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UND says pipeline threatens prairie research

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GRAND FORKS -- What looks like a flat piece of land is actually a treasure trove in the eyes of the University of North Dakota’s grassland ecologist, Kathryn Yurkonis.

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“I saw my first snowy owl this past fall out there,” she said. “It’s a really great precious resource that we have.”

Yurkonis was referring to Oakville Prairie, a 960-acre piece of research land that has never been tilled and therefore has soil and vegetation that read like a history book.

It’s a scientist’s dream, and it’s in danger.

The proposed route for Enbridge’s Sandpiper pipeline runs right through the prairie, and UND representatives spoke out against the possible construction at a meeting Feb. 19.

But the battle isn’t over.

Randy Christmann, who sits on the state Public Service Commission, a regulatory agency, said several other public hearings are being held to properly assess the pipeline’s route. He said the biggest problem lies with moving the pipeline from state-owned to private land.

“To just say we don’t want any on state land and that all the private landowners should absorb the infrastructure, the private landowners are going to have something to say about it,” he said.

Virgin land

Phyllis Johnson, UND’s vice president for research and economic development, said the land, which is home to more than 230 species of plants, is a valuable part of North Dakota’s heritage.

“Because it’s undisturbed, we can learn about the biology of the grasslands in the Northern Plains and learn about how it was before we started plowing it all up and planting crops,” she said.

Yurkonis takes students to the prairie, which is about seven miles west of Grand Forks, to learn about the area’s plants and vegetation. Her department also has a grant for the next three field seasons to study the soil, plants and birds in the prairie.

Yurkonis worries the pipeline would disrupt the research.

“This relic is important,” she said. “It’s a window into the past.”

If the Sandpiper pipeline were to run through it, miles of land would be disturbed and the landscape’s plant life would be forever altered.

“Whenever land is disturbed you raise the likelihood of non-native invasive plants moving in,” Johnson said. “There are lots of invasive plants that prefer disturbed soil, so we can end up with species of plants, many of them weeds, establishing themselves.”

Hard to move

But Christmann said moving the pipeline’s route is no easy task.

“That’s the tough thing about building an infrastructure like this; there’s always a negative no matter where you go,” he said.

Yurkonis said the ultimate goal would be to learn enough about the prairie to be able to preserve it with fire and grazing over time.

“We would love to see some management,” she said.

No decision has been made regarding the pipeline’s route, but if approved, Sandpiper would carry 375,000 barrels of Bakken crude per day to Superior, Wis., and 225,000 barrels per day to Clearbrook, Minn.

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