Oil developers appear to have won the battle for the Killdeer Battlefield, a historic site in the western North Dakota Badlands near where a New York-based company has begun laying groundwork for wells.
Preparations by Hess Corp. come despite objections by some area residents, American Indians, historians and others who wanted further study on the idea before drilling started.
The company's plans persuaded one couple who live near the Killdeer Mountains to hire an attorney and another couple to join them as leaders of a protest group. But most opposed to the oil development fear it's too late to stop it.
"I don't know if it's a hopeless case yet. It looks that way," said landowner Rob Sand, whose grandparents once owned the land in western North Dakota where U.S. Army and American Indian soldiers clashed nearly 150 years ago.
Hess officials declined to be interviewed but said in a statement they are "progressing with early site preparation" and expect construction to take place in the coming weeks.
"Hess Corporation is committed to meeting the highest standards of corporate citizenship by protecting the health and safety of our employees, safeguarding the environment and making a positive impact on the communities in which we do business," the statement said. "We seek to minimize our impact on the environment in all aspects of our operations in North Dakota."
Sand and his wife, Mary, along with fellow landowners, Loren and Lori Jepson, have led the opposition to the drilling plans and formed the Killdeer Mountain Alliance. The Jepsons have filed unsuccessful appeals with the state Industrial Commission — which granted drilling permits to Hess — but apparently have run out of options.
Thomas Gehrz, attorney for the Jepsons, said a lawsuit doesn't appear likely at this point because it would cost too much.
"My clients throughout this whole thing have said, 'Let's sit down and talk about it.' We don't need to make a big fight out of it. We just want our concerns dealt with and we don't think they're unreasonable," Gehrz said. "Hess was apparently not interested."
The Industrial Commission, made up of Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, in January approved a request from Hess to drill up to eight wells in the Killdeer Mountains area. The commission later rejected an appeal to reconsider by the Jepsons, who said state Mineral and Resource Director Lynn Helms was biased in his recommendation to approve the new wells in an area where four have already been approved.
"I just can't predict where it's going to go," said Rob Sand, 65. "I have a personal love for the land. I grew up riding horses there and playing all over the place. And I have an interest in history. These things matter."
Page 2 of 2 - Richard Rothaus, a Sauk Rapids, Minn., archaeologist who has an office in Fargo, and Tom Isern, a North Dakota State University history professor, have applied for a National Park Service grant to study the battlefield. They and other historians believe the 1864 skirmish may have been the most important encounter between the U.S. forces and Native Americans.
"For people who are Indian war buffs, this is the fight they should be looking at," Isern said. "This sets the mold."
During the one-day battle, Gen. Alfred Sully's troops essentially formed a giant square with thousands of soldiers on the outside and horses and artillery on the inside. The group marched across the prairie toward Killdeer Mountain and the Dakota village, where U.S. soldiers destroyed tipis, belongings and the winter food supply.
"If you could view it from above, this would be like a Star Wars scene of some sort of futuristic warfare," Isern said.
Although the U.S. soldiers claimed victory, Rothaus said the experience taught Indian warriors like Sitting Bull and others how to combat mountain howitzers.
"To me, that right there is the start of the war that ends in Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee," Rothaus said.
Calvin "Bear" First, whose ancestors were among the Indian warriors at Killdeer battle, organized a "wipe away the tears" ceremony at the site in July 2001 to honor the participants and shed light on details from the event. He said the area has cultural meaning to many people and is worried that oil development will diminish its significance.
"The written history doesn't show how important it really was," said First, the compliance officer for the Fort Peck Tribes in Montana. "It really shaped the war for what happened after that. And really there are still so many unknowns about that time."
The North Dakota Senate last month rejected a bill that would have provided a small amount of money to the state Historical Society to study the battlefield. Lawmakers from both parties originally lined up in favor of the bill, but backed off after complaints by some residents who said they didn't want government in their business.
Rothaus said his study will continue, despite possible damage to the area around the Killdeer Mountain Battlefield, because "there are still large portions of the battlefield left."
Loren Jepson said he's mainly worried about oil traffic on what is a main road for Killdeer residents and one where children catch the school bus. He said alternate oil extraction options should have been considered, but "no one was willing to listen."