Kenmare ND - Upside Down Under

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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


Do you know Joe Belford?...

Posted 3/06/18 (Tue)

In the late 1990s, when I worked at the Cavalier County Republican in Langdon, I got to know Joe Belford.

I don’t know what he is doing now, but at the time he was a Ramsey County commissioner and in all the years I’ve known him, he was on a crusade to let people know about the rising water on Devils Lake and what should have been done to stop it.

For years, Joe did battle with the Manitoba government because as we learned, Devils Lake eventually spilled into Stump Lake, which in turn spilled into the Sheyenne River, which in turn flowed into the Red River.

We all know the Red River flows north so Manitoba started pointing fingers at Mr. Belford suggesting that Ramsey County officials were violating the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. That became law, mostly because of the St. Lawrence Seaway, but also had implications out here on the prairie.

In recent years, Canadians didn’t want Devils Lake water getting into Lake Winnipeg because of marine life in the lake that was foreign to Lake Winnipeg.

However, Joe had a unique public relations approach to fighting this threat by Manitoba officials.

He went on Canadian television to talk about Devils Lake. Not once, not twice, but too many times to remember and over the years he effectively got his message out to an estimated 30 million people.

For a couple of years, he was a regular on CBC-TV, channel 6 in Winnipeg. Some of his testimony got picked up by the national media and spread across the country.

It got to a point that Joe Belford was discussed in Parliament and Devils Lake had become a household name there.

Canadians across the country began to sympathize with Joe. During many of his 1-minute segments, CBC would show aerial footage of Devils Lake swallowing up land, roads and buildings and people started thinking, maybe he’s on to something.

However, the Manitoba government nor the Canadian federal government would budge and Devils Lake and Ramsey County were on their own to find a solution.

The lake has finally stabilized, but remains approximately 50 feet deeper than it was 35 years ago. Tens of thousands of private and tribal lands have gone into the drink. An entire subdivision got swallowed up and residents had to evacuate.

The state of North Dakota stepped in and built up roads and dikes to protect the city of Devils Lake, but those farmers remain out of luck.

Through all of this, that dates back more than 20 years, Mr. Belford has been a “bull in the china closet” for the city of Devils Lake, Ramsey and Benson counties and the entire Devils Lake Basin.

Sadly, outside of Ramsey and Benson counties, and the state capitol, most folks in North Dakota don’t know who Joe Belford is.

Some of you might recognize his name, but I’m willing to guess most of you don’t.

It’s unfortunate, but Joe, a North Dakota resident and American citizen, is better known on the Canadian side than he is in the United States.

Because of his frequent appearances on CBC television, most people in Winnipeg and southern Manitoba recognize his face and know what he stands for.

Ask anyone on the street in Winnipeg if they could give you directions to Devils Lake and they’ll describe exactly where it is.

Ask anyone on the street in Minot or Dickinson to give you directions to Devils Lake and they’ll tell you. Ask them if they know who Joe Belford is and they’ll tell you they’ve never heard of him.

Joe is one of those people who has always had it in his heart to fight for the people of Devils Lake. In the right situations he was abrasive against the right people and actually did make some progress but not enough.

Because he never found that magic wand to wave and get the water to drop 50 feet, he really hasn’t been given due credit for all the work he’s done.

I met this man in December 1995 in a town hall meeting in Munich and I’ve watched what he has done over the years. I’m 10 years younger than Joe and I can tell you with confidence, there is no way I would have the energy to do what he has done all these years.

And, this is only an assumption, but I doubt there’s anyone else like Joe who will ever be on the Devils Lake City Commission or the Ramsey County Commission.

Joe’s crusade went far beyond politics. It wasn’t about money or status or popularity for him.

His goal was very simple, to stop the flooding on Devils Lake.