North Dakota Man Camp Project Update

This post is from Bret Weber, a former camp cook for the Pyla-Koustsopetria Archaeological Project and now my co-director in the North Dakota Man Camp Project. He recent directed our third major fieldwork trip to the Bakken, and since I was in Cyprus, he has generously provided this update. Thanks, Bret!

Last week I led a team of 6 out to North Dakota’s industrial wilderness as part of the ongoing work of the North Dakota Man Camp project. The team included Kyle Cassidy—the famous and delightfully genial photographer’s second trip to western ND. This was the first trip specific to the man camp project for the other four members who included the first women to join the project. Robert Caulkins is a PhD student at UND. In addition to his insights as a Marxist historian he brought his personal experiences from having worked and lived in similar circumstances earlier in his life, along with his tats and bearing that assured our easy passage. Florent is a Parisian and new lawyer who recently passed two bar exams including one on patent law. He has some specific interests in unmanned aerial vehicles, but he reads broadly and has a keen insight for systems analysis. Julia Geigle, Florent’s partner is an MSW student finishing up her Masters thesis and is a co-author on an article about the impact of the boom on social service systems that has just been accepted by ‘Social Work,’ the top journal in that field. Carenlee Barkdull—my partner and fellow co-author on the previously mentioned article—is an Associate Professor in UND’s Department of Social Work. She and I have done other work out in the oil patch, but this was her first trip explicitly related to the man camp project. Each of the members brought rich new insights to the work, though the insights of the two women were less gender specific than we had been expecting.

Adsc 9020Bret Weber (photo Kyle Cassidy)

The collection of 150 surveys helped to fund the trip and the work promises to supplement our ongoing data collection about temporary workers in the oil patch, especially in relation to their housing situation. However, while the specific information gathered on the surveys will surely have value, we also gained insights by simply doing the work of gathering surveys. For instance, we had hoped to gather surveys from a distribution of the various man camp types identified in other posting on Bill’s blog. Additionally, we had planned to pick up some quick and easy surveys at the infamous WalMart in Williston. However, the megastore was surprisingly slow (for that location) and there was security everywhere including patrols in the parking lot. Carenlee proposed that we go to the train station, and we chanced to hit it at the perfect time. The Empire Builder only rolls through town once a day and we happened to get there an hour before it arrived. This gave us a chance to collect surveys from those waiting to catch their train and those who disembarked when it arrived, even while it rained outside.

The two main observations that I took from this recent trip (my 10th out to the patch in the last 18 months) had to do with 1) the diminished number of camps in Watford City and 2) a hopefully helpful insight around issues of ownership and an apparent caste system across occupations. The previous week, Bill and I had already noticed a relative dearth of the most ad hoc and ephemeral Type III camps. Indeed, on that reconnaissance trip we ‘speculated on an hypothesis’ that perhaps Type IIIs were a component of the ‘edge’ of the boom where it was newest. Consequently, we drove several hours south and east to the front of the expanding boom, but only found more of the Type I & II camps that we were seeing elsewhere in the patch. Taking greater time on this survey trip and looking at the camps more closely I realized that areas that had been almost completely full of camps as recently as last summer have since been cleared for shopping malls. Additionally, Tioga and Watford City have built hundreds of units of permanent housing. If this boom continues for a long time, their wisdom will pay off: if it busts anytime soon, those communities will have failed to heed the lessons from previous booms and be left with bills for infrastructure.

The two main observations that I took from this recent trip (my 10th out to the patch in the last 18 months) had to do with 1) the diminished number of camps in Watford City and 2) a hopefully helpful insight around issues of ownership and an apparent caste system across occupations. The previous week, Bill and I had already noticed a relative dearth of the most ad hoc and ephemeral Type III camps. Indeed, on that reconnaissance trip we ‘speculated on an hypothesis’ that perhaps Type IIIs were a component of the ‘edge’ of the boom where it was newest. Consequently, we drove several hours south and east to the front of the expanding boom, but only found more of the Type I & II camps that we were seeing elsewhere in the patch. Taking greater time on this survey trip and looking at the camps more closely I realized that areas that had been almost completely full of camps as recently as last summer have since been cleared for shopping malls. Additionally, Tioga and Watford City have built hundreds of units of permanent housing. If this boom continues for a long time, their wisdom will pay off: if it busts anytime soon, those communities will have failed to heed the lessons from previous booms and be left with bills for infrastructure.

The previous week, Bill and I had already noticed a relative dearth of the most ad hoc and ephemeral Type III camps. Indeed, on that reconnaissance trip we ‘speculated on an hypothesis’ that perhaps Type IIIs were a component of the ‘edge’ of the boom where it was newest. Consequently, we drove several hours south and east to the front of the expanding boom, but only found more of the Type I & II camps that we were seeing elsewhere in the patch. Taking greater time on this survey trip and looking at the camps more closely I realized that areas that had been almost completely full of camps as recently as last summer have since been cleared for shopping malls. Additionally, Tioga and Watford City have built hundreds of units of permanent housing. If this boom continues for a long time, their wisdom will pay off: if it busts anytime soon, those communities will have failed to heed the lessons from previous booms and be left with bills for infrastructure.Let me back into that discussion by first revisiting the surveys. One of the questions on the surveys was whether workers owned or rented their housing—we had set up this question imagining that it would provide a quick metric to distinguish whether people lived in a Type I or II camp. However, very quickly we realized that we had neglected a key and obvious alternative—housing provided by an employer. Indeed, most of the workers in Type I housing did not either rent or own their rooms, instead, ‘housing’ is simply part of the contract for working out in the patch. This caused us to think about the responsibilities of ownership in Type II camps. While not all RVs or trailers parked in Type II camps are directly owned by the residents, it seems to make sense that there would be a much closer relationship between occupants and owners in the Type IIs. This leads to a broad array of other considerations: who is responsible for paying for weatherization (which, we found out, is a big business in the patch, generally costing about $2,000 per trailer)? What about when lights burn out or pipes freeze? This, we think, is an additional distinction between Type Is & Type II camps that deserves further consideration as we prepare for the August Field trip after Bill returns from the Mediterranean.

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