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Published September 10 2013

Forum editorial: Killdeer Mountain madness

The simmering outrage over possible violation of one of North Dakota’s most significant historical sites invites national attention.

The Killdeer Mountain Battlefield in Dunn County is in the Oil Patch. Encroachment by oil and gas development has been underway for years. The latest threat to the state historical site is an electric transmission line that could, if modifications are not made, plow across and denigrate heritage resources of “incalculable value.” That’s how Tom Isern, North Dakota State University professor of history, describes the threat. Isern and his Center for Heritage Renewal at NDSU are on the front lines of an effort to protect and preserve the Civil War era battlefield. If they and others who are concerned do not succeed at Killdeer Mountain, no place in North Dakota will be safe from the destruction that inevitably accompanies energy development.

The Killdeer battlefield is the appropriate site to draw a line. The battle there in 1864 has been called the “Gettysburg of the Plains.” It is that important in the pantheon of northern Plains history that unfolded at the beginning of the last phase of the Indian wars. Dakota and Lakota fighters engaged the Northwest Expedition of Gen. Alfred Sully. It was, as Isern describes it, “the climactic engagement of the Dakota War in Dakota Territory.”

Not as well-known as the later Battle of the Little Bighorn (likely because Sully lost only five soldiers), Killdeer can be seen as more important because it was pivotal in the eventual end of Dakota Plains. Sully’s forces won, and although native forces moved on to fight again, the beginning of the end was Killdeer Mountain.

As initially proposed, the Basin Electric Cooperative line would slice through the heart of the battle site. The mountain and surrounding terrain are sacred to native people. The significance of the battle and the heritage of the site are equally important to American territorial history. Basin is generally a good corporate citizen, and apparently has not ruled out moving the line. The project has not received approval from the Public Service Commission.

Isern’s group said a cultural resources survey by the State Historical Society is deficient. The society said the work is not complete.

The fact that destructive development is even considered for such a unique historical site suggests the state’s foundational values have been compromised by lusting after energy revenues.

Basin could end the dispute by voluntarily moving the line’s path well clear of the historical site. The PSC could demand a move. The Historical Society’s studies, when done, likely will comport with Isern’s excellent work. If none of that happens, be assured the threat to the battlefield will garner national attention. After all, the history made there in 1864 is as significant as Custer’s fight in Montana in 1876 – and it would be madness to propose a power line at Little Big Horn.


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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.