The Spectacle and Invisibility of Roads in the Bakken Shale Play

During the fall of 2018, I spent six weeks in western North Dakota collecting preliminary data on a new research project about the role of roads in communities with unconventional oil and gas (UOG) development. Although booms in UOG development often result in significant investments in transportation infrastructure, the scholarship has largely ignored the role that roads can play in either reinforcing or disrupting dependence on natural resource development.

Consequently, road infrastructure prompts contradictory responses – spectacle and invisibility. Traffic and road construction are the some of the most frequently discussed boom impacts by residents and decision makers (Murphey et al 2017). Simultaneously, community members (and researchers) often take for granted the amount of work that goes into constructing and maintaining roads, as well as the environmental, economic, and social impacts of new and upgraded roads (Laurance and Arrea 2017).

I aim to draw attention to this overlooked component of UOG booms. The state, county, and local investments in the road systems throughout the Bakken shale play have been staggering, both financially and in the material changes to the landscape. Roads have created an immense amount of transformation in the Bakken, but exactly how and for whom is an open question that my new research project will explore.

During my time in North Dakota, I interviewed various stakeholders who contribute to shaping the transportation infrastructure in this region. I also spent many hours driving roads, at times with interviewees and at other times by myself. I started carrying county maps with me wherever I went and asking for recommendations about which roads to drive – either to see some of the impacts from UOG development or to explore the twists and turns of the badlands. Below are some of my favorite pictures from my fieldwork.

Kristin K. Smith, Ph.D. Candidate

Environmental Legacies of Wyoming's Coalbed Methane Boom

My dissertation research focuses on understanding the social and environmental legacies of coalbed methane production in the Powder River Basin, WY. Along with interviewing landowners, regulators, attorneys, and industry personnel, much of my time in the field is spent traveling Wyoming’s dusty dirt roads, surveying the landscape for coalbed methane infrastructure and evidence of reclamation. The images below are exemplary of the scenes that I encounter and study. The combination of exploration in the field and compelling conversation with research participants makes this research both personally rewarding and geographically stimulating!

-Kathryn Bills Walsh, Ph.D. Candidate

RCRG PhD Student Kristin Smith Awarded Research Grant

Kristin K. Smith has been awarded the 2018 Student Research Grant from the Rural Geography Specialty Group for her illuminating paper, “Economic Addiction in Rural, Remote Impact Geographies: A Case Study of the Western Area Water Supply Project in North Dakota.” The grant will fund her participation in the Quadrennial British-Canadian-American Conference on Rural Geography in July, 2019.

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Restoration Landscapes of Central Montana: A Field Tour

Matt Comer of the MT BLM and MSU participants in a former crop field undergoing restoration to native range.

Matt Comer of the MT BLM and MSU participants in a former crop field undergoing restoration to native range.

Twelve MSU graduate students and faculty are better-informed and (even) more inspired about their work after spending a week-end in central Montana. Traveling as the “Grasslands Working Group,” we visited land managers and land owners engaged in restoration of the sagebrush steppe and forest ecosystems of the iconic “Charles M. Russell” region.

Seeking to better understand the social, economic, political and ecological dimensions of restoration, we visited ranchers, farmers, and conservationists and the landscapes where they live and work.

We toured agricultural fields undergoing restoration to native plant mixes, water infrastructure and the site of the 2017 Lodgepole Complex grassland wildfire. Our local hosts and guides represented area ranch operations, local conservation districts, the NRCS and BLM, and the American Prairie Reserve.

The MSU Grasslands Working Group acts as hub for network building and knowledge exchange among diverse disciplines and off-campus constituencies. Our broader community of stakeholders includes anyone with an interest in the resilience of Montana’s rural range and grassland landscapes—including sagebrush steppe and mixed grass prairie plant communities and the variety of introduced plant communities among them, such as cultivated crops—and the diverse social and economic systems they support.

RCRG PhD Student Kristin Smith awarded USDA fellowship

Kristin K. Smith is the recipient of a prestigious, multi-year fellowship from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. This award supports Kristin’s groundbreaking work examining the experience of communities in the Bakken as they attempt to leverage the current energy boom for long-term prosperity. Kristin’s work operates at the nexus of critical resource geography, political industrial ecology, and economics. Follow Kris on twitter: @kksmith312