Recent work of the North Dakota Man Camp Project

This past week, the blog took a short hiatus while I ventured west to do some more work in the Bakken. As readers of this blog know, Bret Weber and I are the primary investigators of the North Dakota Man Camp Project. Initially, I had anticipated that my part of the project would be a short-term study of workforce housing. In fact, I had imagined my part of the project to be essentially a “snapshot” of housing a single moment in time.

Ah, the best laid plans…

P1040393Bret talking with Ashley Thorberg of Prairie Public on location in the Bakken

This month marked my fifth research trip to the Bakken area, and it confirmed my growing impression that a static image of workforce housing only tells a tiny part of the story. While I’m hesitant to define what I’m doing as longitudinal, we have increasingly gathered data that reveals something of the lifespan of camps and their dynamic presence in the Western North Dakota countryside. We also had more time to reflect on the various settlement patterns present in the Bakken countryside. While maps can sometimes provide perspectives on the relationship between short term and longer term settlement, the rapid development of workforcing housing in North Dakota has made it difficult to understand larger patterns without putting boots on the group (and miles on the ole Honda Civic!). Finally, we continue to meet with our friends in the media and listen hard to questions that they ask as at least one indication of what our larger community of stakeholders in the state regard as important for understanding the Bakken boom. One thing from these questions remains clear, they do not see material culture as vital to understanding what’s going on in the Bakken. This has been a failure of communication on my part and one that I’m intent on rectifying.

Along all these lines, I have a little list of five things that motivated my thinking this last trip to the Bakken and hope that at least some of these ideas will appear in our ongoing efforts to publish our results:

1. Abandonment. For the first time, we’ve begun to notice some abandoned camps. The two most significant ones were at Wheelock and outside of Alexander. The camp outside of Alexander was bustling when we visited it in August 2012 and was the site of an important episode of entrepreneurship as a group of recent college graduates had set up a semi trailer offering showers to residents of the dry camp. When we visited again in February, the camp was not nearly as bustling and by May it was in serious decline. By August 2013, the camp was largely abandoned with some mobile homes and a gaggle of port-o-johns hinting at a efforts to make sanitation available in the camp. The easy analysis of this abandoned camp is that the lack of water and sewage made it less appealing to workers.

MC14Au2012Camp 14 under a threatening sky in August 2012

P1040494Camp 14 in August 2013

The situation in the town of Wheelock might well follow the same pattern. The home-grown sewage system seemed a bit dodgy and the water system depended on a tank built against the back of a house. It’s hard to imagine that this system functioned flawlessly over the winter.

DSC 0405Wheelock in August 2012

P1040233Wheelock August 2013

The remains of these camps are a mix of broken PVC pipe, beer cans, fragments of extruded polystyrene insulation, hoses, and wires. The now abandoned masts continue to poke up from the ground and show some signs of wear and tear. The grass is growing back and in parts of the the camp near Alexander the field has been returned to cultivation.

2. Crime and Material Culture

One the persistent narratives regarding the oil patch is that crime is rampant. This is repeated endlessly in media narratives, but on the ground, crime is always something that takes place somewhere else, at other camps and in other sites in the Bakken. One way in which our study of material culture plays a key role is that we spent considerable time documenting the objects around individual housing units. It is remarkable how many units had camp furniture, refrigerators and freezers, kids bikes, coolers, work equipment, and household goods. If crime was rampant, it would seem to be rampant outside of the confines of the camps where security over objects seems minimal.

P1040336Diverse assemblage of material associated with a unit at Camp 25

This is a place where material culture can tell a story that challenges the narratives of the media and even – at times – of the camp residents themselves. The apparently wide-spread presence of fire arms (or at least the perceived wide-spread presence) makes the risk associated with petty theft greater than in an ordinary subdivision.

3. Policy and Innovation

We spent a good bit of time at Williston Fox Run, a large, Type 2 camp on the northern edge of Williston. The RVs at this camp are remarkable for the extent and creativity of their modification. Most have mudrooms, some have lawns, fences, decks, gardens, and outside social areas, and a few units are nearly enclosed within large additions. Conversations with some of the staff at the camp made clear that there is friendly competition among residents of the camp to create the most elaborate additions and a brisk trade in mudrooms as residents leave and new residents arrive. Moreover, the camp maintains an area set aside for provisional discard of scrap wood, PVC pipe, wood framing, shipping pallets, and other useful pieces of disjecta membra that residents can salvage for their architectural fantasies.

P1040530

P1040531

The lenient policies (and seemingly enforcement) regarding additional structures and other modification to units at the camp encourages creativity and transforms the otherwise bleak rows of RVs into a space for self expression. It is likewise clear that opportunities for self-expression – even if they are somewhat chaotic – played a role in the creation of a sense of community among residents as outside spaces became the arenas for “barbecue cook-offs” and good natured ribbing and admiration surrounding efforts to modify one’s space broke through the anonymity of the temporary housing environment. Policies administered by the camp operators contributed to the creation of community at the camp.

4. Local Settlement Patterns

The well-meaning efforts by the state to map workforce housing are not a good guide to the realities on the ground. The data remains too inaccurate to form general observations. On the ground research, on the other hand, produces lacunose datasets, but also allows for more subtle observations regarding the relationship between long-standing and short-term settlement that often fall outside the more generalized perspectives offered by the state maps. For example, RV parks serving housing needs often ring small towns that maintain some civic functions (e.g. civic status, post offices, schools et c.). Towns where these functions have lapsed or never existed to begin with tend to have small camps throughout including in open spaces that may have originally be set aside for parks or schools and as infilling between homes. The infrastructure present in small towns whether abandoned or not particularly water dictates at least some of the location of temporary housing. Abandoned schools, in particular, tended to have water hook-ups and parking lots that are well-suited for RVs and are often available inexpensively.

P1020604Units clustered around the old school in White Earth, ND

In contrast, communities with civic status even if small challenge the presence of RV parks for workforce housing in their settled core. This is a pattern the is best-known in the region’s larger towns like Williston (pop. 15,000) which has enacted and enforced a series of laws that prevented ad hoc camps at businesses or residences, discouraged people sleeping in vehicles, and camps in public parks. We are going to contact small towns like Wildrose, Crosby, and Tioga to see how they have managed the expansion of workforce housing in their vicinity and discuss with county commissioners the management of RV parks on county lands.

5. The Fringe of the Boom

This trip we spent some time cruising the roads of sparsely populated Divide County (pop. ca. 2000) and had a lovely dinner in the county seat of Crosby. Just this week, there were news stories on the impact of oil production on this region. The county is full of oil production and pipelining, but relatively little workforce housing. Crosby and Wildrose have a few camps each, but these are small and relatively new. Wildrose sits just north of the border with Williams County which has enacted increasingly restrictive ordinances governing camps making it an appealing site for workforce housing. The camps in Crosby and Wildrose may be associated with pipeline workers active in the area.

P1040152

It is curious, however, that there is no sign of the large-scale temporary housing companies like Target Logistics moving into this area (yet) and that camps remain relatively small and disorganized. It may be that larger camps benefit from the infrastructure available on the Route 2 corridor (which runs parallel to the “High Line”) and around the communities present off the road (Stanley, Tioga, Ray, Williston, and Watford City). It may also be that these sites are more centrally located in the Bakken generally allowing them to serve the various industries related to oil production (trucking, equipment maintenance, construction as well as drilling and fracking).

Finally, we were excited this trip to have documented 50 camps and to have returned at least once to at least 25 of them. For some of the larger sites we have hundreds of photographs and approaching 5000 geocoded photographs of the boom in total. This is becoming a substantial archive.

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