schools increased 12.5 percent from fall 2012 to fall 2013 and continued to grow, even with large increases of student mobility — students who come and leave within a school year.
“On the Monday after Thanksgiving we enrolled 15 children and we enrolled three families this morning,” DPS Superintendent Doug Sullivan said at a Dec. 9 community planning workshop for growth within the district.
Developers were gearing up to build houses, apartments and stores within the 1,400 acres that was annexed into the city in 2012 — a record-breaking year for construction in Dickinson — but a desperate need for infrastructure, especially water and sewer lines, put a temporary stop to some major developments.
The city expects to spend $192 million on 27 projects.
“We are basically at capacity right now, in terms of our infrastructure,” City Attorney Matt Kolling said at the June Planning and Zoning Commission meeting.
By the end of the year, city officials shaped a plan using funding through the state and creditors to complete the work needed, and plans to have about $105 million in debt by the end of 2014.
Next year will see a large portion of the city’s infrastructure needs met, along with more multi-family housing and retail. The year after, 2015, is expected to see more single-family housing.
-- Sitting in his office earlier this month, Dickinson Parks and Recreation Director James Kramer said, come the summer of 2014, the West River Community Center and surrounding complexes would be “totally different” after an estimated $23 million makeover.
The structural beams for the complex’s new ice arena went vertical in mid-December and the community center addition — including four basketball courts, a larger weight room and cardio area, plus a new outdoor pool area — is well on its way to a completion goal of spring or summer 2014.
Kramer said plans for the community center have largely kept up with the growth with close to 1,000 people traveling through its doors on an average day and a growing ice hockey program.
-- As oil development pushed south in 2013, small southwest North Dakota towns that had been stuck in the doldrums of growth for the past decade or more began experiencing growth. Bowman, Belfield and New England — while not yet overrun by the boom — began preparing for potential growth.
These communities all saw development in several facets, including infrastructure, business and school enrollment.
-- On March 26, work began on the Dakota Prairie Refinery just hours after four of North Dakota’s most influential politicians and a who’s who of area political and business leaders helped break ground on the nation’s first oil refinery since 1976 and the state’s first since 1956.
The $300 million investment is designed to turn Bakken crude oil into diesel fuel and other oil by-products. The refinery, a partnering of MDU Resources and Indiana-based Calumet Specialty Products, is scheduled to be completed in late 2014.
“This is a great example of exactly what we need to be doing across the country again,” Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said following the groundbreaking.
V A Tesoro pipeline rupture in Williams County leaked an estimated 20,600 barrels of Bakken crude into farmer Steve Jensen’s land in late September.
The state and company were criticized for not publicizing the relatively massive spill immediately, and that led to the launch of a state Health Department website that posts all reports of oilfield-related spills, even those as small as a barrel.
Jensen, who owns the contaminated land, first discovered and reported the spill while in his combine. It led to the pipeline being shut down from Sept. 29 through October.
-- In August, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., took a firsthand look at thousands of pieces of pipe — roughly 200 miles of it — from the unused Keystone XL pipeline near the North Dakota ghost town of Gascoyne east of Scranton. The massive spread of pipe, as of earlier this year, was guarded 24/7 by a private security company.
Hoeven spoke of how the long-awaited approval of the pipeline could help bring Bakken oil to market, create needed U.S. jobs and enhance the country’s national security.
One of the biggest proponents of the Canada-to-Texas Keystone XL pipeline — which has yet to gain State Department approval — Hoeven said during his tour that the controversial pipeline could be a big key to the U.S. eventually telling organizations like OPEC to “fly a kite.”
Far from the debate in Washington, D.C., and the cries of environmentalists that approving Keystone XL could be a “game-changer” in the fight against climate change, Hoeven stood in the middle of nowhere trying to make his case that the stash of pipe represented lost time in the march toward energy independence.
-- The past year brought the debate of whether or not the massive Bakken energy industry development and production could coexist with treasured North Dakota places and landmarks.
The question was floated by many following an early-year dust-up involving a subsidiary of energy giant ExxonMobil and an area that is sacred to many North Dakotans, including respected author and historian Clay Jenkinson.
In March, Theodore Roosevelt National Park officials and a number of conservationists objected to a plan by XTO Energy to drill for oil mere steps from the Elkhorn Ranch, a site where the foundation of the cabin lived in by Roosevelt more than 100 years ago during the former U.S. president’s time in North Dakota.
Amid public pressure, XTO eventually decided to forgo plans to drill near the ranch. The debate would become the catalyst for a larger statewide discussion about protecting certain areas and landmarks in western North Dakota from encroaching energy development.
At one point, Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor said she was afraid to take a day off because of fear that a new plan for oil and gas development would further jeopardize the park’s viewsheds and lessen visitors’ experience at the park’s two main units.
In December, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem released a list of 18 “extraordinary places” that were to be designated for protection from industrial development, though the list provided no specific legal protection for the sites.
-- The Bakken had some competition for oil companies’ attention in 2013, as interest in the Three Forks and Tyler formations picked up.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in April that the Three Forks formation has 3.73 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil, compared to 3.65 billion barrels in the Bakken, an increase in estimates for both. The Three Forks formation, made of sand and porous rock, lies beneath the Bakken.
Meanwhile, companies are taking core samples of the Tyler Formation in the southwest corner of the state, and Marathon spudded its first Tyler horizontal fracking well in northeastern Slope County in September. Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms has said success in the Tyler could lead to growth for cities like Amidon and New England.
-- Early October is usually a time of year for farmers and ranchers to focus on wrapping up their harvests and preparing for the forthcoming winter. But in 2013, winter came early and with a vengeance for many producers in northwest South Dakota and southwest North Dakota.
Dubbed the “Winter Storm Atlas,” a massive blizzard pounded parts of the northern plains with up to 3 feet of snow during the first week of October, directly and indirectly resulting in the deaths of thousands of cattle.
Though the losses were felt hardest in South Dakota, a number of ranch operations near Hettinger and in surrounding North Dakota communities were affected by the storm, which garnered national attention. Many ranchers spent the next several weeks locating dead cattle and tending to survivors who were left traumatized, jeopardizing their livelihood.
A number of relief funds were constructed by organizations and there was an outpouring of support from those in the Dakotas and beyond as the scope of the tragedy became more transparent.
During a trip to Hettinger in late October, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., encouraged those affected to file their paperwork in order to document their losses, some of which were slated to be covered retroactively as part of the new farm bill. On Oct. 11, Heitkamp highlighted the plight of Hettinger rancher Dan Christman and his family following the Atlas storm during a speech on the Senate floor.
-- All sorts of development showed signs of encroaching on the Killdeer Mountains, ruffling feathers of nearby landowners and historians. The mountains are home to the site of the 1864 Battle of Killdeer Mountain, the largest military engagement to ever take place on the Great Plains.
Two wells were spudded on the mountains after January approval from the North Dakota Industrial Commission, and Hess Corporation has staked for more. The Killdeer Mountain Alliance formed in response, and also came out in force against a proposed power line, which would bisect an area designated for a study of the historic battle.
Public Service Commission Chair Brian Kalk said he expects the commission to have a decision on Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s application for a 200-mile power line in the first quarter of 2014.
Industrial Commission member and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem in December included the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site and Wildlife Management Area in his list of “extraordinary places,” which came with proposed rules for minimizing drilling effects on those and 17 other sites, including Lake Sakakawea and the Little Missouri River.
-- The renovation of downtown Dickinson’s historic Elks Building dragged on this year.
New investors have put fresh money into the project after former head Granville “Beaver” Brinkman stepped aside and became a minority owner, leaving behind construction liens, angry contractors, and many unmet deadlines spanning over a decade.
The structure, built in 1911, has hosted the Elks Lodge, the first classes of what’s now Dickinson State University, and dozens of other businesses over the years.
Its doors remained closed as of Dec. 31.
-- Asked to describe his feelings following a Nov. 1 announcement that Dickinson State University was to remain a fully accredited institution by the Higher Learning Commission, DSU president D.C. Coston hung his hat on one word: “Affirmation.”
After months of speculation, Coston announced that DSU had been taken off “on notice” status by its accrediting agency, meaning the school was in the clear of sanctions following an enrollment scandal that became public in 2011.
Though the university continues to face challenges in regard to enrollment numbers, the HLC announcement was a breath of fresh for many on the campus, which has experienced its share of dark days in recent years.
Other questions, however, continued to plague the campus, including questions surrounding the finances and completion — or lack thereof — a number of development projects spearheaded by the Dickinson State Alumni Foundation.
-- Dickinson opened its first new school in more than two decades at the beginning of the school year. Prairie Rose Elementary — more than two years in the making — hosts kindergarten through fifth grade and was a welcome addition to Dickinson Public Schools.
Teachers moved in at the beginning of August and school started Aug. 21.
“I went out to dinner last week with an 80-year-old widow and she wanted me to take her around to — because she doesn’t drive — but she wanted me to take her around, she says, ‘I hear there’s a new school somewhere.’ So she wanted to see where that new school was,” school board member Leslie Ross said in May. “So we drove up to Prairie Rose and she got all teary-eyed, she goes, ‘It’s just beautiful!’”
The building features 18 classrooms, with multi-purpose rooms that can be converted in case of need, a large cafeteria, music room, library and computer lab.
-- In May, the collaborative bargaining process between the Dickinson Public School Board and the Dickinson Education Association came to an impasse over salary and professional development days. The two met in front of the Governor’s Factfinding Commission in June, which gave out its recommendations to accept the board’s final salary offer, but only one additional development day in the second year of the contract.
After a final attempt at negotiation in July, the board issued unilateral contracts for the 2013-14 school year. The Dickinson Education Association is suing the board because it feels the board did not have the authority to issue contracts.
The case is still in court and, as of Oct. 22, could end up in front of the North Dakota Supreme Court.
-- On Nov. 21, an era in college football history came to a close with the retirement of Dickinson State University head coach Hank Biesiot. He stepped down following two seasons that totalled three wins — the worst in his 38-year career.
Biesiot ended his career as one of the winningest coaches in college football history with 258 wins and 17 conference championships. He is already a member of the NAIA Hall of Fame and DSU renamed the Badlands Activities Center the Henry Biesiot Activities Center in his honor last year.
Pete Stanton, a longtime assistant to Biesiot, was named his successor on Dec. 3. Stanton stepped down as DSU’s track and field coach. He led DSU to three men’s track and field national championships and five national runner-up finishes in his career. Two days later, cross country coach Michael Nekuda was named the school’s head track and field coach.
-- North Dakota was introduced to Craig Cobb in late August when it was revealed that the white supremacist, who is wanted by Canadian authorities for hate crimes, purchased a home in tiny Leith in the center of Grant County and was buying lots in an effort to mobilize like-minded individuals and turn the town into neo-Nazi enclave.
Revolt began almost instantly. Less than a month later, more than 300 protested Cobb and his cohorts in Leith. Shortly after, Cobb’s property was cited as a public health nuisance because it wasn’t connected to water and sewer lines. Leith updated its laws to fight back against Cobb and other white supremacists, and one man developed a website
On Nov. 16, Cobb and Kynan Dutton — who was living with Cobb — went on “patrol” around the gravel streets of Leith carrying firearms and were subsequently arrested on suspicion of terrorizing.
Today, Cobb and Dutton are residents of the Mercer County Jail in Stanton. Cobb is being held without Bail and Dutton at $50,000 cash-only bail. Their saga is sure to continue into 2014.
“If he gets out, he’s either going to flee or he’s going to come and hurt somebody. It’s just plain and simple. That’s my concern, I guess,” Leith Mayor Ryan Schock said last week.
-- With the increase in western North Dakota’s population came an increase in crime. The most common crime in Dickinson is theft, Police Chief Dustin Dassinger told The Press in December, but there’s also an increase in fights, domestic violence and vandalism. The city topped a record-breaking 25,000 calls for service on Thursday. This includes traffic stops, background checks and bar checks in addition to calls received by the public.
Beyond petty crime, the Bakken has seen an increase in major drug traffic, with heroin popping up in Dickinson and Williston for the first time in years. Drug arrests for the state increased 40 percent from 2003 to 2012, but the Oil Patch saw a 405 percent increase in the same time period.
“You used to maybe see an eight ball or something like that of methamphetamine, now you’re starting to see a half-pound, pound, greater quantities,” Timothy Purdon, U.S. Attorney for the state of North Dakota, said in August. “There’s no question that the population of western North Dakota has increased dramatically in the last few years — more people is going to equal more crime. What hasn’t increased at the same pace is the number of law enforcement officers. We need more cops, prosecutors, judges, courtrooms, jail cells, probation officers — all the way through the system.”
In an effort to combat the drugs and affiliated crime coming in to western North Dakota, local, state and federal officials teamed up to form “Project Safe Bakken.” The partnership allows for additional FBI agents in the region to back up local law enforcement in their crime fighting efforts.
-- October’s federal government shutdown shuttered Theodore Roosevelt National Park for more than two weeks and put a lag on oil development.
Rangers had hours to perform shutdown duties at the 30,000-acre national park Oct. 1, and only two remained on duty during the shutdown.
Medora, the tourist town at the South Unit’s gateway, was said to have suffered a loss in tourism revenue, with the park being its main attraction.
Meanwhile, the shutdown shut the doors of Dickinson’s Bureau of Land Management field office, which meant the backlog of permit applications for drilling on federal land surpassed 500.