Official endorses special rules if Bear Butte oilfield OK'dSouth Dakota’s historic preservation director has sent formal recommendations to the state Board of Minerals and Environment that would reduce or offset the visual impacts of an oilfield in development less than two miles from Bear Butte. Those recommendations and comments from Jason Haug will be considered Thursday, when the state board holds a public hearing, followed by a formal contested case hearing, in Pierre on how or even whether the controversial project should be allowed to proceed.
By: Bob Mercer, The Daily Republic
PIERRE — South Dakota’s historic preservation director has sent formal recommendations to the state Board of Minerals and Environment that would reduce or offset the visual impacts of an oilfield in development less than two miles from Bear Butte.
Those recommendations and comments from Jason Haug will be considered Thursday, when the state board holds a public hearing, followed by a formal contested case hearing, in Pierre on how or even whether the controversial project should be allowed to proceed.
The board will decide whether to reauthorize, revoke or amend its original action of Dec. 22, when the board granted a spacing order that permits up to 24 wells on the 960 acres of private land in Meade County, about 1.5 miles west of Bear Butte.
Two wells have been drilled since then but aren’t currently operating. About 360 acres of the field are within the Bear Butte National Historic Landmark boundary.
Because the project involves property with an official historic designation, state law required a review by the historic preservation office. The state board failed to seek that review before granting the order.
Now, the board is backtracking to that step in the process amid a deepening conflict between modern economic development and tribal cultural values.
Dozens of people, including many from outside South Dakota, have written to either support the oilfield’s development or to oppose it as a desecration of a mountain considered to be a holy place by Indian tribes of the Northern Plains.
Six tribal governments representing the Northern Cheyenne, Rosebud Sioux, Lower Brule Sioux, Standing Rock Sioux, Yankton Sioux and Santee Sioux have formally petitioned to intervene in the contested case hearing. The Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate has also sent a letter of opposition.
No one testified against the project at the original hearing in December. The hearing notice carried full legal descriptions of the proposed site but didn’t specifically mention the proximity to Bear Butte or that part of the well field would be within the national landmark boundary.
Bear Butte has carried a formal designation as a state park since 1961. The mountain was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and was designated in 1981 as a national historic landmark.
About 8,000 acres of land, including the giant hump-shaped mountain and the park’s 1,400 acres, are within the landmark boundary.
Haug, the state historic preservation director, said in his letter to the state board that the two wells “have not damaged or destroyed the Bear Butte National Register site” but the potential of up to 24 wells means the oilfield “will potentially visually encroach upon the historic property.”
Among Haug’s recommendations are pump-jacks no taller than 8 feet; small storage tanks; neutral-color equipment; a shared tank system if possible; locations least visible from Bear Butte; and reclamation and re-vegetation of the site after abandonment of the wells.
Haug also has proposed surveys by a federally qualified archaeologist accompanied by a tribal monitor of any new ground to be disturbed, with written reports filed with the state archaeologist and the state historic office. Any locations found to be significant should have a 10-foot buffer marked around them, he said.
Other recommendations include avoidance of new road construction when possible, use of gravel pit rock to avoid further disturbance of the area, and dust control.
“While these measures will help minimize and mitigate any potential visual effects, I acknowledge that no measure can mitigate potential impacts to the spiritual or religious qualities that make Bear Butte significant to many people,” Haug said in the letter.
He continued, “An early, open and candid dialog between all interested parties is the only way to ensure that all types of potential impacts are carefully considered.”
The National Park Service has sent a letter of concern via Dena Sanford, architectural historian for the National Register Program, from Harrison, Neb.
“For the continued traditional use of this mountain, and for the preservation of its exceptional ability to convey associations with the history of the Cheyenne, Sioux and other Plains Indians, it is critical that the qualities of a contemplative, undeveloped natural setting, feeling and association be maintained,” she wrote.
Among the many local people favoring the project’s development are Meade County Commission Chairman Alan Aker, Sturgis Mayor Maury LaRue and various neighbors in the area.
Mark and Janeen Norstegaard purchased land at public auction eight years ago where one of the wells is now drilled. In a letter they said they own land at the base of Bear Butte and have sold parcels of property to two tribes.
Norstegaards said their main concern pertains to their rights as private landowners.
“We understand and respect the concerns of those who would want to preserve the integrity of Bear Butte and the surrounding area,” their letter said. “We feel that the controversy surrounding this issue come(s) from individuals who hold no actual residency or ownership of property, but yet try and control those who do for whatever personal agendas they may have.”