‘No mistakes were made’ at Killdeer Mountains: NDSU professor claims that historic value of power line path ignored on purpose
FARGO – Call it the second Battle of Killdeer Mountain – a clash between growing power needs associated with the oil boom and preservation of what one historian calls the Gettysburg of the Plains.
It’s a clash the power company, Basin Electric Power Cooperative, tried to avoid by purposefully ignoring the historic significance of a portion of the path of a proposed new electric transmission line, according to a Fargo history professor who has a grant to study the area.
“I think omissions were made knowingly. That is my belief,” said Tom Isern, the historian-director of the Center for Cultural Heritage Renewal at North Dakota State University, of the company’s review of the site.
Isern also questions why the state agency charged with historic preservation – a recipient of a donation of more than $1 million from a group of which Basin Electric is a member – hasn’t been more involved in speaking out about the power line plan.
History long known
The Battle of Killdeer Mountain saw a huge engagement between the U.S. Army and Sioux Indians in a punitive attack by 2,200 soldiers against a native village encampment of 1,500 in 1864.
A state historic site located a half-mile north of the proposed transmission line commemorates the battle, which involved Sitting Bull and Gall as young warriors and is seen as a prelude to Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn in 1876.
The rugged Killdeer Mountains once were considered for inclusion in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and were proposed as a freestanding national park by a prominent group of North Dakotans in 1919.
The National Park Service in 2010 noted the historical significance of the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield area, one of five Civil War-era battle sites in North Dakota it said are likely eligible for designation on the National Register of Historic Places.
Yet a cultural resources review by Basin Electric, which is proposing the $350 million transmission project, omitted mention of the sprawling battlefield, which the Park Service said could cover 17,340 acres, an area of roughly 36 square miles highlighted for further study.
The proposed power line route, which skirts the south side of the Killdeer Mountains in Dunn County, would run eight miles through the study area.
The battlefield omission came despite the fact that the consultant whose firm conducted the review twice earlier had publicly noted the area’s historic and archaeological significance – even telling state oil and gas regulators of the National Park Service report.
“The excellent condition of these landscapes where U.S. Army and American Indian combatants fought provides a unique opportunity – all five of North Dakota’s Civil War battlefields could be protected completely and permanently,” the Park Service said.
The Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program noted, however, that “little effort has been made to formally protect these historic places,” and said rapid energy development made the Killdeer Mountain site the most threatened in North Dakota.
Isern calls the review “shoddy” and deliberately incomplete to avoid controversy that could jeopardize the transmission project.
He also said he wonders whether a $1.3 million gift from Touchstone Energy Partners, of which Basin Electric is a member, might have muzzled the State Historic Society of North Dakota, which is charged with historic preservation, on the issue.
A “chain of evidence,” including a letter and legislative testimony by the consultant who headed Basin Electric’s flawed cultural resources review, led Isern to conclude the omission was deliberate.
“I no longer believe mistakes were made,” he said.
A Basin Electric spokesman acknowledges that the consultant knew of the 2010 National Park Service report recommending preservation of the battlefield area, and could not provide an explanation for the area’s omission in the document listing areas of concern.
In written comments to both state and federal regulators reviewing the transmission project, Isern has called for preservation of the entire battlefield area, believed to be the site of the largest clash between the Army and American Indians.
The State Historical Society of North Dakota, which includes the State Historic Preservation Office, has not called for the transmission line to avoid the battlefield area.
It did, however, reach an agreement with Basin Electric to move a planned substation outside the battlefield area and to provide a “viewshed” study to show how the transmission line would alter the landscape.
Basin also agreed to perform a metal detector survey along the transmission line route in the battlefield area, with the aim of identifying any battlefield-related artifacts.
Those steps don’t go far enough to protect what Isern regards as North Dakota’s most significant historic site. The Center for Cultural Heritage Renewal, which Isern heads, received a grant from the National Park Service to study the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield area.
“This is trivializing the whole thing,” he said. “The problem is we’re building a physical structure on the battlefield,” he added, referring to towers that will support the transmission lines. “This is the Gettysburg of the Plains.”
The project is still seeking permit approval, both from federal and state officials. The company hopes to start construction this year.
Filings omitted concern
The proposed route of Basin Electric’s proposed 197-mile transmission line first became known to the public Aug. 23, 2013, in a letter to the editor of the Dunn County Herald from a nearby landowner.
Basin Electric filed a letter of intent to build the transmission line, from its Antelope Valley station northwest of Beulah to its Neset substation on Dec. 5, 2011.
Representatives of Basin Electric repeatedly have said the cooperative first became aware of Isern’s planned study of the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield area Aug. 27, when one of its executives received a call from the State Historic Preservation Office.
But Basin Electric’s spokesman acknowledges that its cultural heritage consultant, Kimball Banks of Metcalf Archaeological Consultants, knew of the National Park Service 2010 report highlighting the battlefield’s importance and eligibility for preservation.
In fact, Banks wrote a letter to the North Dakota Industrial Commission dated Nov. 28, 2012, warning oil and gas regulators that inadequate management of oil development in the Killdeer Mountains could adversely impact “archaeological and historic sites important in and unique to North Dakota’s heritage.”
Also, on Feb. 7, 2013, Banks testified before lawmakers on behalf of a proposed $250,000 study, supported by state historic preservation officials, of the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield area, which has never been extensively surveyed despite its importance.
“This has national significance as well as state,” Banks said, according to legislative minutes.
Banks declined to be interviewed about why, since he knew of the historical significance of the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield, he neglected to mention it in the cultural resource report for Basin Electric. He referred questions to Basin.
Curt Pearson, the Basin spokesman, acknowledged that Banks knew of the National Park Service’s interest in preserving the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield area, but could not explain why Basin Electric’s filings for the project omitted noting the sprawling area as one of potential concern.
Basin Electric will use poles consisting of a single column to support the transmission wires, instead of the more obtrusive double-poled H-posts, typically five to seven per mile, Pearson said. The posts will be rusty, to blend in better with the background, he said.
So far, a metal detector survey of the battlefield area found two lead “Minnie balls” and a copper bullet cartridge that might be related to the battle, but cannot be precisely dated. Shovel tests at two locations found chipped stone debris.
Fern Swenson, the state’s deputy historic preservation director, said the state is fulfilling its responsibilities, although it has not sent representatives to testify at hearings, and has not been outspoken about the area’s historical significance.
“We do our job as the State Historic Preservation Office,” Swenson said. “We follow the regulations. We’ve been part of the process.”
Site sacred to tribes
The Killdeer Mountains are held as sacred to the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes. The Medicine Hole atop Killdeer Mountain plays a crucial role in their origin stories.
The battlefield area also contains the graves of Dakota and Lakota Sioux who were killed in the fighting. Their graves, near the area of combat, are north of the planned transmission line.
For those reasons, the United Tribes of North Dakota last fall passed a resolution opposing further development that would disturb the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield site.
Calvin Grinnell, a curator for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, said many of the tribes’ members are resigned to the likelihood that the transmission line will be built on the proposed route.
“It should be protected more,” said Grinnell, who serves as president of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. “It’s deserving of protection. That definitely is an area that is sacred to us.”
As a form of mitigation, Grinnell would like to see Basin Electric contribute resources to native cultural preservation programming, as a coal mining has done.
“We’re kind of pragmatic about it,” Grinnell said. “If there’s something that’s going to go through, it’s going to go through.”
Rob Sand, who ranches in the Killdeer Mountains and is a member of the Killdeer Mountain Alliance, a preservation advocacy group, said the state was “negligent” when lawmakers last year rejected the proposed study of the battlefield area.
Sand doesn’t fault the State Historical Society of North Dakota for not being a more vocal advocate for preservation of the battlefield.
“I don’t think it’s their way to be advocates,” he said. “That can be political and can go either way. But their mission is protection and preservation.”