The Plains and the 'idea of space'

Two examinations of North Dakota in the last couple of weeks lead to different conclusions. The first was the U.S.

Two examinations of North Dakota in the last couple of weeks lead to different conclusions. The first was the U.S. Census report that counted more North Dakotans - a slight increase in population, which suggests a long population decline has stopped and might be reversing.

The second was an article in the January issue of National Geographic magazine, which in typically stunning Geographic photo/word style, paints a portrait of the state that is so misleading as to question the credibility of the respected publication.

The census report is encouraging because the state's thriving economy needs qualified workers, and it looks like they are both staying in the state and migrating to it. And that doesn't exclusively mean shifting from small towns to the bigger cities (see Ellen-Earle Chaffee's commentary on this page). Rather, it means they come from other states to seek new opportunities and a good quality of life in Fargo, Bismarck and other growing cities.

The Geographic article has the feel of an agenda: to picture ghost towns and empty, forlorn vistas as proof of a false assumption. Fact is, the places featured in the article were never viable towns, were destined to be marginal from the start, and are all but ghost towns today for reasons that have nothing to do with the current condition of the state's economy. The Geographic portrait might have been honest 20 years ago, but today it's a misrepresentation of the state's reality.

There's a third analysis that North Dakotans should read. Gene Wunderlich, Ph.D., of the Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University, has written a marvelous essay: "Space and Motion: A View of the Northern Great Plains." It's aptly described by the institute's director, Thomas Riley, as "a thoughtful perspective on our place in history and the future that may await us."


It's all of that and more. Instead of a screed on economic development, individual income or hand-wringing about population decline, Wunderlich's perspective is the untapped value of space, or more precisely, the idea of space.

The Northern Great Plains has lots of space, but it's often seen as more handicap than asset. Wunderlich examines the asset.

In his preface his says this:

"... Certainly space is related to well-being, economic and otherwise. Here space will be approached as a resource. Resources are means for possible, not necessarily assured, well-being. So, too, with space; it depends upon how it is used or appreciated. How might we better enjoy the people-freed area of the (plains)?"

Wunderlich, whose credentials uniquely qualify him to examine the Northern Great Plains, is on to something. His approach is intriguing. The lengthy essay is well worth reading, in particular his ideas about policy regarding the vast spaces of the plains.

So don't be satisfied with good census figures. Don't worry about the Geographic's distortion. Instead, read Wunderlich's insightful essay and consider a new way to think about the space that could be the Northern Great Plains most important resource.

Zaleski can be reached at or (701) 241-5521.

The Plains and the 'idea of space' Jack Zaleski 20080106

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