Environment | Law

Native Sun News: Bear Butte stirs passions at county meeting

James Swan, United Urban Warrior Society.

Mark Norstegaard, a landowner.

STURGIS, SOUTH DAKOTA – After citizens bid for keeping calm, Meade County commissioners abandoned the notion of suing over the state’s recent decision to limit oil drilling at the Bear Butte National Historic Landmark.

At a June 8 hearing on the matter, commissioners stopped short of approving a lawsuit. Instead, they voted unanimously to send a letter to state regulators, disputing the decision to hold oil drilling to five wells, instead of 24 initially permitted near the prayer site sacred to dozens of Native American tribes.

They also voted across the board to request a State Attorney General’s report on the validity of the landmark’s boundaries.

“We need to defend the private property rights for the whole county,” Commissioner Robert Heidgerken said during public discussion leading up to the vote.

The South Dakota Board of Minerals and Environment decided on May 18 to reduce Nakota Energy LLC’s 2010 permit for oil drilling in the sacred butte area from 24 to five initial wells, after three public comment periods revealed substantial opposition on religious grounds.

“We believe your decision is an unconstitutional establishment of religion [and] an unconstitutional taking of private property for public use,” said the letter from the commission to the state board.

Located six miles northeast of Sturgis in Bear Butte State Park, the landmark is a sacred prayer gathering site for at least two dozen tribes. The Standing Rock, Rosebud, Northern Cheyenne, Santee, Lower Brule Sioux and Sisseton-Wahpeton tribes contested the oil drilling proposal during state comment periods.

“People are tired of coming in here. A lot of people don’t want to talk anymore,” United Urban Warrior Society organizer James Swan testified to county commissioners at their most recent meeting. “They just want to take over the mountain.”

The county commission chambers have been the scene of numerous hearings over the years regarding commercial developments in the environs of the religious site, including bars and a shooting range.

This meeting was scheduled to discuss suing the state for its decision to limit oil drilling. But after hearing citizen testimony and legal counsel from Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Ken Chleborad, commissioners discarded the idea of legal action – at least for the time-being.

“It is my opinion that the county wouldn’t have standing to sue because our damage and injury would be speculative,” Chleborad told commissioners. He noted that Nakota Energy has no dispute with the limit, so the county probably can’t complain with any degree of effectiveness.

He also said that Nakota can apply for more permits in the future.

That might provide an opportunity to sue, Commission Chairman Alan Aker said. “I wouldn’t view this as the end of a process, maybe the beginning,” he said. “It’s not time to start a lawsuit, but if we know that there’s any less oil taken out than there could have been, then we’ll have standing.”

The county would get a share of taxes generated by production and pipeline infrastructure, he noted.

Meade County resident Chase Adams supported the motion to engage state officials over the issue. “Property owners have been deprived of property and surface rights, and that is a taking,” he said.

Meade County rancher Marvin Kammerer countered that the taking occurred when Indians were deprived of the land. He urged commissioners not to pursue legal avenues, rather encourage dialogue.

“Property rights is a big thing for some people. It is with me,” he said. “But Native Americans have given up more rights,” he said, adding, “Throw the gavel out the window. Sit down with state, federal and Native American representatives, and find a way to work out an agreement you can work with.”

Meade County resident Nancy Kyle, who described herself as a mother and grandmother, also called for conciliation instead of questioning landmark boundaries. “Sit down with people, please,” she said. “It’s for our grandchildren. It’s for all of us.”

Mark Norstegaard, owner of land where well drilling is planned, told commissioners the contrasting testimony gave him mixed feelings. “I’m happy to be one of the landowners within this boundary,” he said. “Part of me wants to say, okay, the mining board made a good compromise.” But, he added, “Part of me is excited about having an oil well on my property. I have very mixed emotions.

“What’s bigger here is a matter of principle, of landowners’ rights,” he said.

Rena Hymans, a landowner near Bear Butte, also expressed conflicting viewpoints. As an attorney representing Oglala, Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, and other Sioux tribes, she said, her practice of Indian law informs her understanding of the Native American concept of land as a spiritual asset rather than a commodity.

On the other hand, she questioned whether her plans to build a house, plant trees and run livestock would be jeopardized by the precedent of the state’s decision.

“We should be settling these things on a person-to person basis,” she concluded. “I get along with my neighbors of all different types. The county can encourage all the people to sit down and talk it out.”

Mato Paha, as the mountain is called in Lakota, was noted and reserved as a traditional council site in the 1851 and 1868 Ft. Laramie treaties with the U.S. government.

Kammerer noted that the site is also a tourist attraction, as is the town of Sturgis, and the entire state of South Dakota. “Tourism is the No. 1 industry, and you don’t want to get crosswise of a boycott,” he warned.

Kyle, a member of the Association for Mato Paha Preservation, also warned against using the private property banner as a political campaign tool. “Private property being inflamed with commissioners creates a hype,” she said. She also warned against adopting the boomtown mentality associated with oil development.

(Talli Nauman is the NSN Health and Environment Editor and is a co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness. Contact her at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

Related Stories:
Sacred sites in New Mexico, South Dakota on endangered list (6/16)
Native Sun News: Protecting sacred Bear Butte at all costs (6/3)
South Dakota approves development by sacred Bear Butte (5/19)
Tribes oppose oil field development by sacred Bear Butte (4/22)
Native Sun News: Something rotten in oil field regulations (4/21)
Native Sun News: Oil development plan poses threat to Bear Butte (1/12)

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