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In oil development, a mini-boom of archeology

A quieter part of the boom in drilling deep beneath North Dakota's surface has been about what sits right on top.

Companies that want to develop on certain land must have the land surveyed by archeologists to check for any significant artifacts or historical sites that have sat untouched for years -- until development came their way. When historically important artifacts are found, the project can be delayed or even rerouted to avoid the site.

Cultural resource professionals have seen a ripple boom in their industry -- the North Dakota State Historic Preservation Office, for example, has seen a 233 percent hike in demand for reviews for a federal law requiring a historical review of sites.

"The inundation of people, machinery, and development to what was a predominantly rural region of farmers, ranchers, and open space has stretched resources across the state, including the (State Historic Preservation Office)," the office said in a report.

"Things have really ramped up this year," said Kimball Banks of Metcalf Archaeological Consultants Inc. "It's pipelines, it's oil leases, a lot more highway-related projects or infrastructure projects.

"Ninety-five percent of what we do relates back to the oil boom," he said.

Archeologists might not find much on roadwork projects, but with oil well pads and access roads -- "areas that haven't been developed before" -- they're much more likely to find something, said Jessica Bush, cultural resource manager for KLJ.

After checking historical records for anything associated with the site, archeologists typically do a walkthrough of the land, recording what they see as they go.

In a potentially significant site, they might dig a series of shallow holes in the ground to check for what may be just below the surface, Bush said.

But in most cases, while archeologists find a lot, not much of it is significant enough to affect the project.

"People who don't work in the business are always afraid we're going to go out there and we're going to find stuff and it's going to stop the project," said Richard Rothaus of cultural resource management firm Trefoil Cultural and Environmental. "And we go out there and we almost always find stuff but it rarely stops the project."

Upon finding something, the archaeologist will immediately stop and look around that area for more.

And while a discovery may be a headache for the company developing, it's different for the archaeologist.

"When you find something or you're digging and you pull something out of the ground and you know you're the first person to touch it in like 2,000 years," Bush said, "there's something incredible that kind of connects you with your past."

When an archaeologist does find a significant item -- say, a stone tool or a child's toy -- developers may have to change their plans.

Public Service Commission Chairman Brian Kalk remembers that in the case of a pipeline along the North Dakota Highway 85 corridor.

"There was some testimony of areas where some of the Native Americans had wintered over," he said. "They would've followed the river down of course and wintered across the banks. So (developers) kind of ended up with a zigzag through some of those areas."

Bush had a similar experience with a pipeline.

"They had originally just done a survey," she said, but every time the company rerouted based on the findings, archeologists found more.

"So they eventually just had us survey the entire block of area" -- thousands of acres.

The process is rooted in federal law that's designed to force awareness of historic properties in project planning.

"They're a finite resource -- once a site is destroyed, it's destroyed," Bush said. "There's no getting it back."

And it's important to state officials, too.

"For me, personally, the letter we get back, the feedback we get from the State Historical Society, is the document that I really put a lot of weight in," Kalk said

The boom in archeology business is a twisted contradiction for those who say the development hurts natural resources and historic parts of the state -- the State Historic Preservation Office has seen a 97 percent increase in new and updated site recordings with the boom.

"It's ironic that people out there think that these energy companies are not concerned about these cultural resources," Kalk said.

"Well, it's because of their development that we find these cultural resources."