WILLISTON, N.D. – Native American burial grounds and a significant concentration of cultural resources are complicating a truck bypass route around Williston.
Williston city and Williams County leaders agreed on a preferred route to build a permanent truck bypass, but Wednesday night they learned that North Dakota’s Native American tribes strongly oppose it.
Francis Ziegler, director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, said during a public meeting in Williston he hoped the department could find a way to construct the bypass that local officials preferred without disturbing the cultural resources.
However, DOT officials learned after meeting with tribal leaders that the proposed truck bypass would disturb a large cemetery area, ceremonial objects, landmarks and other artifacts.
“It’s going to be very difficult if not impossible,” Ziegler said of building the truck route that local leaders chose.
Grant Levi, who will be interim director of the DOT after Ziegler retires this week, said this area is the most concentrated area of Native American artifacts that he’s seen. Tribal leaders have indicated they may sue if the bypass is constructed there, Levi said.
“They are frustrated, they’re concerned about what’s occurring and they’re discussing what options they can take from a legal perspective to protect them,” Levi said.
Charles Murphy, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, has provided the DOT with a resolution about the importance of the cultural resources that states opposition to disturbing them. Leaders of other tribes plan to do the same, Ziegler said.
“The department has never seen tribes as united about an issue as they are about this,” Ziegler said. “It’s pretty obvious that it’s an issue that’s of grave concern to them.”
But an alternative route will destroy more land and affect more property owners, said Dan Kalil, chairman of the Williams County Commission.
“That’s just heartbreaking to me to destroy all of this habitat,” Kalil said Wednesday while driving the terrain where the alternate route would be. “How much of western North Dakota do we need to destroy?”
The route city and county leaders preferred, which has been coined the yellow route, is 11.4 miles long and has about 3 miles without an existing road bed, said Williston Public Works Director Monte Meiers.
One homeowner would be affected with the yellow route, Kalil said.
An alternate route, called the red route, is 13 miles and has 8.5 miles without a road bed, Meiers said.
That route would affect more property owners, including some who are strongly opposed to the route, Kalil said. The red route also is less direct, so some truck drivers may choose not to use it, Kalil said.
“Everybody is going to take the most direct route,” Kalil said.
Bob Gannaway, one of the landowners who would be affected by the red route, said he sees a need for a truck bypass even if it would go by his farm.
“It’s going to be in somebody’s backyard, whether it’s mine or somebody else’s,” Gannaway said.
One landowner who didn’t want his name in the newspaper got emotional as he told DOT officials what his farmland has meant to his family.
“That devastates me, splitting up 1,300 acres like that,” he said.
A third alternative, called the blue route, is even longer and doesn’t seem to have much support from leaders.
A temporary bypass opened in August that truckers are currently using is 16 miles long. That bypass is designed to last for two to three years and the goal is to have a permanent route constructed in that timeframe, Levi said.
The bypass diverts truck traffic, which has seen tremendous growth with the oil boom, from the primary route through the city.
Williston Mayor Ward Koeser said the odds of their preferred route being approved seem to be slim to none, with slim taking several years. Koeser said leaders will likely focus now on making the alternative route the best it can be.
Ziegler said the DOT is collecting input, but ultimately the route will be the department’s decision.
“Those are tough calls,” Ziegler said. “We really don’t want to go through burial grounds.”
Kalil said leaders should take their time choosing the location of the bypass because it will have lasting impacts for the community.
“This is one of the most important decisions our city and county are going to make in our terms of office,” Kalil said.