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North Dakota's only Sierra Club staffer, Wayde Schafer, and his children stood atop a towering butte two decades ago and watched in the distance as a nodding donkey pump sucked oil from underground in an otherwise untouched area of western North Dakota's Badlands.
For Schafer, the lone oil well near Theodore Roosevelt National Park marked the decline of North Dakota's wide-open spaces and its clean water, air and land. And it was then that Schafer — a piano tuner by trade — pursued a path in professional environmentalism.
It hasn't been easy being green in a red state where even most Democrats encourage industrial development, said Schafer, who since 1999 has been the organizer for the North Dakota chapter of the Sierra Club, a San Francisco-based group that wants to curb the use of fossil fuels that inject billions of dollars into North Dakota's economy and provide scores of high-paying jobs.
"I do what I do because I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that I tried, as they put on their hazmat suits to go out and play," Schafer said.
The North Dakota native chuckles at being called a tree-hugger in the least-forested state in the nation.
"People are surprised that I was born and raised in North Dakota because of my views," said Schafer, 60. "It isn't like I parachuted in here from California telling us how to live. I live in North Dakota. I care about North Dakota."
Almost 25 years since he and his two children climbed that overlook, the region's landscape has been radically altered with an unprecedented oil bonanza that has turned the state into the nation's No. 2 oil producer behind Texas.
Energy industries have lured armies of workers and thousands of oil wells now pierce the prairie. Flames from natural gas being burned off as an unwanted byproduct of the wells illuminate the night sky. Some 15 miles from the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a massive coal mine complex is proposed near the town of South Heart.
Dave Glatt, the director of the state Health Department's environmental health section, said North Dakota's air, water and land remain clean despite the breakneck pace of energy development.
"We do have some challenges but overall we're still in compliance and science will show that," Glatt said.
Booming energy development has spurred some unlikely bedfellows for the Sierra Club, including the Dakota Resource Council, an environmental-minded Dickinson-based group that's careful to describe itself as a "landowner" organization.
Don Morrison, DRC's executive director, said his group is made up primarily of farmers and ranchers who increasingly worry about the impact of energy development.
"We never thought we'd be like-minded with Wayde but it makes some of our members squeamish to be thought of as radical environmentalists," Morrison said.
Morrison said his group has swelled to about 700 people and has grown each month for more than a year. Schafer's group has about 500 members, though the groups don't share the same membership.
Alison Horton, a Sierra Club regional director in Michigan, said North Dakota's energy development has been rivaled only by Alaska's oil boom in the 1970s.
"The exponential expansion of the oil patch activity in North Dakota is actually quite mindboggling," Horton said. "We could use a small army of people like Wayde but we don't have the capacity to do that right now."
Schafer has been successful in his activism, despite being outgunned by development-minded politicians and industry. In the late 1990s, he helped broker a deal between the federal government and a railroad that swapped mineral rights beneath 30,000 acres of pristine land in the Badlands land for an equal amount in a more developed area.
Schafer is probably the only paid professional "environmentalist" in North Dakota, he and Morrison said.
Their groups oppose the proposed coal mine complex near South Heart. Schafer said a project adjacent to a national park would only happen in North Dakota because of its cheerleader-like stance on energy development.
"It's hard to imagine any other state in the nation putting an industrial complex next to a national park," Schafer said.
The Dakota Resource Council and the Sierra Club last year filed a lawsuit in federal court that accuses two Republican members of North Dakota Public Service Commission, which oversees energy projects in the state, of accepting improper campaign contributions from the coal industry. The commissioners contend the donations are legal and do not violate federal laws that regulate coal mining.
A hearing on the lawsuit is slated Friday in federal court in Bismarck.
A denim-clad Schafer often finds himself testifying to regulators where his concerns are the minority. He does not own a tie.
"I always appreciate when Wayde comes in to say his piece," PSC chairman Brian Kalk said. "He has a valid viewpoint and it's his right to express it."
Schafer is used to getting a cool reception from regulators and industry officials. An accomplished blues guitarist whose band has opened for blues legend B.B. King, Schafer routinely gets only a smattering of applause when playing smaller gigs in Bismarck.
"There is not much of a blues culture in Bismarck. It's mostly country," Schafer said. "It just shows how out of sync I am."
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