Un-plain ways to reinvent the Plains

In the search for a new vision for vanishing heartland, rural towns consider digital hubs, wind farms, and a 'buffalo commons.'

Seven years ago, this isolated oil and ranching community staked a claim to the digital frontier. It wired itself with advanced telecommunications, advertised on the Internet, and waited for droves of info-entrepreneurs to come and set up shop.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the future. The droves never came. And this hard-working community on the edge of the Badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park learned an important lesson.

Technology alone can't save the heartland. What it needs is a new vision, a new way of defining itself that can rally its residents, corral their energies, and appeal to the rest of America.

While even Watford City's most ardent promoters don't claim victory yet, the city is well on its way to diversifying into 21st-century industries. Its entrepreneurial residents can already boast of two high-speed Internet providers, four video-conference facilities, a cutting-edge Internet-savvy bank, several information-dependent service companies, and an e-pharmacist.

An e-pharmacist? More about him in a moment.

That's impressive for any town of 1,400 people, doubly so for an outpost three hours from the nearest city of 50,000 or more. And if Watford City can reinvent itself, then perhaps other towns in the reemerging frontier from North Dakota to Texas can find ways to transform themselves. Sparsely populated (fewer than six residents per square mile) and losing more people every year, this frontier is struggling to hold together its economy, its government services, and its social cohesiveness.

Admittedly, the few visionary ideas for its future sound a little grandiose:

• Incubator for advanced cybersociety.

• The Saudi Arabia of wind power.

• Safari capital of North America.

Many of these moves would require a cultural shift: away from bootstrap individualism and more toward regional cooperation. "The whole philosophy [is]: 'You've got to do it yourself,' " says Richard Rathge of the North Dakota State Data Center at North Dakota State University in Fargo. But "if we could develop a national or state policy that would facilitate interdependence, I think we'd see a great change."

Sometimes big change starts with the smallest push, as Watford City has discovered. When Gene Veeder returned here in the mid-1990s, he didn't know a T1 line from a T-bone steak. He'd only heard the term from a telemarketing firm that was considering relocating to the area. But since Mr. Veeder was the job-development guru for McKenzie County, whose mainstay oil and ranching industries had fallen on hard times, he decided to get informed.

The search led him to Ray Hintz, a local high school math teacher with a crazy idea. If he pirated some bandwidth from the school's T1 (a high-speed phone line), he could rig rooftop antennas to bring high-speed Internet service to local government offices at a fraction of the usual cost.

The school agreed to share its T1 line, hired Mr. Hintz to coordinate the project, and eventually hosted computer and Internet training courses for the community. The county commissioners came up with $20,000 for computer servers.

For a few years, the city ran its own Internet service for residents until private companies moved in to take over the job. By the time state economic-development officials came to town to push their own rural Internet strategy, they found Watford City was already gigabits ahead.

But the community quickly learned that most telecommuting professionals, who can live and work anywhere, preferred mountains or an ocean in their backyards. Fortunately, Watford City has charms of its own that keep current residents here - easy access to Roosevelt National Park and fine fishing and boating at Lake Sakakawea. And local entrepreneurs were eager to experiment with the new technology. The result is a town that has defied the rural stereotypes and become one of the most wired small towns in rural America.

* * *

Even before the city embarked on its digital adventure, First International Bank and Trust was pushing the envelope. It moved to in-house check processing, took over six offices of a failed savings-and-loan, and bought two Arizona banks. To manage its far-flung empire, the bank invested heavily in information technology, including video-conferencing to conduct all-employee meetings and remote job interviews.

"It has allowed our business to grow despite the distances," says Stephen Stenehjem, president of the bank and grandson of the founder. Now, the company is upgrading its Web banking service to allow customers to view their checks online, front and back - a cutting-edge technology that few banks offer anywhere in the country.

Or consider Larry Larsen, local drugstore owner and soon to be the state's fifth e-pharmacist. Sure, he sells prescriptions over the Internet. But what really sets him apart is his use of Internet video. By placing a special camera in his second pharmacy, 50 miles away, he'll be able to monitor each step remotely as his employees fill out prescriptions. Then he and the customer can step into private rooms where they converse e-face to e-face, so to speak.

The system not only saves him from traveling back and forth, but it also means he can hire a less expensive pharmacy technician rather than having to recruit a full-time pharmacist, which is in short supply these days.

"The one thing that saved Watford City is that the people who came back were forward-thinking," he says. "It's that kind of 'we-can-do-it-ourselves' " attitude.

Even outsiders have picked up on the mood. "What's going to save the heartland is the attitude of the people," says Marc Dansereall, project manager of CrossUSA, a software developer and one of the handful of outside concerns that have moved into the area.

The hardships of the heartland frontier breed entrepreneurs. In fact, a quarter of the region's households include someone who's self-employed. That's double the national average, and a substantial part of that entrepreneurship flows from nonfarm activities.

* * *

Take Janet Sanford. As business manager of the local school in Watford City, she learned how to run the lunch accounting program and struck up a relationship with the Minnesota-based developer of the software. The company offered her contract work, which she accepted. "I finally decided to go out of my comfort zone a little bit," she says.

Now, she works from home as a full-time employee, helping schools download the program via telephone and providing technical support. "I have a dream job," she says.

Still, initial hopes that information technology could reverse the frontier's decline have faded. For all of Watford City's forward momentum, the county still lost 10 percent of its population in the 1990s.

"There isn't any single thing that can save the heartland," sums up Veeder, the county job-development expert. "But the Internet can sure make it easier to live and work here and tear down some of the barriers."

Instead of importing technology, other grand ideas for the region's future involve resources it already has. Green energy, for example. The Plains boast some of the best-quality wind in the world to generate electricity. In theory, North Dakota alone could provide a third of the nation's electric power (less, in practice, because wind offers only intermittent power unlike, say, a coal- or gas-fired plant).

Yet the state has barely tapped the resource, in part because it can't export the energy. The nation's current transmission lines are operating near capacity, and utilities are reluctant to build new ones.

"If we had transmission, that would solve a lot of it," says Brian Parsons, program manager for wind applications at the federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

Last month, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission proposed new incentives for utilities to pool their regional transmission lines and build new ones. But even if the incentives work, building new lines will likely take six years or more, Mr. Parsons says.

Another frontier proposal is federal grassland reserves, which would restore the ecosystem while attracting tourists. Dan Licht, chief proponent of the plan and author of "Ecology and Economics of the Great Plains," estimates taxpayers would spend less money buying the land for the reserves than they currently do when the US Agriculture Department pays farmers to take their land out of production for 10 years. And the Plains, unlike almost anywhere else in the United States, retain enough wide open space to re-create complete ecosystems.

Here in western North Dakota, for example, the federal government already owns more than enough land - but in piecemeal parcels - to create North America's Serengeti, where 25,000 buffalo could reestablish their old roaming patterns, Dr. Licht argues. It's "a site that would rival anything found in Africa." So far, however, the idea has few takers.

* * *

Ironically, the frontier vision that has garnered the most publicity - dubbed the "buffalo commons" - has also generated the most disgust among residents. Sixteen years ago, Frank and Deborah Popper proposed that since people were leaving the region anyway, the federal government should buy them out. With that land, the government could then create a vast unfenced region where buffalo would roam, prairie dogs and other wildlife would return, and the ecosystem would slowly revert to the condition that white settlers originally encountered.

But the Poppers' plan came under heavy fire from many frontier communities, which resented the idea that their homes should disappear to make way for buffalo. Since then, the couple has given up on the federal government as a prime mover. Instead, they argue, the commons is coming piecemeal as private ranchers, public parks, and Indian reservations boost the number of buffalo. With an estimated 300,000 head, the US now holds more buffalo than at any time since the early 1880s, says Andrew Isenberg, author of "The Destruction of the Bison."

And it's not just buffalo. Mountain lions are beginning to move back to the Plains from the Rocky Mountains after an 80-year absence. Elk are returning to places where they haven't been seen for 100 years.

If wildlife is making a comeback and humanity is leaving, then perhaps nature and economics are imposing their own eco-vision of the rural Plains, some environmentalists argue. Maybe the rural Plains can't cannot support large-scale settlement, they add.

At least, white settlement. The decline of the frontier Plains, after all, really represents the retreat of the white man. American Indian populations, by contrast, are growing.

Perhaps, just as suburban sprawl is forcing many communities to consider "smart growth" initiatives, the frontier is a lesson about smart decline.

"It can be very difficult in many situations to come out for 'smart decline': it seems un-American," says Mr. Popper, a land-use planner at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "We like to think every place will keep growing. But all these places that have traditional agricultural economies have fallen farther and farther behind. And we've got to find something to do with these places."

Of course, the Plains remain unpredictable. They've repeatedly confounded the optimists: historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who thought settlement would conquer the frontier; Thomas Jefferson, who believed small farms were the bulwark and future of America; even the railroad barons, who believed - or pretended to believe - their new transportation technology would bring prosperity to all those new boomtowns springing up beside the track every 10 miles or so.

Maybe the frontier's resilient and innovative people will confound the pessimists, too.

Perhaps the last word belongs to Teddy Roosevelt, who experienced firsthand the joys and isolation and struggle that the Plains frontier has always doled out to its residents. At his Elkhorn Ranch, some 40 miles southwest of Watford City, Roosevelt learned to love the outdoor life, and then lost half his fortune after a blizzard decimated his cattle. He drew from those events, not defeat, but a challenge.

"I never would have been President," he later wrote, "if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota."

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