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A flag flies over the Oceti Sakowin Camp, along North Dakota Highway 1806, an overflow camp that was established in August that has drawn thousands to protest and block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline LLC project, about 30 miles south of Mandan, N.D., near Cannonball, N.D. Photo taken Oct. 19, 2016, near Cannonball, N.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

Agweek Editorial: Hurting their own cause

Strike the tent. They're gone.

The Oceti Sakowin protest camp, whose residents fought the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline project, has been cleared by law enforcement. It now appears the $3.8 billion pipeline — slated to move 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day from North Dakota to southern Illinois — will be completed.

The pipeline has been controversial, to say the least. The project and the protests over it have generated worldwide attention.

But by any reasonable standard, the project is economically important.

By any realistic measure, it's safe.

By any fair-minded assessment, it was approved through a legal, lawful process.

We understand many Americans disapprove of the project. We support their legal and moral right to oppose it through peaceful, legal protest. We live, thank goodness, in a free country. But many of the protests were neither peaceful nor legal.

Just about everyone familiar with North Dakota agriculture has at least one story about farmers, ranchers and other rural residents affected by the protests.

The Morton County Sheriff's Department and North Dakota Department of Agriculture say 544 Morton County households were affected by the protests. They say farmers and ranchers lost as much as $20,000 each due to delays in or inability to harvest crops, inability to haul to market, inability to get custom harvesters to the area, lost or missing livestock, cattle brought off pasture earlier than usual, vandalized equipment and farmsteads and other issues. There also are continuing problems with possible pest-infested firewood, as well as hundreds of loads of garbage left behind when the camp was cleared out.

Most of the protesters did not cause problems. More than 10,000 people are estimated to have spent time at the protest camps at any one time, which means the hundreds of related arrests account for less than 10 percent of the people involved.

We're not able to look into protesters' hearts and minds. We can't be sure of their motives. But we suspect most were driven by sincere conviction, others by trendy hipsterism. Though we disagree with the true believers, we respect your passion. As for the hipster poseurs — well, don't let the door hit you on the way out. Move on to your next look-at-me-I'm-so-cool crusade, which, if we're lucky, will be far away.

This much is clear: Protestors, even sincere ones, often went too far, hurting "ordinary" North Dakotans who had done absolutely nothing wrong. That alienated and angered many people who had been neutral or lukewarm on the project.

North Dakota is rich in energy and agricultural resources. Ag and energy prices are depressed now, but other projects taking advantage of those resources are sure to be proposed in the future.

Each will need to be evaluated openly and fairly on its own merits. Each will need to be approved legally before it's implemented. And each, if approved, can be protested — legally and peacefully — by people who oppose it.

We'll almost certainly deal with other mass protests, albeit on a smaller scale than DAPL, given North Dakota's ag and energy resources. Our best advice to future protesters: Learn from mistakes made by DAPL critics. Disrupting the lives and businesses of farmers and ranchers hurts your cause.

We all want the best for this land, and farmers and ranchers know better than anyone the importance of our water and soil health. Future environmentally minded protesters would be better served to respect agriculturalists who care for the land and animals raised on it. Engage with the regulatory process from the beginning rather than giving it a dramatic aftermath. And leave the land in better shape than you found it in any situation.

We hope the cleanup and the coming change of season, bringing with it fresh grass and new calves, will bring renewal to the land as well as the people. And with the garbage hauled away, we hope everyone involved can feel a lighter load and move forward.

Editor’s note: The ideas expressed in this editorial are those made by the Agweek editorial board.

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