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In western N.D., oil spouts wealth

PARSHALL, N.D. - Like an old woodsman gazing into a well-built campfire, Herb Geving stared into the steady, whooshing flame illuminating what once was pasture for his horses and playground for coyotes.

Herb Geving

PARSHALL, N.D. - Like an old woodsman gazing into a well-built campfire, Herb Geving stared into the steady, whooshing flame illuminating what once was pasture for his horses and playground for coyotes.

"Just look at it," he said softly, lifting the broad brim of his cowboy hat to fully appreciate the intense red-orange flare licking high into the western Dakota night. "They say the higher it flames, the more she'll produce," he said. "Just look at 'er go!"

A nearly full moon rose in the southeast and joined the stars, vainly trying to compete with the natural gas flaring from Geving's new oil well - one of three he has an interest in, one of many now lighting the rangeland from Parshall northwest toward Stanley, one of perhaps hundreds to come in this new and rapidly developing oilfield.

"I love to come out here and watch it, to be a part of it," Geving said, adjusting the hat again, surveying the broad land and sky and the singular flames, his and the others that stretch to the horizon like landing lights for an isolated and seemingly endless runway.

"A millionaire by next fall," he said.

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It's about as much as he will say about the windfall that will come to him, a retired rancher and garbage hauler who held onto the mineral rights on much of his land: holding and waiting until prices rose, and the oil people found new ways to extract the riches below, making development profitable.

A neighbor whose well came in earlier received a check for $570,000, his share after four months of production, Geving said. As many as 30 wells are producing or soon will be in this new play area, "and they're talking about putting in between 500 and 700," he said.

"Going to be a lot of millionaires."

Seeing the potential

People in the region "are just starting to see the potential" in this new oil play, said Gary Petersen, president of Lakeside State Bank in New Town, 16 miles west of Parshall.

"Overall, people are optimistic about what's happening," he said. "I haven't seen a big oil check come through my bank yet, and folks aren't running down the street giddy. That's not the nature of people here. But there sure has been a lot of leasing activity and lots of reports of successful wells.

"The hope is that the extra activity will help supplement incomes and allow people to improve their lifestyles a little."

Geving's ranch and others just northwest of Parshall are ground zero in a boom area that's drawing high-quality sweet crude oil from the Bakken Formation, a sprawling underground deposit that extends from western North Dakota into eastern Montana and Canada.

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Seismographers tested the area, including Geving's land, in the early 1970s.

Nothing came of that search then, "but I told my family we were going to have oil. I knew it was there. Now I can say, 'I told you so.' "

Tim and Felicia Jarski, who work at the Reservation Telephone Cooperative in Parshall, said that people who hold no mineral rights in the strike area may envy those who hit it rich, but they don't resent them.

"It'll change life for a few people," said Tim Jarski, 48. "There are some landowners who don't have mineral rights, and they're worried their land will take a beating and they won't get much compensation. I think most of the rest of us think it's a good thing because it will create jobs and increase tax revenue."

Parshall is a town of 1,027 (2005 estimate) that sits just inside the boundaries of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. About 55 percent of the population is American Indian. The 2000 census found the median household income at $24,500, with a little more than a fourth of the population living below the poverty line.

The city stands to make big money on the millions of gallons of water it's selling to the well drillers, and the furious oil activity is bound to ripple through the local economy in other ways.

A cafe is expected to reopen soon, and maybe someone will respond to the note posted in a window of the Parshall Public Library: "Wanted: Someone to take my place as librarian ... as soon as possible."

Hours are 2 to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Saturday - if there's a librarian.

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"I just hope our little town can benefit some from the oil," said Felicia Jarski, 40. "I know our school is looking forward to its tax share.

"We're struggling out here. Tourism is down because the lake level (on nearby Lake Sakakawea) is down. We don't have a cafe right now. And there hasn't been any new business opening in years."

Reluctant to talk

One surviving Main Street business is the combination bar and bowling alley, where Yogi Werlinger, 52, nursed a beer on a recent afternoon.

"People who are lucky enough to strike oil are reluctant to talk about it," he said, and he offered his wife - playing a video game down the bar - as an example.

"She just signed a contract for land she and her brother own," he said. At the mention of her possible good fortune, Diane Werlinger fled from the bar to the bowling alley, where she ducked into a women's restroom. "I don't want to talk to anybody," she hollered before disappearing.

Back in the bar, Yogi hung his head. "I'm in trouble now," he said.

Don Heinze, another bar patron, said that seismographers testing for oil "went right by my little piece of land and didn't say anything. But I checked, and we don't have oil rights. That crook at the bank has 'em.

"I have a good friend, though, and they're going to start drilling on his land. I hope they hit it. There's 15 in the family, and they need it."

People in this sparsely populated region value individualism and privacy, "and families that suddenly get a lot of money - they don't want anybody to know it," said Gale Rauschenberger, news editor at the Tioga (N.D.) Tribune. For 30 years, he has watched the ups and downs of oil development in northwestern North Dakota.

For some people who scored big in earlier booms, "it had a catastrophic effect on family life and their social life," he said. "You had children fighting over the money. And it ticked some people off that wealth doesn't always come to those who deserve it."

One early beneficiary of oil money flaunted the wealth, lighting cigars in the bars with $20 bills, Rauschenberger said. "I think people here would tell the people in Mountrail County, 'Don't go down that road. Don't let money play too large a role in your lives.' They learned the hard way, and they took a lot of lumps."

The Grand Forks Herald and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co. In western N.D., oil spouts wealth 20071111

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