‘My Country No More’: PBS asks, Whose land is it?

Rita Baghdadi and Jeremiah Hammerling’s PBS Independent Lens film My Country No More is an absorbing, mannered modern range war. This story of oil development in the upper Midwest harkens back to and beyond 19th-century homesteading. Even as ranchers and developers haggle over land use, the long shadow of original users raises the fundamental questions of whose land is it and how should it be used.

In 2006, the Parshall oil field was discovered in western North Dakota. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing made extraction of the Bakken formation possible. Extraction proceeded rapidly, peaking in 2012, and continues at a high rate today.

The film documents the impacts of the rise and fall of North Dakota’s oil boom on one small town. The small unincorporated area of Trenton was the center of a struggle between local ranchers over whether they should accede to oil companies’ development plans or retain their family farms.

The Rider family opposes the building of an oil processing plant in their community. Kalie Rider, a school dietitian, is thrust into a leadership role, backed by her brother Jed, a rancher, and her father Byron, a farmer. Mel Falcon, from the oil company North Dakota Processing, has persuaded some of the community to sell their land and the County Commission to give initial approval to a plan to rezone 160 acres, 14 acres of which would be devoted to the plant.

Governor Jack Dalrymple, whose administration presided over the early oil boom between 2010 and 2016, lauds the oil industry for reducing unemployment and raising the quality of life. “It’s working,” argues Dalrymple. He promises a “reasonable regulatory climate” to mitigate any possible harm.

But right from the beginning, Falcon and his oil company change their plans and increase their demands. They need more and more land to insure success. They are supported by some of the community. Ruben Valdez, an itinerant worker who claims to be grandson of the great chief Geronimo, supports the oil company. He’s given a job and then promoted. Dwight Aune, a local land owner in the path of development, even supports moving the church that his grandfather donated land to establish. Aune is selling his land to the oil company for a generous sum.

But other community members raise compelling issues. How long will the oil prosperity last? The new technology of fracking threatens environmental degradation and health risks. Crime increases and the beauty of the land is threatened. Who will benefit from this prosperity?

“This is just business in America,” argue the friends of oil, as they characterize their opponents as “radical environmentalists.”  But as Kalie Rider explains, “We are just people who are losing their way of life and their land.”

The filmmakers are careful to let the characters on both sides raise issues and tell their own stories. Ultimately, they even provide a surprise ending with an ironic twist. We are turned back to the original questions: Whose country is it anyway, and what are we to do with it?

My Country No More premieres on Independent Lens Mon., Jan. 7, on PBS. Online streaming begins January 8. The trailer can be seen here.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.