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Patrick Springer, Published October 13 2013

Basin Electric transmission line, historical study clash

KILLDEER, N.D. – The Battle of Killdeer Mountain is regarded as the climactic clash of the Dakota War in Dakota Territory.

The battlefield, where blood was spilled July 28, 1864, in a sprawling fight between the Sioux and the U.S. Army, has been called the Gettysburg of the Plains.

Now, it’s the site of another clash, as Basin Electric Power Cooperative’s proposal for a transmission line through an area near the battlefield and a planned historical study have collided.

A group of property owners, meanwhile, angry that they haven’t been contacted by the study team for permission to access their land, has served notice that their property will be off limits.

Underlying the tensions is the dramatic increase in demand for electricity in western North Dakota because of the oil boom.

By 2025, Basin Electric predicts its power demand will increase by 1,600 megawatts, a 30 percent increase from the current 5,200-megawatt base load to serve member cooperatives.

To help meet that demand, Basin Electric has proposed a 345-kilovolt transmission line to carry power from its Antelope Valley Station near Beulah to a substation near Tioga.

“Time is not on our side in regards to serving this area,” Basin Electric spokeswoman Mary Robin Miller said, noting the project’s 2016 target completion date. “Demand continues to grow, and we need to keep the lights on. There’s tremendous strains on the system.”

Eight miles of the transmission line would run through an area the National Park Service has selected for its Battlefield Protection Program.

The Park Service announced in July that it awarded a study grant to the Center for Heritage Renewal at North Dakota State University.

The focus of the study is to determine “what happened where,” said Tom Isern, a history professor and director of the center.

The 1864 battle involved an attack by a force of 2,200 men led by General Alfred Sully against an encampment of Dakota and Lakota Sioux with about 2,000 warriors and many more noncombatants.

Landowners in the area complain that they have yet to be contacted by the study team about the project and informed of any possible ramifications that could result if the area is designated for preservation.

Craig Dvirnak, whose ranch surrounds the one-acre Killdeer Mountain Battlefield State Historic Site, said property owners are concerned they might face restrictions if the area is slated for preservation.

“Nobody has explained to us what are the ramifications of this preservation designation they want to hang on us,” Dvirnak said. “That’s plumb negligence.”

Dvirnak said his family has repeatedly granted access to its land when requested, including to descendants of the Dakota and Lakota Sioux who were killed in the conflict and wanted to perform ceremonies for the dead.

Basin Electric notified landowners starting two years ago informing them of the proposed corridor and power line route, Dvirnak said.

Misunderstandings that have flared up because the proposed transmission line caught Isern’s study team by surprise, Isern said. Similarly, Basin Electric representatives said they didn’t know about the study until August, well into their transmission line project.

“The whole Basin Electric proposal kind of jumpstarted things,” Isern said.

Basin Electric has secured easements along 78 percent of its proposed route, including 7½ miles of the eight miles through the historic study area. The line would be less than a mile south of the state historic site.

It’s too early for the historic research team to contact landowners to seek permission for access, Isern said.

“We haven’t even identified who we might want to ask to go on their property,” he said, adding that field work is more than a year in the future.

Before then, researchers must complete a thorough document search to aid their effort to pinpoint where fighting and movement of the combatants took place, Isern said.

Noting that Basin Electric already has secured easements from many landowners in the area, he said a shared economic interest between the power cooperative and landowners paid for easements to cross their land. News of the study grant was reported in The Forum on July 13, and 10 days later Basin Electric went to the Public Service Commission, which must approve the transmission corridor and route, seeking a waiver of certain procedures and an expedited timeline, Isern said.

“I’m suggesting it’s an interesting coincidence,” he said.

After learning of the historic study area, Basin Electric scrapped plans to build an electrical substation in the area the Park Service will study to see if it should be considered for federal recognition.

A listing on the National Register of Historic Places can only happen with landowner consent, Isern said, and landowners still can do what they want on their land.

“They can bulldoze any damn thing they’d care to,” Isern said, adding that he is sensitive to property rights as a “fourth-generation prairie farmer.”

A federal review of possible impacts to cultural resources also is underway because Basin Electric would use a federal loan to build the $350 million transmission project.

The real issue, in Isern’s view: “Are we going to spend federal money to destroy the most significant historical site in North Dakota?”

Basin Electric’s Miller said the power cooperative wants to protect cultural resources. It has agreed to additional ground studies along its route.

“It calls for collaboration among all parties and cooperation,” she said.

The State Historic Society of North Dakota and its State Historic Preservation Office said the project remains under review, with findings expected late this year or early next year.

“Basically, additional information is being collected,” said Paul Picha, the state’s chief archeologist, who is involved in historic preservation. “It will be analyzed and reported.”

The state is seeking more information, including possible visual effects from the transmission line towers.

For his part, Dvirnak said the biggest “eyesore” visible from the top of Killdeer Mountain comes from industrial parks north of the town of Killdeer, 6 or 7 miles to the southeast.

Dvirnak, who said his family supports preservation of historic artifacts and sites, said the area has long been affected by roads, farmsteads, oil wells and power lines.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522