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Chronicling the oil boom: UND professors map dramatic changes to western ND landscape

FNS Photo by Kile Brewer Sebastian Braun, an associate professor and chair of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of North Dakota, cycles through various maps he has collected that show the effect of large-scale oil drilling in western North Dakota.

GRAND FORKS — University of North Dakota professor Sebastian Braun points at a satellite map of Fort Worth, Texas, with small white lines and dots splayed thickly across it like veins on the dark green land.

“If you can visualize western North Dakota, in 10 years, this is what it’s going to look like,” he said.

The dots are oil-drilling pads and the white lines the roads leading up to them, which are already becoming a familiar scene in the state’s Oil Patch.

What started out as a hobby for Braun has turned into something much bigger. The professor has been collecting maps from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and plans to create an online resource for communities in western North Dakota to see how their towns have grown.

“Out west there used to be volunteer fire departments, volunteer ambulances, so if something happened, they were all from there,” Braun said. “Volunteers are no longer necessarily local and there are, for example, five new roads, so these maps are actually important.”

He said he would like to create an interactive app people could use to report and avoid things such as new road construction and oil spills. But for now, he said, he’s working with professors in the Geography Department to create layered, informational maps depicting the changing North Dakota landscape.

Professor Brad Rundquist, chairman of the department, has been using a grant from AmericaView to pay students to compile the maps for the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

“Our goal is to put up a website for people to access these various layers and use it to make decisions or pressure leaders, so they have an informed opinion when they’re making decisions,” he said.

The group is using maps from as far back as the early 1900s to create a layered online file people can use to view the changing geography.

Rundquist said he hopes the maps will show people how rapidly humans are affecting the environment of western North Dakota.

“When people leave, what’s going to happen to the apartments that are going up?” he said. “What about all the houses?”

The Fort Berthold maps will be available online late this fall, but the other maps are a long way from being completed.

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.

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