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North Dakotans assail National Geographic story, "The Emptied Prairie"

BISMARCK - One North Dakotan labeled National Geographic "The Empty Integrity." Other current and former residents assailed the venerable publication for "lazy journalism," "babbling of a delusional mind" and "gross misrepresentations." Still oth...

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BISMARCK - One North Dakotan labeled National Geographic "The Empty Integrity."

Other current and former residents assailed the venerable publication for "lazy journalism," "babbling of a delusional mind" and "gross misrepresentations."

Still others charge that the magazine has published errors, "drivel" and "a hackneyed narrative."

The fuss is over National Geographic's January issue with a spread titled "The Emptied Prairie." In it, writer Charles Bowden and photographer Eugene Richards paint a dismal picture of North Dakota, where an abandoned house represents "just one bone in a gigantic skeleton of abandoned human desire."

The overwhelming portrait is of a depressingly empty, wind-ravaged landscape dotted only by decrepit remnants of sorry little ghost towns with ramshackle, abandoned houses populated by corpses of badgers and cats. Only a few die-hard old fogies are still stuck living in them, in Bowden and Richards' telling. Everyone else has moved away or committed suicide.


"What happens is that some people cash in on their property and move someplace warmer and easier. The rest grow old and die," Bowden writes, not accounting for the rest of the world, where everyone grows old and dies.

"There are constant funerals," the story intones. And when rural North Dakota churches close, "sometimes the congregation decides to burn the building to end the pain."

Bowden dispenses with the rest of the state, its positive characteristics and overall robust economy in a few sentences. Even the smattering of positive references is anchored with gloom.

"All this decline exists amid a seeming statistical prosperity," he writes. "Oil is booming, wheat prices are at record highs." He concludes with a remark about "paper millionaires living in the lonely sweep of the plains with the surrounding community gone to the wind."

In a passing reference to growth, he mentions only Fargo, Bismarck, Mandan and Grand Forks.

Only one sentence reflects any appreciation from Bowden: "North Dakota is a rarely visited state and surely one of the loveliest and most moving."

Reaction furious

The reaction from North Dakotans and ex-North Dakotans has been furious. Dozens have written e-mails to the magazine - - prompted in part by the state Commerce Department's appeal to its 2,000 "Ambassadors," self-appointed, amateur image boosters and business recruiters.


Gov. John Hoeven and his commerce commissioner, Shane Goettle, are working on a response, and hope to convince Editor-in-Chief Chris Johns to follow up with a second piece that balances the damage done by Bowden and Richards.

"He's as offended as anyone," Commerce Department spokeswoman Julie Fedorchak said of Hoeven.

A lively e-mail exchange among members and friends of Preservation North Dakota includes one from North Dakota photographer Dennis Stillings, who is convinced many of the stunning but depressing images in the "The Emptied Prairie" were contrived or staged.

Some who wrote to the magazine accuse its editors of failing to check facts and say they assume now that other stories in National Geographic are of questionable accuracy.

Several criticize Bowden for his statement that, "In most of the United States, abandoned buildings are a sign of change and shifting economic opportunities. On the High Plains, they always mean that something in the earth and sky mutinied against the settlers."

No, it doesn't, they write; it means that agriculture became mechanized and scientific, just as urban commerce and everything else in present-day America is not what it once was.

"Bowden seems to mingle the challenges of the 1930s with the present economic realities, and attributes a declining rural population to a harsh environment," wrote one Ambassador and former resident, Steve Schoenig of Fort Collins, Colo. "To read Bowden's writing is to be left with a sense that North Dakota is largely a bone yard of wrecked, lonely lives, abandoned, rotting structures and hopelessly cruel conditions."

Report is 'old news'


Many blast Bowden and Richards for coming to North Dakota bent on producing a wholly unoriginal collection of clichés and stereotypes. That many of North Dakota's smallest towns have shriveled is neither fresh information nor unique to this state, they charge.

The article "is old news," writes Mike Mabin, who owns a marketing and advertising firm in Bismarck. "The population of rural areas in throughout the upper Midwest region has been declining steadily for decades."

Richards' photos include a debris-filled classroom in the closed school in Gascoyne, a severed doll's head in a farmstead's garage near Powers Lake, the weathered buildings of what's left of Corinth and the remnants of a deer carcass with an abandoned house behind.

The story and photos indicate that Bowden and Richards targeted 14 towns, nine of which were hamlets even in their pioneering heyday. They never reached more than 225 residents: Alkabo (Divide County), Amidon (Slope County), Charbonneau (McKenzie County), Corinth, Epping and Hanks (Williams County), Gascoyne (Bowman County), Havelock (Hettinger County) and Walum (Griggs County). Some are not incorporated as cities, or like Havelock, never were.

The other five they visited were Belfield (Stark County), Grenora (Williams), Marmarth (Slope), Mott (Hettinger) and Powers Lake (Burke) - none with more than 800 residents in the 2000 Census.

There is no mention of the lively main streets in New Rockford, Watford City and other locales, nor the quiet, hidden gems such as Fort Ransom and Luverne, nor of the bustling machinery manufacturing in Gwinner, Valley City, Wishek and elsewhere.

The state's status as being the safest in the nation and the top producer of about a dozen commodities is not referenced, nor are the state's standout institutions of higher education.

The e-mail address to send comments to National Geographic is .

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