Saving Killdeer Mountain: Varied interests out to protect potential oil site
KILLDEER -- An area of Killdeer Mountain proposed for oil development has rich archeological resources with potential to be added to the National Register of Historic Places, said an archeologist who visited the area.
Archeologist Richard Rothaus took a preliminary survey of a section of state land where Hess Corp. proposes drilling up to eight oil wells and found numerous artifacts that may be related to the Battle of Killdeer Mountain.
Rothaus, along with a diverse group of landowners, Native Americans, hunters, historians and others, are urging the North Dakota Industrial Commission to preserve the section of land about 45 miles north of Dickinson, which is owned by the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands. The commission is scheduled to act on Hess' permit request on Thursday.
"It's a type of natural resource. It doesn't make money like oil does, but it's something that's of value to the local citizens, to the Native community," Rothaus said.
A recently formed group called the Killdeer Mountain Alliance suggests that Hess position its wells further south and drill four miles horizontally to access the minerals.
"This whole area is a state treasure," said Rob Sand, a landowner in the area and member of the alliance. "We should do what we can to keep it from turning into an industrial area."
But the alliance's suggestion is not a technique being used in North Dakota currently, said Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the state's Department of Mineral Resources.
Typical Bakken wells are drilled two miles down and two miles horizontally. The state has two wells that have been drilled three mile horizontally near Lake Sakakawea, Ritter said.
No companies are drilling four miles horizontally in the state, which would require a rig capable of drilling to a total depth of six miles.
In a statement, a Hess spokesperson said the company is committed to meeting the highest standards of corporate citizenship and seeks to minimize the company's impact on the environment.
"We are aware of the concerns and have made every attempt to address the issues raised with regard to our drilling program," the statement read. "We design every well taking into the specific environmental considerations for that location."
Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources, will make a recommendation to the Industrial Commission during its meeting on Thursday.
The issue was initially going to be on December's agenda, but pushed back to allow more time to review the numerous comments submitted, Ritter said.
"There are so many interests that we have to look out for: surface owners, mineral owners, oil and gas operators," Ritter said. "We have all these different parties that we have to protect. Every piece of this case has been gone over immensely."
The Industrial Commission consists of Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.
Anne Marguerite Coyle, a Jamestown College biology professor who did a study of golden eagles in the Killdeer area, is serving as a liaison for the groups who oppose the drilling proposal. A diverse group of people from neighboring landowners to hunters to Native Americans to biologists and others plan to attend Thursday's meeting to show their opposition, Coyle said.
"We're not against development, we're against irresponsible and greed-driven development," Coyle said.
Killdeer Public Schools Superintendent Gary Wilz was among the many people who wrote a letter expressing concerns about the proposal. Wilz asked the Industrial Commission to consider finding an alternate route to access the proposed wells because the additional traffic would make an already "precarious and worrisome bus stop" more hazardous.
There is oil development nearby, including some on the mountain, on privately owned land.
Rothaus, a Sauk Rapids, Minn., archeologist who owns consultant firm Trefoil Cultural and Environmental with an office in Fargo, also submitted his findings. Rothaus was contacted by people with concerns because of his expertise in studying history and archaeology of battlefields of the U.S.-Dakota War.
He was planning to study the Battle of Killdeer Mountain in 2014, but he's now moving that up due to the oil development. Rothaus and North Dakota State University history professor Tom Isern submitted a grant application to the National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program.
While the section of land being considered for oil development is nearly 3 miles from the historical marker of the Battle of Killdeer Mountain, the actual battlefield extended over a broad area, Rothaus said.
Rothaus, who holds a permit for cultural resource investigation from the State Historical Society of North Dakota, walked around the section of land in November and found numerous artifacts that indicate there's a good chance than an encampment related to the Battle of Killdeer Mountain was located in that section. However, the actual nature of the archaeological sites require formal survey and evaluation, he said.
It's unknown if the area could contain burial grounds of any of the approximately 150 Native Americans estimated to have died in the battle, Rothaus wrote in a letter.
In addition to the historical significance of the area, that section of land has soils that are unusually deep and intact, Rothaus said.
"I can assert that Section 36 has some of the highest potential for the presence of significant archaeological sites I have seen in North Dakota," Rothaus says in a letter to state officials.
In addition to the historical significance, Killdeer Mountain is rich with cultural traditions for Native Americans and continues to be used for prayer and reflection, said Dakota Goodhouse, a program officer for the North Dakota Humanities Council and an enrolled member of Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
Goodhouse said because of the significance of the area, he'd like to see oil companies wait until technology advancements allow them to access the minerals with less disturbance to the area.
"The oil isn't going anywhere," Goodhouse said.
Lance Gaebe, commissioner for the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands, said if the wells are permitted, the department develops a surface impact agreement with Hess to make sure the wells have a minimal environmental impact.
The locations that are proposed are positioned in an area that's flat, won't create erosion, won't impact drainage and doesn't affect known historical resources, Gaebe said.
"They are in the best location they can be within that square mile," Gaebe said.
Under the agreement, if an archaeological find is discovered during development, operations would cease and follow the guidance of a historical preservation office, Gaebe said.
Under law, state lands officials have a fiduciary responsibility to manage the minerals for the benefit of public schools and other public land owners.
Coyle said she understands the fiduciary responsibility to develop minerals on state lands, but preserving the area for purposes such as tourism should be another fiduciary responsibility.
"What's the price of wildlife and what's the price of archeology? There is no price. You can't replace it," Coyle said.