Read the latest commentary from Editor in Chief Chris Johns, and then share your thoughts about the current issue.
In Response to North Dakota Governor Hoeven
Posted Jan 19,2008

I've been following the reactions to our article "The Emptied Prairie" and wanted to share a letter I recently sent to the governor of North Dakota.  Thank you to everyone who has written in with comments--we value your insights and opinions.

From Governor Hoeven:
Dear Mr. Johns:

The recent article about North Dakota in the January 2008 issue of National Geographic was way off the mark. To give the magazine’s readers a more accurate picture of our state, I’ve asked our Commerce Commissioner and Tourism Director to contact your editors and invite you back to cover what you left out – the fact that North Dakota is a growing 21st Century state with a bright future.

What you left out is the fact that North Dakota has a growing economy, well educated citizens, low crime, great infrastructure and one of the cleanest environments in America. All this adds up to a great quality of life. Our cities are growing, and our rural areas are finding new ways to create jobs and opportunities for our people.

For example, new ethanol and biodiesel facilities are transforming rural communities like Richardton, Underwood, Hankinson, Casselton, and Velva. Just a few years ago, North Dakota produced less than 40 million gallons of ethanol a year. With these new facilities, we will produce half a billion gallons. Your article also makes mention of the “moan of the wind” on the prairie, but that same wind is on its way to producing nearly 1000 megawatts of clean renewable energy on commercial wind farms across North Dakota.

In addition, Dakota Growers Pasta, a native North Dakota company, is now the third largest pasta manufacturer in North America, and other value-added enterprises like it are helping agriculture in North Dakota change and grow.

These are all small town, rural enterprises that reflect the spirit and ingenuity we have in North Dakota. Your article featured the small town of Mott, N.D., but failed to mention that every fall it is a destination for pheasant hunters from around the country and around the world. It’s ironic that you represented this town with a photo of an abandoned homestead, when a more revealing image for your readers might have been a photo of sports fans lining the highway for 18 miles last year to cheer on the local football team, the Wildfire, on its way to the state championship games in Fargo.

Whether it’s tourism, agriculture, energy, manufacturing or technology, North Dakota is moving forward. We’re home to innovative firms like Microsoft Business Solutions, a subsidiary of Microsoft, which now employs 1,400 people at its Fargo campus. The company is currently expanding and will add nearly 500 more employees by 2010. Other companies, like Killdeer Mountain Manufacturing, Goodrich, Cirrus and Aerosmith are working to manufacture technically advanced components for the U.S. military and aviation industry.

As a consequence, we’ve created thousands of new jobs and careers. Our research universities and Centers of Excellence are creating the businesses and products of the future; our manufacturing sector is one of only a handful in the country that’s expanding; and our energy sector is supplying the nation with clean, efficient energy, from both renewable and traditional sources.

For all of these reasons, and more, North Dakota is garnering national attention as a great place to live and work. This year Forbes Magazine has ranked the state of North Dakota 9th among all states for Business and Careers. Among 180 cities nationwide, Bismarck ranked 2nd and Fargo 4th. Most recently, the Beacon Hill Institute last month announced that North Dakota ranked 4th among all states for competitiveness – 1st in infrastructure and 4th in human resources.

There is certainly growth and opportunity in North Dakota these days, but more importantly, there is a mood of optimism across the land. At the same time, we are working hard to take our efforts to the next level, and an article that showcases the spirit, inventiveness and progress we’re making would certainly be in order. I encourage you to take a broader look at our state and help us convey to the world what North Dakotans already know: that North Dakota is a great place in which to live, work, visit, study, have fun, and do business.

John Hoeven

In Response:
Dear Governor Hoeven:

Thank you for your interest in “The Emptied Prairie” in this month’s issue of National Geographic magazine.  There seems to be some misunderstanding about our intent in writing the article.

Our article was never intended to be an in-depth look at the economy of North Dakota, nor were we attempting to offer a portrayal of the state in its entirety.  We were looking at the rural North Dakota landscape and probing the stories behind some of the abandoned homes that still stand.   

We are well aware that there is more to the state than these abandoned towns.  In fact, we have written or mentioned North Dakota in 17 articles in the past 10 years, including a short feature on Fargo in November 2003.  In the case of our January ‘08 article, we wanted to tell personal and touching stories of North Dakotans’ relationship with the land and how that landscape has shaped their destiny.  The stories we told in the article speak to me of fortitude, and, yes, sometimes regret.  I’m confident our readers will understand what these stories tell us about North Dakotans’ strength of character and resolve – both of which will shape the future described in your letter.

Again, thank you for taking the time to write.  We always welcome our readers’ thoughts.   


Chris Johns
Editor in Chief

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Meg Keoppen
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

The article "The Emptied Prairie" was a heart touching look into how people are drawn to the land and changes that alter our choices. Abandoned houses and businesses litter the western landscape as change continues to reshape how we live.
I don't see this phenomenon as failure, but simply as changes.
The words and photographs are beautiful and insightful.

Paul Bourdeaux
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

The Emptied Prairie did a very poor job of communicating that it was just about the "rural ND landscape" and the "probing stories" within. The fact that there was so much "misunderstanding about [NG's] intent in writing the article" only goes to show that the intended message was not clear, nor met.

At one point, the author referred to the North Dakota landscape as "a giant skeleton of abandoned human desire."

The fact is that ND does have abandoned homes, and many have touching stories behind them. But the story never makes any attempt to indicate that this is not indicative of North Dakota as a whole. The only positive comment about ND - the one sentance when the state's cities were mentioned - was laced with negativity as well.

Some times, not telling the whole truth is just as bad as lying. This was a very poorly written article, and the editors of NG should be embarrassed by it.

I was glad to see that this story was picked up on ABC World News the other night.

Pamela Devins
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

Thank you for your article about North Dakota. My husband and I moved here in 2004. Unfortunatley we moved too far out from Grand Forks. It made working almost impossible. He passed away a year ago and I am in one of those small towns you describe. On a new city council we managed to remove two abandoned homes, but there are many more. It was a hard fight just to clean things up. Getting to work is nearly impossible for me because the roads are not maintained well in the winter therefore I went on my husbands social security last year and work partime.I could only get high speed internet from the local carrier and since it was costly I dropped it and went to dial up. It cost around 2000 a winter to heat my house. We were lied to by our realtor and most importantly by the appraiser. My first summer here the basement flooded.I was told by a lawyer that that is not unusual in North Dakota and everyone has sump pump. I will be lucky to sell this home, but it is my plan to do that. Outside of the cities, you are really on your own. The people here are good though, and down to earth.There is alot of resentment in these rural towns about the rich farmers on subsidies.
A few years ago I lived in San Francisco and now I look at this time of my life almost like I'm doing time. When I'm off from work I go nowwhere because the drive is too far and too costly. I plan to move out of this state when I can.
I think if the people in this state are so shocked about the article they should put some effort into at least removing abandoned buildings. It may be normal here but it's not normal everywhere.
I understand that was not your entent in the article but these towns are being left on their own though they still have to pay taxes to the county.
Thank You
pam D.

Steven Melosky
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

I live in Sherwood, North Dakota a town that is currently going through similar changes to the ones mentioned in the article. I've also lived in Roth, North Dakota which now consists of five houses of which two are occupied. I was amazed to find in the basement of the Roth home a checkbook from the First National Bank of Roth, ND and evidence that there was one a Bowling alley and Hardware store in "town". I've heard from locals that Roth was once a thriving town. This town has literally disappeared. The people of North Dakota are the finest people I've ever met and I love the area and exploring these "ghost towns". I personally had no problem with this story as it seemed factual and the flavor of the story was genuine. Naturally, this was only one North Dakota story and was not indicative of the state as a whole. I make this area of the country my home and I could choose to live anywhere. I was happy to read this story and it certainly didn't hurt my feelings any!

Ann Laurence
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

Last night I dreamed I was the one who held up the sign NOTHING WAS EVER LOST FROM ENDURING LOVE FOR NORTH DAKOTA that Larry McMurtry thought he saw when he drove Hwy 2 in western North Dakota. He is only one of the many who have been inpired by our ROADS.
Seems to me, NG helped some people in Dakota think by having Charles Bowden write this article.
"If you like to think and laugh out loud from time to time buy this book (ONE LIFE AT A TIME PLEASE-Ed Abbey)if you like to have everything you read confirm your own idea, avoid it like the plague." quoted from CITY MAGAZINE, Tucson AZ

Robb Westawker
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

This piece was beautifully written and so dead-on that I'm touched, as one born and raised in North Dakota in both small rural towns and larger cities, by the author's intimacy. I sense this accuracy led to the sense of violation North Dakotans might have felt reading it.

Yes, Governor Hoeven, the future is bright for the larger cities, but the only large-scale joy coming to rural areas of our state are the perennial farm subsidy checks, and those mostly in eastern North Dakota.

Ray Unterseher
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

I did not think the story was any kind of a plus for North Dakota. We are owed a new story in the next NGM and the real rest of the story should be told. This story is so unlike life here! Not a good story!

Troy Barnhart
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

I always think of living in the Dakota's with two phrases...

"Rugged Individualism..." & "An blacksmith's anvil for one's soul."

I grew up in Southwestern North Dakota and most of my extended family still lives there.

There is nothing like watching the sun rise/set across the snowy high plains or a field of golden wheat or the green grass and prairie roses.

Farm Girl and North Dakotan at Heart
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

Your article on depicting rural ND and the stories told about rural ND are very disappointing. I come from a farm in ND and I have every intention of returning when I am done with my degree.
I have listened to stories of growing up from many of my relatives including my Grandpa. They did have tough times but if you listen to their stories, those stories are told but are always told with good memories. You are missing the beautiful gold wheat field in the fall rolling in the wind or the flax fields that are so blue in the morning that you don't actually know where the field ends and the body of water beside it starts.
People from ND know what is here and want other people to know what is in our state but what you depicted isn't what we wanted people to get out of our state.
Even if that is not what you meant, it is how it came across.

North Dakota and it's rural community is not only important for our state but it is also important for our Country. It is winter and the fields my be snow covered but you wait until the spring of the year when crops are coming up, cattle are in the pastures, and wildflowers are blooming; it is an amazing sight. The snow covering the fields is important and I don't think you would hear very many farmers that live off that land complain about the snow.

Tammie Stevahn
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

I just read the article after hearing from so many people and getting so many different views. After reading the article, I don't feel a negative outlook was passed on North Dakota. It stated in the article that there are many areas of North Dakota that are thriving. You pointed out many positive things about our great state, and unfortunately too many people focused only on what some consider negative comments. I agree with the article, there are a lot of abandoned towns that dot North Dakota. That doesn't make our state out to look like we are dying. It's almost peacefull in an odd sort of way to drive by abandoned homes. Don't get me wrong, I feel the pain of those who have had to leave. What I mean is, those homes hold so much history, so many stories. It takes me only a split second to start imagining life when the home was occupied, back in a "simpler" time. No, things weren't simple then, but there were simpler pleasures, less of today's stresses. I visit my grandparent's homestead and can imagine life in the 30's, imagine the hardships that caused our state to become stronger. The struggles that are evident in the abandoned towns shows how strong we have had to come to persevere in this state. And yes, it gets cold and windy. If you're from North Dakota, you deal with it. It's in our blood!

Ray Zajac
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

Any thing that is advertising ND is good. Alot of people like to come to were it is quit and senic. Alot of us live here because it is empty. I like the wide open spaces. That is what we should be advertising

Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

The so-called 'article' you've written for the January 2008 issue of National Geographic is truly infuriating. I happen to reside in North Dakota and while reading the article, I was extremely disgusted by your sad excuse of a periodical. North Dakota is wrongly portrayed and it has brought tremendous aggravation to it's residents.

During the Depression, suicide was a big issue. But not just in North Dakota; as you made it seem. Instead of focusing on the real hospitality of the people in North Dakota, you wrote an article about the Depression in the 1930's. If you haven't noticed, the year is 2008.

Just because North Dakota isn't the most populated state in the Union certainly does not mean that there are ghost towns at every corner or no inhabitants. Next time you visit North Dakota, get a better tour guide. Because there is more to North Dakota than what your poorly written review has shown.

Tibi Marin
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

I found that the article written by Chris Johns was of poor taste. I have lived in North Dakota for almost two tears and I have found to be a wonderful state, with wonderful and warming people and a landscape that is a dream for a geologist like me.I moved here because I wanted to leave big cities and towns and find peace where I can use the talents the Lord has given me to make a difference in the lives of people here. North dakota is cold, but the heart of the people can melt any ice or snow, I feel like home here, never before I have felt this way about any other place I have lived in this country. Yes ND has empty spaces, towns and houses but this happens all over the world, not just here, and from Chris Johns to come to ND and portay us this way is an ofense to me and to the great people of this state. I for example have taken wonderful pictures of the landscape, flowers, animals, and people of aroubd the state, I have seen the seasons change, long winters, short summers but in all the warmth of the people who live here make it all worth of stay here and emnbrace the weather. I personally invite you Chris Johns to come during the summer so I can drive you around the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota where Turtle Mounatin Community College is located, I will take you around the Reservation so you can see with your own eyes the beauty of the children who live her, their eyes and smiles will melt you heart, I invite you to go with me on a wild ride to the ND Badlands and experience first hand a paleontological dig, where the past and the present met, I invite you to see the The International Peace Garden a very special place, to stand in front of the monument that reads "the Geographical Center of the United States" to come and eat with us in the Village Inn caffe in Rolette, to see with your eyes the beauty of the landscape that embraces the Turtle Mountains and to see the Buffalos roaming in the middle of the landscape, I invite you to visit the first bank in the country owned by Native Americans in Belcourt, I invite you to come and participate in the cultural activities this state has to offer - I make a deal with you: come and we will trat you like you never being treated before! You will not feel sorry you came...come and meet us the real people who live here and will forever be grateful to God for creating this land of opportunities for us to enjoy and we call this precious and beautiful land: NORTH DAKOTA - I DARE YOU...ES UN RETO! LO TOMAS? WILL YOU DO THAT?

Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

I want to say that the article on North Dakota was well written, but that is not who we are. North Dakota has a Tier 1 College, we also have many award winning colleges... We have a growing economy. If it weren't for us you wouldn't have Bobcats. We don't have dirt roads for highways. People already think that, and you are just putting more ideas into their heads. We are already able to convince them that we don't have running water, but we do. My family being here for 125 years I hate this article.

Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

This article is right on. I've thought like that for quite awhile now. You go 10 miles outside of one of ND's cities and it is like a desert with a few towns on the verge of collapse. I never thought is was important enough to put in an magazine. They must be running out of ideas.

Lady A
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

How about sending a journalist to North Dakota instead of just making crap up?

Do you know why small towns are dying? Because of cities like Bismarck and Fargo growing (any idiot can see that). Seriously, you owe the state an apology and a better written article.

Meredith Frost
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

Dear Mr. Johns,
I sent a letter to you and received no response.
I think perhaps you need to read the article "The Emptied Prairie".
After reading your response to Governor Hoeven's letter, it was clear to me that you had no clue as to what Charles Bowden wrote in the article.

Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

. I think the reporter was pretty accurate in his capturing the sense of gloom, hopelessness, and emptiness that prevails in the twilight of January. Cat tracks through a snow drift by a yellowed mattress in an abandoned homestead. While the portrayal is depressing, it only hints at what is truly beautiful about this place. The emptiness is the meat of what stirs your soul. Last summer I rode horse with my 9 year old daughter down by the spot on the James river where I had proposed to my wife, I had pondered many adolescent problems, and just spent time wondering at the beauty God has given us. We trotted up the hill, the river winding in the background, her black pony belly deep in wheat that was shimmering and sparkling in the late afternoon sun. The sun shone through her hair with a golden glow and the pony was shiny with sweat as it’s mane ripped in the wind. Her countenance was one of pure joyous freedom. It was exquisite and I was privileged to catch a glimpse of it. That is what North Dakota brings to the surface. The stirrings of things deep inside of you. That is why it takes the rugged individual, the maverick, the steely willed to live here. It takes fortitude, but also provides you peace. North Dakota is not empty, it is epic.

Meredith Frost
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

Some people blame their misfortune on others. Who buys a home without researching the area?
Most people from the Bay Area are more savvy.
This a beautiful state and there is so much opportunity if you do your homework.
Furthermore, I have never felt a sense of doom here in January. My daughter and I had the time of our lives photographing the area after the fog a week or so back. The ice crystals covering everthing were breathtakingly beautiful and it was a wonderous experience.
We couldn't wait for another morning to go out to take more pictures.
As for the pictures in the NG, you can go to many states and find abandoned buildings and you can find other unhappy people.
I find the people here to be inspiring and thoughtful. They actually help each other in times of sadness or misfortune. We have the greatest neighbors.
"You reap what you sow."

Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

Yea, nice article. Lets see you interviewed a 90+ old man who passed on less than a month after print and a former meth user who lost horses due to neglect. Hmmm makes me wonder about your other "truthful" articles from 3rd world countries.


Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

Gosh Lee!!
Unbelievable!!! I thought the same about the people he interviewed. Surely there were other's more reputable to talk to...
I grew up reading NG and it was a time with my grandfather I treasured. We would all gather around and he would read the articles to us and show us the pictures.
Now I am heartsick over this. I had the highest regard for NG prior to this unbalanced and biased article.
There wasn't one thing that was positive. Fiction is not reporting. He was conjuring a feeling and that is fiction.
Good reporting shows opposing views so that the readers can get a complete picture.

Norm Gunderson
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

Hey, I am going to say this once. The people that subscribe to the Magazine, got the story. If you are one of the people that came to the website just to get an idea of what was talked about, you are missing the benefit of paid content. The article in the magazine was laid out nicely. The story was so obviously about the small towns in rural areas and the plight that it entails.

Stop being defensive about the things you didn't want others to know or what you think they shouldn't know. I personally didn't see it as a negative article about ND.

I apologize to anyone that was offended that is also a subscriber. If one reads anything and doesn't look at it objectively in a manner to take something away from it, what is the point of reading it.

Judy Bostow,
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

North Dakota- I always said, "God's Country"!
I was born and raised in ND, and you can't find a better bunch of friendly, helpful, honest people. It is only a matter of attitude and whatever anyone wants to say- negative or postive, it is how they want to precieve it. I myself would not want to live anywhere else.

I have traveled to other places in the USA, and just like any other state there are pros and cons. Nice to visit, but, I will always come home. If anyone is interested and if you are reading this post, do a search and find out what ND is realy like, Take a vacation here...and you can decide what your opinion is. It's all in the eyes of the beholder.
I love my state and the people I am neighbors with far and near and maybe after your vacation you might become my neighbor.
Start your search with this site- and go from there.
Have a nice day and freedom of speech is one thing we still have whether you like it or not.

Carel Two-Eagle
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

Hanh. I am an ITI - Indigenous Turtle Islander- or what you pc sorts call a "Native American". I live in ND. The mental climate of the state is too often not particularly vital, 'conservative' being equivalent to 'backward' too often; and the prevalent attitude toward us Indns isn't anything to brag about; but the land and environment themselves are anything but 'empty' or 'depressing' as you claimed in your article. The wind produces clean power; the lack of humans is a godsend, because it means we have less trouble with gangs and drugs; and people who live here do so "because" of the space. If I wanted to live cheek-by-jowl with other humans, I'd go east or something, where you cannot see the stars at night, and the wail of sirens is constant, and you are not safe to take a walk at night. I and many others in ND welcome tourists; we just don't want you to live here. People from the more crowded areas of the US have trouble getting used to the feeling of freedom and space - because, I suspect, they aren't used to standing on their own 2 feet, & you need to be able to do that out here. I bless the Internet, which has enabled many in ND to have markets that otherwise wouldn't exist while we can retain our low population & crime rate. Your article was disrespectful, sophomoric,offensive, & depressing. You owe ND an apology. Hechetu ye.

Jerry Bier
Jan 19, 2008 11AM #

Beautiful, haunting article. I grew up on a farm SE of Hazelton. My grandfather homesteaded it in 1900 and married a woman born there in Dakota Territory. There are at least a dozen or more abandoned farms within a 2 mile radius of ours now, including the one room school house my father and my siblings attended. The article spoke of "the ground reaking of life, the land swallowing anyone who walks out into it, of the state being one of the loveliest and most moving." How true. But also the "transient nature of things." Growing up there taught me to roll with the punches, to pick up and continue on, how to figure out things and to persevere in the face of obstacles. The value of good neighbors. The beauty of the wind and the sky. Wonder and awe at how Native Americans survived following the buffalo. The article touched the feelings I have when I go back. Sadness at some of the changes, joy at others. I am very thankful to have grown up there and always look forward to visiting the state. Thanks for the article.
Jerry Bier

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