MANDAN, N.D. - The Dakota Access Pipeline and an associated protest has packed a two-part punch for farmers and ranchers in North Dakota's Morton and Sioux counties.
While completion of the pipeline is scheduled for the week of March 20, ranchers are fearing a third effect - soil erosion caused by reclamation delays.
Doug Hille ranches with his wife, Carol, and daughter, Steph, at Chimney Butte Ranch. They have about 300 purebred Gelbvieh cows and harvest about 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat, plus hay and forage.
Hille grew up east of St. Anthony. He graduated in agricultural economics from North Dakota State University in 1971, worked for Steiger Tractor Co., the North Dakota National Guard and in industrial sales before moving back to the area in the fall of 1989. The couple's "investment" ranch turned into a purebred Gelbvieh operation.
"In certain areas, restoration activities were unable to be completed due to frozen conditions," said Lisa Dillinger, spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, L.P., of Dallas, said. "Those remaining activities will be completed after the winter months. The protests did not impact restoration schedules."
John Shultz grew up near Parshall, ranched near Flasher, and had a career in coal mining, starting in land reclamation management at a mine near Stanton. Schultz, who now lives in Mandaon, has experience in reclamation. He has worked with area ranchers on reclamation negotiations and said it seems "obvious" that the reclamation schedule was affected.
"There were many days they didn't work where they were shut down along the pipeline when protesters were going there in the late summer and fall," he said. "Landowners were aware of what was going on, and talking to the crews out there. They weren't working in a vacuum."
Shultz said it was an exceptionally long fall. He said he couldn't explain any rationale for such a denial.
Roughly 30 miles of the Dakota Access Pipeline right-of-way is still not reclaimed, about 150 feet wide, west of the Missouri River.
"We really need to get the land reclaimed as soon as possible, without all kinds of strange people and restrictions about where and when we can cross," Hille said. "We would have been back to normal before Oct. 1 had the protest not stopped everything. We would have had green growth on top of the disturbed ground had these people not shot things down."
Hille is pleased that some of the reclamation work was completed on his place, but he thinks protests for the sake of the environment led to delays in reclamation work - which will hurt the environment in the long run.
"That far outweighs what would have happened with a massive oil leak - possibly, depending on conditions," he said.
Bad, good, ugly
It's been a trying couple of years, Hille said. First there were the "land men" for Contract Land Services, the company buying and subcontracting surveyors. He was among landowners who got together to insist on higher standards and to negotiate compensation.
He is far more confident in crews for Precision Pipeline LLC, the group doing the reclamation. He tells one story about how he needed to chop a field of corn for silage, but a 30-inch steel pipe was in place - welded from end-to-end. A supervisor went out of his way to cut that pipe so Hille could get his corn choppers and corn chopping trucks in to harvest the crop last fall. "They cut a piece of pipe off, didn't charge me anything," he said. "They rewelded when construction started again."
Hille gives a field tour to show how reclamation is different for reclaiming pastureland versus cropland. On grassland, soil is topped with chopped straw, crimped into the ground and reseeded. Other land for cropping is left black and ready for a new crop.
That's the way it should have been for everything, Hille said.
"It should have been dug up for three to four weeks and now has been opened up for several months, in other places. Because of that, all of the soil biology is dead," he said. "We have to start with almost sterile soil - rebuild soil biology so we can keep things growing. That's not going to be accomplished by a simple reseeding. It's going to take some work, some effort."
Shultz in spring 2016 finished a year-long process to negotiate a favorable easement with the pipeline company for more than 35 farmers and landowners, including Hille. Much of the negotiation was to make sure the pipeline took the land back to its original condition. They insisted on better segregation of topsoil and subsoil and on fencing to keep cattle off the corridor for the five-year period of reclamation.
"You have to keep the cattle off of there or the cattle will tear out the vegetation," Shultz said. The landowners were hoping the process could be done in one season. Pipeline protests delayed some of the reclamation installation, he said.
"It's going to be a real mess, I believe, come spring, when the snow is gone. There's going to be erosion," he said.
Julie Ellingson, executive director of the North Dakota Stockmen's Association, lives in the area of the pipeline and protest. Many of her members are dealing with the reclamation issues but also with apprehension about what comes next.
"They've faced issues trespassing, vandalism, roadblocks and situations they'd never dreamt they'd ever see," Ellingson said. "Hopefully, moving forward, there's been some changes, an easement has been passed, an evacuation of several of the main camps," and the project seems near-completion.
"Still, there's a concern of, is it really over? Or will there be some issue that will re-ignite?" she said.
The clean-up of the camps themselves - a hotly debated issue that is variously described by protestors and outsiders - is a separate issue from reclamation, now about eight months past due.
Ranchers are frustrated that a protest built around the concept of environmental protection turned into its own environmental problem, with equipment lines sliced and fuel drained onto the ground. Ellingson hears concerns about the after-effects of the camp itself and about the law enforcement and logistical costs of dealing with the protest.
"We see the enormous amount of garbage and the disregard for a very beautiful slice of North Dakota ranch country," she said. "Also - not only people in Morton County, but statewide - are frustrated with the incredible bill that this particular county has dealt with."
The bill is $33 million - so far.
"We think the federal government needs to make good on picking up the tab for much of this, because of their inaction or what we consider inappropriate action, in some cases," Ellingson said.
Ellingson said her organization and other allies attempted to get property rights and posting changes in state law, in part as a result of the protests. Senate Bill 2225, which would have lifted the requirement that farmers and ranchers must post their land to prevent trespass, was defeated even as a pilot project that would have set up an online database in five test counties. The issue has been a priority for the groups for "decades," Ellingson said.
"You are the property owner who is paying the taxes and is maintaining the property," she said. "You should be able to decide who accesses your property," she said.
Other states, including South Dakota and Minnesota, don't require property owners to post land. In Montana, the issue is handled with painting fence posts with colors. Hunting enthusiasts say this could impair access.
Looking ahead, Ellingson said some protesters moved on, but others joined other camps. There are other large-scale energy projects that protesters could focus on.
"This particular time a pipeline was a target. Maybe next time it's something in agriculture. I think it's created a heightened awareness of what could happen. Hopefully we're in a better place to address those issues," she said.
The protests demonstrated the power of social media in organizing events, offering "one slice of the story and not the big picture," with viral posts and messages giving people the impression they knew the whole story, Ellingson said. She said this complicated things for landowners and the state.
Ellingson said farmers and ranchers were focused on getting through day-to-day issues, trying to keep some sense of normalcy in the face of often daily interference.
Hille hopes the protests are done, but there is a "corner in the back of my mind that said it's not over. I hope that corner is not wrong."
The Bureau of Indian Affairs has been moving people off of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land in Morton County and also off tribal land in Sioux County.
"That makes me feel that, hey, we're getting these people dispersed," he said. "But as we learned last year, these people would drive 100 miles in the morning to protest and then drive back somewhere else. There is an encampment at Eagle Butte, S.D., about 150 miles away. We could see them up here in 2.5 hours."