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MERCER: Will oil field be tipping point for Bear Butte?

PIERRE -- Driving across South Dakota, quite often the first things a motorist sees on the horizon are grain elevators, water towers and church steeples. In many ways they represent the essential elements for a rural community: commerce, health a...

PIERRE -- Driving across South Dakota, quite often the first things a motorist sees on the horizon are grain elevators, water towers and church steeples. In many ways they represent the essential elements for a rural community: commerce, health and spirit.

Driving west on S.D. 34 toward Sturgis a motorist sees lifting from the plains the geologic wonder known as Bear Butte. The national historic site is a place for the spirit, too, for many people, just as churches are.

Bear Butte's religious significance is part of Plains Indian culture. The butte stands unmistakably apart from the rest of the landscape. Its attraction was officially recognized decades ago when our state government purchased the site and designated the landmark as a state park.

The same kind of attraction can be felt about many of the churches in our communities. As places of worship, introspection and reflection, they often have some of the most interesting architecture and typically were built from some of the best materials.

Now a decisive moment in South Dakota's history awaits, regarding the future of Bear Butte as such a place.

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On Wednesday members of the state Board of Minerals and Environment will spend the later morning, and as much of the rest of the day as necessary, listening and determining whether an oil field should be allowed on private property less than two miles from Bear Butte.

It will be the second day of a re-hearing on the matter. The board originally considered the oil field in November and granted a spacing order allowing wells to be drilled. No one came forward to protest.

Unfortunately there was no one on the board either who made an issue of the proximity to Bear Butte. The governor might want to consider knowledge of and sensitivity to American Indian culture when appointing someone to one of the next openings on the board. Had such a person spoken up, there might not be the present mess.

The state's laws and rules regarding a review by the state office of history weren't followed. That mistake essentially forced the re-hearing. Now the board must weigh the objections of a half-dozen tribal governments whose members consider the butte a place of major religious significance.

What also surfaced during the first day of the re-hearing on April 21 was a clear need for a review of the adequacy of South Dakota's laws, regulations and permitting processes regarding oil fields. The questions from lawyers representing tribal governments were in most instances on point and legitimate.

That there is cynicism was evident too. One of those lawyers noted how conveniently the winter landscape blended with the paint color of some equipment that's already on the ground there. He seemed to imply the color was chosen for the time of year the photos would be taken for the re-hearing.

This is a conflict whose roots reach back to the mid-1800s Dakota Territory, as new sets of cultural values overrode others, decade after decade, mile after mile. Whether or not the board allows the oil field to be developed will be seen as either one more page of that same history, or a first page in a new history. Which page is the right choice depends on those different values.

As private land rights go, there's no reason for the board to deny permission for the oil wells, especially on the land outside the boundary of the national historic site. So far no one's shown any legal reason that wells should be denied on private land inside the boundary, either.

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Oil production likely wouldn't be overly voluminous but no one seems to know, as such things go when dealing with nature underground. Whatever the output, it will be economic gain. In Sturgis, like so many communities throughout South Dakota, every new job and every new dollar matters.

If this oil field does get rejected, the board will have reversed itself. Every member on the board is, based on years of my watching them in action, of sound character. They see their mission as promoting development while protecting the environment.

There's been a major reversal before near Bear Butte, involving a shooting range that was to be assisted by a grant through state government. That didn't involve this board. But that incident shows it's not totally out of the question that the board might reverse its earlier decision or limit wells to outside the historic boundary.

Bear Butte is surrounded by development that goes far beyond the traditional ranches. The fight seems to now be constant about what kind of business someone wants to build near the butte, with nearly every proposal somehow tied to motorcycle traffic, and many involving alcohol and music.

Sturgis as a city struggles to get by during three of the four seasons and survives on the summertime roar of motorcyclists, drawn by the reputation of the annual rally and races each August. Could Bear Butte serve as the center for a different, steadier form of commerce?

Sturgis has the benefit of location with Interstate 90 and Bear Butte. Sturgis might be the right place for something South Dakota should have but doesn't, a national park or museum or monument about the continuing culture and the history of the Plains Indians.

Land would need to be obtained around Bear Butte. The state Game, Fish and Parks Commission has repeatedly shown its financial ability to purchase land. State government has the power of eminent domain if necessary.

That sounds harsh and un-American (and ironic). But what if Sturgis could become a national year-round destination for people interested in American Indian culture, a destination that could attract many more people over the full year than the rally does in its August burst of party culture?

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All we really have now in our region of the American West are memorials for the mass killings from the Indian wars at places such as Wounded Knee and Little Bighorn. Why not recognize Bear Butte on a national stage for what it truly has been and still is?

Rather than conflict, we would be memorializing coexistence. We already have the most essential element, our mutual belief in higher values.

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