Volume 123, Number 5
Tolna man uses tires for fences; state says that’s a no-no
BY STEPHEN J. LEE Grand Forks Herald
On a hill between the waters of Stump Lake and Devils Lake, Cory Christofferson of rural Tolna feels like he’s between a rock and a hard place. Or perhaps, the rubber and the road.
The wooden sign waving in the wind at the gate to his farm announces, "Tired Out Ranch."
Possessed by an unusual idea a decade ago to build good fence cheap out of used tires, the 50-year-old farmer spent years hauling them to his farm here in the hilled prairie wetlands of Benson County.
He’s got about 350,000 tires, most of them stacked on their sides, four or five high in straight lines, 15 miles worth, making 20-acre paddocks across 200 acres for intensive grazing by livestock.
Now, state officials have ordered him to haul the tires off his land. Christofferson is taking them to court.
After years of wrangling with the state Health Department, which first approved of his tire fence idea, Christofferson lost round 1 in November. That’s when an administrative law judge ruled, after hearing the case in Bismarck, that Christofferson’s fences were not a "beneficial use" of tires and that the Health Department had the right to manage them as solid waste and order their removal.
That will ruin him, and he’s already broke from fighting this long, Christofferson said.
He says it could cost him up to $500,000 to haul away and dispose of them.
His attorney, Doug Goulding of Devils Lake, filed an appeal in state District Court in Bismarck last month.
Christofferson said people drive out of the way to see the tire fences that he’s lined out on the land his great-grandfather homesteaded nearly a century ago on the Spirit Lake Nation.
"Charles Christofferson, (was) the first white man born on the reservation," he said of his ancestor.
He points out the buffalo-worthy corral he built of tires baled together by machine on the tribal farm a mile west of his place.
But tires work just fine stacked on their sides, he said. It takes about 8,000 semi-truck tires piled five high to make a mile of fence.
He’s tried hogs and cattle inside the fences, too, and the tires work great as a solid fence that also is a windbreak and warm shelter, plus a snow fence for the county road.
He’s got plans to build houses using bales of tires and straw.
"To me, tires are a building block. You can build all kinds of things."
But to the state Health Department, used tires are solid waste and it’s in charge of overseeing how used tires are disposed of or recycled.
What frustrates Christofferson, he says, is that when he started collecting the tires and making fences with them, the ND State Health Department approved of it.
A letter, dated July 23, 1997, from Neil Knatterud, then director of waste management for the Health Department, to Christofferson, said photos of his tires "show that you are using the scrap items in an orderly and beneficial manner as you previously explained to the department."
Christofferson says, "My question is, when did it go from beneficial to non-beneficial?"Steve Tillotson, the assistant director of the Health Department’s waste management division, has visited Christofferson’s farm five to 10 times over the past seven years or so.
He points out that the 1997 letter also makes clear that Christofferson gave the department assurances "that insect, rodent and fire concerns will not be a problem or will be properly managed."
"He’s got no fire controls, no insect controls and hasn’t done anything to address the liability," Tillotson said. "The way he portrayed it is not the way he is doing it." Christofferson can’t contain his derision.
"Mosquitoes," he says, gesturing at the now-white empty land falling away from this farm for miles with little human interruption and lots of wetlands and water.
"With all these swamps out here and they are worried about the mosquitoes from my tires?"
One of his few neighbors — and the nearest at 1? miles — is Howard Pare, chairman of the Minco Township board of supervisors. The tire fences don’t seem like a problem, Pare said. Only 15 people live in the township, and fire and mosquito threats from tires don’t seem dire, Pare said.
"No," said Pare, laughing heartily, "I was more worried you might get a tornado. They can go all over the country."
Christofferson got the idea from an article about a New Zealand sheep rancher.
Stacking tires — car tires or bigger semi-truck tires — four or five high, interlocking them like bricks, makes a fence no sheep will challenge. "They can’t see through it or over it, that’s the main thing," he said.
The black rubber wall also makes a great windbreak that collects warmth from the sun, making a perfect setup for ewes giving birth on clean pasture, rather than crowded, dirty feedlots or barns, he said.
But to health officials, used tires usually are solid waste.
"Tires are a big issue in most states," said Steve Tillotson, the health department official who has visited Christofferson’s farm several times in the past seven years or so.
"The tires could become a harbor for mosquitoes with West Nile Virus, which infects birds. And birds travel a long way and create additional mosquito habitat where it didn’t exist before."
"And scrap tires do pose a fire risk. There are up to five gallons of oil per tire. Once they burn, they burn strongly and emit some pretty toxic chemicals into the air. If a fire started out there, it would be a serious issue, if there was any wind. It could really put somebody at risk."
And in the end, so many tires on Christofferson’s land are simply a liability, Tillotson said.
"Someone at some point in time is going to have to clean them up."
There have been a few problems elsewhere in the state with people who had some tires stacked or dumped on their property, but nothing like Christofferson’s numbers, Tillotson said.
"This is the biggest pile we know of."
Tillotson said his department has tried to work out a plan with Christofferson for several years but couldn’t get him to cooperate.
"He’s a real nice, hardworking guy. We don’t begrudge him anything. But, gee whiz, we can’t just ignore this. We’re not doing our job if we do."
"You can’t just be piling stuff on a farm and saying it’s a fence, while it’s posing a health and environmental hazard," Tillotson said. "You can’t just take solid waste and line it up. You could take bales of garbage and do the same thing and call it a beneficial use. It stinks, and it will burn and it attracts rodents."
Christofferson argues the tires are not in a big pile but mostly stacked in orderly fashion, providing an agricultural use.
Worrying about fire in well-grazed pastures, or rodents and mosquitoes in the middle of the unpeopled prairie pothole region makes Christofferson snort.
"Nobody lives out here, and it works." Christofferson’s attorney said, "The (Health Department) regulations use the term ‘beneficial use,’ but don’t really define it."
But Christofferson has a "tough row to hoe," in his appeal, Goulding said.
"It’s always an uphill battle to get a reversal of an administrative determination because the standard of review is very deferential to the administrative decision."
He expects it will take three to six months before the case is heard. Christofferson has at least one government type on his side.
State Sen. Mike Every, a Democrat from Minnewaukan, has heard from Christofferson almost daily and been impressed by the unique idea.
"I sympathize with the guy. This fence has been there for a long time and it’s quite fascinating," Every said. "It’s like one of those Chevy Chase vacation type things, where people come off the highway to see it. It seems to me that if Cory is using the tires, instead of them filling landfills and burning and polluting the air, than that is beneficial to the state."
Last week, Every talked to Terry Dwelle, head of the state Health Department, about it.
"The state government is not going to take a young farmer and his family and take away his livelihood over something that can be worked out," Every said.
Christofferson’s sometimes emotional and combative personality hasn’t helped, Every said.
"I want him to be willing to compromise. He’s got to be willing to work with these folks, or, if they want to, they are going to squash him.
There’s got to be a way to work through this without getting legal." Christofferson and his wife, Susan, home-school their three children, although the middle one also recently started to attend the public school in Warwick, where Christofferson starred on a high-scoring, hard-living basketball team in the ’70s.
A spiritual revival and meeting his wife changed him, but he’s still no diplomat and won’t back down, Christofferson said.
"Yea, I’m kind of a smart ass. But right is right and wrong is wrong." (See Christofferson’s Web site, www.tiredoutranch.com.)
About 450 feeder lambs feed on corn in a field on Cory Christofferson’s ranch in far eastern Benson County. Fences made of tires stacked five-high keep the sheep confined to a cell. Christofferson is embroiled in a feud with the State Health Department over the 350,000 tires on his property which would cost about half a million dollars to remove. Grand Forks Herald photo by Eric Hylden.
Tolna rancher Cory Christofferson leans on the tire fence he’s built out of used tires. The ND Health Department has ordered Christofferson to dispose of 350,000 tires that he’s collected for miles of fences. Photo by Eric Hylden of the Grand Forks Herald.
Minnewaukan School artists whose works are on display at the Old Post Office Museum in Devils Lake are pictured with their art instructor. In the back two rows, left to right, are instructor Karen Anderson, Josh Swiftbird, Matthew Ironshield, Isaac Swiftbird, Tyson Whitetail, Dallas Welch, Nicole Gefroh, Aaron Tollefson, Gregor Schmid and Alyssa Erickson. Left to right, front two rows, are Dallas Anderson, Jace McKay, Damien Greywater, Dominique Brien, Demrae Ami, Shandiin Goodbird, Majenta Good-Nelson, Rolynda Herald and Crystal Welch.
The top three individual scorers in the Benson County MathCounts contest were seventh grader Preston Gilderhus of the Maddock School, first place; eighth grader Sadie Vallier of the Leeds School, second place; and eighth grader Scott Bull of the Four Winds School, third place. In regional competition Gilderhus was one of the high individual scorers and will represent Benson County at the state MathCounts contest in Bismarck March 13.
The Leeds MathCounts team took second place in the Benson County competition. Left to right are Sadie Vallier, Logan Gunderson, Bradley Nelsen, Matthew Swanson and coach Duane Jacobson. Other teams participating were Minnewaukan, Warwick and Four Winds. The county competition was under the direction of Jean Olson, Benson County Superintendent of Schools.
MathCounts coaches who participated were, left to right, seated, Lorraine Michels of Warwick and Darlene Thompson of Minnewaukan. Standing are Jeff Jacobson of Maddock, Duane Jacobson of Leeds and Mary Ross of Four Winds. Jeff Jacobson, who competed in MathCounts as a student at Leeds, is the son of Duane Jacobson.
Members of the Four Winds Indians boys’ basketball team, which took the District 7 championship are pictured. Left to right, front row, are Dallas Littlewind, Ivan Lovejoy Jr., Riley Smith, Kellen Littlewind, Tony Ironheart, Mike Meade, Chanze Herman and Zack Alberts. Back row: assistant coach Sean Gourd, C.J. Ironheart, Reno Littleghost, Dave de la Paz, Quentin Lovejoy, Steve Cavanaugh, assistant coach Doug Yankton and head coach Rick Smith.
The No. 2 team from District 7, the Minnewaukan-Leeds Lions, are pictured above. Left to right, front row, are cheerleaders Samantha Swanson, Amber Bracken, Whitney Streyle, Brittnee Tarang, Stephanie Harkness, Karlee Gronos and Nicole Gefroh. Seated: Travis Myklebust, Daniel Harkness, Reid Haagenson, RJ Darling, Cody Biby, Kenny Schmid and Mike Tofsrud. Back row: assistant coach Jeff Walen, Miah Masterson, John Lunde, Ben Cline, Tyson Holybull, Ben Grann, Aaron Tollefson and assistant coach Charlie Bisbee.
Students at the Oberon School who completed their required reading assignments for February are pictured. Left to right, front row: Jace Feather, Shawn Charboneau, Jaden Whitetail, Larissa Dunn and Louis Blacklance Jr. Second row: Bryeann Robertson, Bryson Robertson, Raylene Scott, Cheyenne Whitetail and Tristian Whitetail. Third row: Chelsea Hook, Brock Azure, Sierra Charboneau, Shaylee Scott and Tiana Thumb. Back row: Cody Greywater, Tanya Thomas, Jami Jetty, Lacey Brown and George Brown.
Team takes fourth
Ramsey County took first place among 12 teams in the junior division of the Wells County hippology contest (study of horses) held Feb. 18 at Fessenden. Wells County took second, Kidder County took third and Benson County took fourth.
Left to right are high individuals in the junior division in order of first through fourth: Brett Buchmeier and Ashley Wessels of Ramsey County and Kristine Keller and Janna Rice of Benson County.