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Jack Zaleski, Published March 10 2012

Zaleski: Time for candid talk about oil boom

North Dakota needs to have a conversation. Development in the western Oil Patch is the biggest story in the state’s history, but no one is talking seriously about the big picture, the long-term outlook. No one is honestly confronting the realities – good and bad – of an unprecedented industrial expansion into a landscape and culture that, frankly, are not prepared for the consequences. No one seems willing to ask – let alone answer – questions of balance between cherished traditional values and newfound economic gains.

Rather, various and conflicting interests at work in oil country are talking past each other. They are shouting from the extremes of “stop it now” to “full speed ahead.” They are reveling in new prosperity if they are part of it, or retreating into envy and anger because they are not sharing in the good times. Their views of community rifts caused by the boom are colored bleak or bright in direct proportion to the benefits they are deriving from oil.

State government is reacting, not formulating a vision. Local government officials are being influenced by oil money and buffeted into a kind of paralysis by the conflicting sentiments of their friends and neighbors.

Among the balancing act, questions that could be considered in a conversation are:

A few voices have tried to stimulate the conversation. Humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson has danced around the edges of his genuine concern in his Sunday column in the Bismarck Tribune. Bill Mitzel, publisher/editor of Dakota Country, the best hunting and fishing magazine in the Dakotas, has been the strongest voice in raising the alarm about the damage to wildlife and habitat he sees in oil country. This newspaper has written several cautionary editorials about the accelerating pace of development, and the real and potential loss of the farm and ranch culture of the west.

Let’s focus the conversation. Bring all interests to the table for a civil, respectful and candid discussion. Recognize that the oil boom is here to stay for a while, and the impacts are mixed. Try to meld public policy with industry priorities that will not kill the golden goose but will not allow the goose to foul its temporary nest.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.