Over the last couple of years, I’ve been documenting the gradual abandonment of workforce housing across the Bakken oil patch. The reasons for abandonment of workforce housing are complex. Oil prices slipping below $40 triggered a slowdown in drilling in the region and drilling was the most workforce intensive part of the oil extraction. The growth of pipeline networks that move processed water, oil, and gas around the Bakken has reduced the need for truck drivers and the need for truck repair shops. Williston and Watford City have built (and probably overbuilt) permanent housing for workers involved in longterm work in the Bakken. These factors have combined to reduce the need and demand for workforce housing across the area.
The most visible and well-documented examples of this reduced demand have been the large workforce housing sites like Capital Lodge, outside Tioga, which have closed and currently sit waiting some future plan to either transport the units elsewhere or to redevelop the site. Myriad small RV parks also are being closed or abandoned, albeit to less fanfare and media coverage. Our trip the Bakken this past weekend focused on documenting the abandonment process at these various sites.
I can offer three observations.
1. Orderly abandonment. Despite the prevailing caricature of feral men in the Bakken, there are many signs that the abandonment of even the rougher RV parks was an orderly process. The gravel paved lots were generally clean and tidy with less trash than one might even expect from typical habitation. Occasionally one or two lots have more debris associated with them suggesting that the last RV to depart the camp was less inclined to leave things tidy. One might imagine that this was the caretaker or manager who may have even departed after regular trash collection had ended.
Despite the general cleanliness, most sites had some fragments of PVC piping, extruded polystyrene insulation, and wood – often from shipping pallets – scattered about as well considerable quantities of gravel or scoria used to level the sites and promote drainage.
2. Economic choices. Some camps that are largely abandoned provide explanations for the seemingly orderly abandonment of sites. As we have noted throughout our research in the Bakken, camps regularly maintain assemblages of provisional discard around their peripheries. The short-term nature of these settlements created a constant supply (and demand) for discarded objects.
As camps reached total abandonment, the collection of materials often showed signs of orderly arrangement that suggests formal recycling of materials. One camp near Alexander was removing around 100 mobile homes and neatly arranged skirting, stairs, gutters, and other parts of these units that could not be affixed during transport.
The piles of metal often found around the periphery of camps suggests formal recycling.
This organization of objects around the margins of camps suggests economic decisions contributed to the tidiness of camps at abandonment rather than an aesthetic ideal or a response to a municipal policy.
One of the more interesting examples of this was the Great American Lodge near Watford City. The camp closed in 2015 after the company that ran it came into financial difficulties. In fact, the entire operation may have been part of a ponzi scheme. Despite that, the camp represented millions of dollars of investment and when a company purchased its movable assets from receivership, they began the expensive and time consuming process of removing the units from the site. This will likely take most of the winter and be a deliberate process allowing the company to extract the most valuable from the camps.
3. Abandoned homes. While mobile homes can often be prepared for transport and removed from the site for use elsewhere, it is not uncommon for RVs to be abandoned in camps as the owners encountered financial difficulties or left the region without wanting to incur the expense of removing their RV.
In the past, T.J.s Salvage Yard would remove abandoned RVs for a fee, but they are so overwhelmed with units and the decline in short-term residents of the Bakken living in RVs has reduced the demand for salvage parts.
As a result, RV park owners often simply remove RVs to the margins of their parks since they have more room than residents.
The RVs are often just as residents left them with pots and pans, electronics, and even personal information sitting out.
4. Squatting. As in the past, we were able to observe some subtle hints that squatting was taking place in the Bakken. What is bizarre to us is that a number of camps made of mobile homes or mobile lodging units have unlocked doors and continue to have electricity and even heat making them inviting homes for people moving through the area looking to live off the grid at very low expense.
5. Longterm impact. Despite the tidiness of the abandoned camps, we do recognize that the sites of RV parks and more formal workforce housing camps have a longterm impact on the environment. Whether the persistence of plastic and insulation or the smear of gravel or greater density of weeds, the site will continue to be marked for future archaeologists.
Buried infrastructure, presents a particular kind of ruin that will encounter a particular kind of entropy and ruination into the future. (As a compelling example of this, the reclamation efforts associated with the Tesoro oil spill uncovered a well pad from the 1950s oil boom that had been buried and lost).
Things like the weeds that push through the gravel associated with housing sites will create lasting signatures in the landscape. The ruins of the future won’t be visible in the same way as the ruins of the past.