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PBS Explains Why Residents of a North Dakota Town Feel Its 'My Country No More'
January 7, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Hardly any people anywhere are opposed to progress until one day they see progress up close and notice the price tag.

My Country No More, a PBS Independent Lens documentary airing Monday at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings), examines progress in the tiny Western North Dakota town of Trenton, starting when oil reserves are discovered there.

It’s a rich field, holding perhaps two billion gallons of oil. Extracting it will require fracking, a technique that has raised considerable environmental concerns, but My Country No More does not venture into that discussion.

Instead, it focuses on land use – specifically, whether rezoning Trenton to accommodate an oil industry infrastructure will destroy the town’s traditional farming character.  

Kalie Rider and her brother Jed are native Trentonians whose parents lost their farm in the 1980s after a depression in crop prices and a run of bad weather. Kalie and Jed want the family back in the business, which they love, but which is fragile enough that a shift in the local economy could jeopardize the viability of their plans.

Much of My Country No More, which was produced and directed by Rita Baghdadi and Jeremiah Hammerling, revolves around land deals and zoning issues.

For instance: Kalie and Jed’s uncle Roger sold land near the railroad tracks to an oil company with the understanding it would be used for one purpose, and then the company said its plans had changed.

The company asks Trenton to rezone that land as an industrial park, which gives the owner wide-ranging latitude for its use. Urged by the Riders and others not to give that kind of blank check, Trenton denies the request.

It gets complicated, personal, and local. But the larger issue in My Country No More will feel familiar to communities everywhere.

The oil boom, with its resulting jobs and ripple effect on the local economy, offers an almost magical enticement. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple (left) comes to Trenton to celebrate a milestone in oil production and notes that while most states are still recovering from the 2008 recession, North Dakota has a budget surplus and is experiencing boomtown growth – no small achievement in a state that has been feeling the same population exodus as much of heartland America.

Dalrymple attributes much of this success to what he calls “a reasonable regulatory climate,” which some skeptics feel is code for letting industry and corporations do pretty much as they please, with minimal concern for environmental consequences.

One woman in this documentary, Merna Patch, has been warning for years that industry-created pollution is endangering the health of the residents. She has been largely ignored.

My Country No More only touches in passing on that concern, just as it touches only in passing on the itinerant workers hired by the oil industry to work in towns like Trenton.

Ruben Valdez, one such worker, speaks glowingly, around 2014, about finally having a chance to make good money. He loves the oil game and progress.

In 2016, when oil prices drop, Valdez is laid off and finds new work as a local handyman.

The North Dakota of this documentary is a wide-open land with verdant fields and spectacular sunsets. The locals who farm these vast fields speak of their work as a calling, a way of life they probably learned from their parents and want to pass on to their children.

Turning Trenton into an oil hub, an access point for the massive Dakota Access pipeline project and more would, some of those farmers fear, make it a different community.

They say they don’t oppose progress. They’re just looking at the price tag.

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