GRAND FORKS — The president says, “We have to be remembered for what we’ve done.” In North Dakota, that amounts to quite a list. Some items we might come to regret, others perhaps not so much. Some are irreversible. Many can’t be assessed quite yet.
One item that we likely will come to regret is the U.S. Forest Service’s redefinition of roads. This was one of a flurry of changes in public land policy that the administration hurried to get done before its term ends.
The impact of this change could be a proliferation of oil wells in parts of the Badlands that had been classified as roadless. Oil wells mean roads and traffic, dust, noise and disruption. This at exactly the time that the federal government agreed to allow construction of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library on what had been public land.
Not so regrettable.
The two actions work at cross purposes, however. Roosevelt’s Badlands experience made him a champion of public lands and conservation. He is the creator of the Forest Service and the wildlife system, and he created national parks and monuments.
Today, the hills he rode in search of solitude are overrun with development — with more to come.
You can’t restore wilderness.
The Interior Department did some redefining of its own, agreeing to redraw the boundaries of thousands of wetlands easements in the state. This could reduce cover available to wetland wildlife, especially ducks, an important part of the state’s wildlife heritage — and its tourism industry.
Water alone is not enough to sustain a duck.
Still another item unique to North Dakota re-ignites the dream of moving water from the Missouri River to the eastern part of the state. This involves trading water between drainage basins, long a bugaboo of environmental thinkers.
Features of the old Garrison Diversion project, abandoned a quarter century ago, will be used and some acreage will be irrigated. The bigger impact by far will be in the cities of the Red River Valley. Water from the west will ensure continued growth in Fargo, which is short of water, despite frequent flooding. Fargo will grow as the rest of the state empties out.
Other items on the “what we’ve done” list aren’t specific to North Dakota but are nevertheless important to the state. One of these is the Department of Education’s support of private certification programs. That’s an area that North Dakota’s higher education system is pursuing, and Gov. Doug Burgum has championed.
Then there are the overarching policies that the president has pursued. Tariffs and trade are the most critical to North Dakota, especially because agricultural products, especially soybeans, became a bargaining chip in negotiations with China. North Dakota is a major soybean producing state, and virtually all of the crop moves west for shipment to eastern Asia, especially China.
In this case location acts as an advantage to North Dakota, because it’s closer to the West Coast.
Agriculture has done well during the Trump administration, and election results in the state prove it. The president has been more popular with voters here than in almost all the other states.
China looms as a foreign policy challenge for the incoming administration and impacts on the ag economy can’t be measured yet – but they can be imagined.
North Dakota also has a major stake in the debate about climate policy. This goes beyond energy. Climate change means changes in agriculture, too. In general, the so-called “farm belt” is expected to move northward, aggrandizing previously uncroppable areas. The two countries with the most such land are Canada and Russia, one of which has been a major competitor for North Dakota exports and the other a major customer.
Nor is North Dakota immune from impacts of social policy, however distant we might feel from “trouble spots,” as we saw in Fargo in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In the long term, perhaps the most consequential of “what we’ve done” is judicial appointments, including three justices of the U.S. Supreme Court and two federal court judges in North Dakota, Dan Traynor in Bismarck and Peter Welte in Fargo. Trump’s goal has been to slow down or even reverse decisions that have expanded gender rights, but so far without notable success.
These issues don’t draw a lot of attention in North Dakota, but it’s important to remember that we are not all the same, but we are entitled to the same treatment under the law.
Social issues aren't generally touchstones here, yet the president's populist (and at the same time exclusivist) appeal resonates in the state. By embracing these issues, Democrats lost much of their rural constituency
and conceded more than two thirds of the state's voters to Republicans.
Then there’s the pandemic. As of Sunday, COVID had claimed 1,310 North Dakota lives.
Those are irreversible results.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.