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Horwath: Saying goodbye to the Bakken

During the summer of 2012, I made the eight-hour trek from my home in Hudson, Wis., to the edge of the Bakken for an interview at The Dickinson Press.

What I remember most about that experience is thinking on the drive out that I was heading deeper and deeper into the middle of nowhere and thinking after the interview that there was no doubt that I would say, “Thanks, but no thanks” if they called back to offer a job.

Flash forward nearly two years, and I can honestly say that coming to western North Dakota was one of the best decisions I ever made — maybe even the best. What happened in between that July day in 2012 and Friday — my last day at The Press — isn’t all that complex, I suppose. I took a little bit of a chance and life happened.

At this point of my farewell column — honestly, I usually don’t even read them because they seem to always be sappy and far too politically correct — readers have probably either gone on to something else or are waiting to find out what my thoughts are, as an outsider, on their community and region.

So, I’ll cut to the chase — I think there are wonderful people here, I think there is a unique opportunity for the state with the Bakken energy boom and I think the landscapes — highlighted by the gorgeous Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Park — are a picturesque national treasure.

I also believe, however, that the people of western North Dakota at times get the short end of the oil boom stick.

I’m not referring to the folks who are making money off of mineral rights and royalties, or the businesses that are flourishing thanks in large part to the boom — MBI Energy Services, Steffes Corp., Continental Resources and other big energy companies.

I’m talking about the little guys. The mom-and-pop spots, the small businesses that had to shut down or leave because they couldn’t afford to pay the new oil boom market rate to employees.

Dickinson, a city with close to 30,000 people now, has a Menards, but no brick-and-mortar dry cleaners. Shortly after I arrived in Dickinson, Excel Cleaners went out of business after decades as a Dickinson mainstay because a potential worker could go to McDonald’s, K-Mart or Taco Bell and make close to $15 per hour.

But I digress, and that’s just one issue. Others include highway safety with a never-ending barrage of semi tankers barreling down two-lane roads, competing for space with family vehicles and school buses, and local municipality budgets and resources being drained.

That’s not even touching on illegal dumping issues with oilfield waste (the state really needs to come up with an effective policy in this area) and the encroachment of energy interests on some of North Dakota’s most “extraordinary” places (a debate for another time).

Am I all doom and gloom on the Bakken and everything that goes along with it? Nope. Far from it. If local leaders, state and local policymakers and industry bigwigs play their collective cards right, this energy boom could be something that could have North Dakota sitting pretty for at least the next several decades.

Some think state leaders are already pushing all the right buttons while others tend to think an entirely different path would serve North Dakotans best.

As to which line of thinking is correct, I don’t know. Mostly likely, and as with most things, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

However, I do know this: Big industry, high-up politicians and public relations pros will always have a louder microphone than Joe Six-Pack or, in this case perhaps, Joe Rancher.

Here’s hoping that the good folks in western North Dakota — the type of people who ask your name, still look you in the eye and always give a firm handshake — don’t get lost in the oil boom shuffle. If they do start to get lost in said shuffle — and I think in certain aspects that has already happened — I hope those folks let themselves be heard.

That said, there’s still time to shore up the loose ends, find solutions to problems in the fast-moving Bakken and make sure North Dakotans benefit for a long, long time from this boom. To make that happen, though, interests in the east will have to work together with interests from the west.

Personally, I’m grateful to have met so many great people and to have had a taste of the western culture here.

As a journalist, I’m not sure there’s a better place to be in America right now than in western North Dakota, and I’m thankful for my time here.

I’d especially like to thank the staff at The Press (even Meaghan and Royal), particularly my bosses, Dustin Monke and Harvey Brock (for putting up with me), along with Katherine Grandstrand, Kevin Holten, Katherine Lymn and April Baumgarten, as well as James Odermann and John Heiser for helping to make my time here so enjoyable, interesting and fun.

Sometime today, I’ll be heading east to Aberdeen, S.D., and a new challenge at The Aberdeen American News. But a piece of me will always remain in the Badlands.

K, bye.

Horwath was the regional reporter for The Dickinson Press who wrote about politics, energy, agriculture, water issues and the people of southwest North Dakota during his time at the newspaper.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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