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Jennifer Johnson, Forum Communications, Published September 22 2012

Impact of man camps subject of study

GRAND FORKS – Long after the oil boom and its workers have left, sprawling patches of leveled gravel, colored only by hints of blue tarp or a few grommets, may be all that’s left of man camps in western North Dakota.

At least that’s what University of North Dakota professors William Caraher and Bret Weber imagine as they collect information on man camps from five cities in the Oil Patch.

Since April, Caraher and Weber have led a small team twice to the Oil Patch to study, in part, the “signature” a camp leaves on the landscape. The idea first came about over beers, said Caraher, and it turned into a research project.

“These man camps are only going to be there for 20 or 30 years, depending on labor needs,” said Caraher, who has a background studying ancient Cyprus. “What’s that going to look like in 300 or 500 years?”

Man camps 101

Caraher and his team visited Tioga, Stanley and Ray – along U.S. Highway 2 – and Watford City and Alexander, south of Tioga. They’ve studied 30 camps so far and broken them down into three kinds.

Type 1 camps are located closer to cities and offer comfortable living, where the food is good and the rooms clean. At one camp at which the team stayed, a maid cleaned daily.

Built by Target Logistics and Halliburton, these prefabricated camps are notable for their tight restrictions on alcohol – none is allowed – and lack of domestic space.

Type 2 camps represent RV parks, less formal environments that could hold an area for a grill, or maybe a wood pallet used as a front step or a place to keep boots clean.

“The overall impression that we got was that people in Type 2 camps had lived a little bit in one of the fancier camps, and just got tired of living in a place where there was almost no social space,” Caraher said.

People in Type 3 camps were usually living in tents or broken-down campers within shelterbelts or behind farmer’s buildings. Like Type 2 camps, they can be found more on the periphery of cities.

Caraher said they believe Type 1 camps will leave almost no signature on the landscape because they’re designed to be completely portable, while Type 2 and Type 3 camps might leave more. Type 2 camps might have had pallets or other discarded objects thrown aside from residents, while Type 3 had the least access to trash removal.

Interviewing workers

Caraher and Weber’s team has so far interviewed 36 of the thousands of workers in the Oil Patch, a quarter of which were women.

Most tended to be 45 and younger, and told stories of hard luck mixed with making it big.

Overall, the experience out there seemed less like the Wild West and more like a scene from the “Grapes of Wrath,” a novel by John Steinbeck that followed a poor family’s experience as migrants during the Great Depression.

“We went to one camp where the whole camp was getting ready for a labor walk-out,” said Weber. “They hadn’t been paid for a few weeks.”

The team plans to head back several times with other teams to continue their research. Funding for the project came from the Institute of Energy Studies at UND and the vice president for collaborative research. It’s a success story for that kind of grant, he said.

“We’ll continue off and on as long as the oil boom continues to make it interesting, and certainly if the boom busts,” Caraher said.

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Jennifer Johnson writes for the Grand Forks Herald