Fighting for the Killdeer Mountains: Group works to protect area where soil is untilled and 'rich with possibility'
KILLDEER, N.D. -- Rob Sand has one last hope.
As part of the Killdeer Mountain Alliance, he has worked to protect the mountains he grew up hunting and riding horses on from oil drilling.
His group represents archaeologists, historians, hunters, Native Americans and biologists who are concerned about the area where the soil is untilled and "rich with possibility," said Mary Sand, Rob's wife.
The North Dakota Industrial Commission in January approved drilling in the area, and then squashed an appeal. The southwest section of the "school lands" now has wells, but the alliance is still working to prevent that from spreading to the southeast end.
It's running out of time, too. The area it wants to protect is already staked for wells.
Now, the alliance is taking a more grassroots approach, sending a letter to Gov. Jack Dalrymple and gathering supporters on a Facebook page. Members hope the Industrial Commission, which Dalrymple serves on with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, will visit the site as part of a state effort to protect historical sites from drilling.
Because of their busy schedules, the commission members plan to tour sites individually, and Karlene Fine, executive director of the Industrial Commission, said they may have already started.
Citizens added sites to the list in various ways, from letters like the Killdeer Mountain Alliance's to a conversation with a commission member, Fine said.
Protecting western N.D.
The Dickinson Press obtained a preliminary list of about 40 sites for which citizens have requested further review. The places include specific sites with drilling planned on them, like in Killdeer, and larger areas that people have pre-emptively requested be saved from any future plans.
Killdeer Mountains and several other western North Dakota sites are on the list. A set of some of the sites is part of the Prairie Legacy Wilderness plan, which calls for permanently protecting about 4 percent of the Dakota Prairie Grasslands.
"While oil and gas development historically forecasts a boom-and-bust economic scenario, permanently protected public land ... offers insightful long-range benefits," the proposal states.
In its letter to the governor, the alliance also provided an alternative drilling plan that would move the rest of the planned wells a mile south. That land's owner approves of the plan because he also supports preserving the Killdeer Mountains, Rob Sand said.
"It's sort of like this public trust," he said. "It's one little part of the mountain that the public has access to."
If the 3-mile horizontal wells proposed by the alliance work, the oil company and mineral owners could get their oil and gas while keeping off the surface of the mountains, according to the proposal.
Dalrymple has said that with horizontal drilling, there are many opportunities to avoid sensitive areas, but that derricks can still disrupt scenic views.
'Such an assault'
Sand can still point out the spots on the Killdeer Mountains where he shot his first deer at age 13, and where his mother was born.
But a lot has changed.
He gestures to a nearby house whose occupants now shut their blinds at night to avoid light brought on by an oil well across the road.
"All North Dakotans deserve to know what is at stake here," Sand and co-coordinator Lori Jepson wrote in their Aug. 7 letter to Dalrymple.
Sand waves at the oil trucks and white pickups that drive by -- every few minutes they come -- despite his concerns over what they're doing to his mountains.
After spending time in the mountains growing up, Sand returned with his wife in 2001 to live full time.
"I came back to enjoy the peace and quiet up here," he said, chuckling at the irony.
The Killdeer Mountains are tough, geologically. Much of their interesting landscape comes from resistance to the erosion that carried away other sediments.
Standing atop one of his favorite rock formations -- deemed "Old Ben's Nose" for its distinct triangular shape -- Sand looks out onto the machinery that has popped up.
"It's such an assault," he said.