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UND profs map dramatic changes to western N.D. landscape

Sebastian Braun, an associate professor and chair Department of American Indian Studies at UND, points out areas on his collection of maps that have seen the most change in the last few years since the start of the Bakken oil boom. Photo by Kile Brewer/Grand Forks Herald1 / 5
Sebastian Braun, an associate professor and chair Department of American Indian Studies at UND, has been using satellite maps to monitor the changing landscape in western North Dakota since the start of the Bakken oil boom. Photo by Kile Brewer/Grand Forks Herald2 / 5
Sebastian Braun, an associate professor and chair Department of American Indian Studies at UND, cycles through various maps he has collected which show the effect of large-scale oil mining in western North Dakota. Photo by Kile Brewer/Grand Forks Herald3 / 5
Map of Mandaree, N.D. in 2005. Submitted photo.4 / 5
Map of Mandaree, N.D. in 2012. Submitted photo.5 / 5

UND professor Sebastian Braun points at a satellite map of Fort Worth, Texas, with small white lines and dots splayed thickly across it like veins on the dark green land.

“If you can visualize western North Dakota, in ten years, this is what it’s going to look like,” he said.

The dots are oil-drilling pads and the white lines the roads leading up to them, which are already becoming a familiar scene in the state’s Oil Patch.

What started out as a hobby for Braun has turned into something much bigger. The professor has been collecting maps from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and plans to create an online resource for communities in western North Dakota to see how their towns have grown.

“Out west there used to be volunteer fire departments, volunteer ambulances, so if something happened, they were all from there,” Braun said. “Volunteers are no longer necessarily local and there are, for example, five new roads, so these maps are actually important.”  

He said he would like to create an interactive app people could use to report and avoid things such as new road construction and oil spills. But for now, he said, he’s working with professors in the Geography Department to create layered, informational maps depicting the changing North Dakota landscape.

Working together

Professor Brad Rundquist, chairman of the department, has been using a grant from AmericaView to pay students to compile the maps for the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

“Our goal is to put up a website for people to access these various layers and use it to make decisions or pressure leaders, so they have an informed opinion when they’re making decisions,” he said.

The group is using maps from as the early 1900s to use to create a layered online file people can use to view the changing geography.

“Change normally isn’t that rapid,” Rundquist said. “It’s pretty rapid landscape change and I think that’s a little bit enticing and also a little bit something to be cautious about because I don’t think we understand the impact of that on wildlife and communities.”

For example, the 2007 maps of the area near New Town in the Fort Berthold reservation depict about four oil-drilling pads with roads leading to them. Each pad can have any number of wells on it that are drilled down and then jut horizontally through the ground. 

As the maps get more current, the space between those original pads gets filled in with more and more pads and roads while the underground extraction pipes intersect like the teeth of a zipper.

Braun said he has seen this trend throughout the Bakken oil fields.

“I’m not so much concerned about what is going on right now, because I think it’s pretty much unstoppable, but what I’m concerned about is what’s going to happen in 20 years when the boom is over and the landscape will look like this,” he said, pointing to a satellite map depicting oil fields in Wyoming. “Is somebody going to clean it up?”

Educational tools

As an anthropologist and chairman of the Department of American Indian Studies, Braun said he travels west to see the land in person about three times a year.

“You drive in the streets and can see it, but you don’t understand and visualize the scope of the impact without the maps,” he said. “Most people that I’ve talked to out there, both on and off the reservation, don’t say ‘Stop,’ they say, ‘Let’s take a break. Let’s slow it down and do it right.’”

The maps are also meant to be a tool for peace officers, emergency services, environmentalists and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, but Braun also plans to use them as teaching tools for his anthropology and resource-sustainability classes.

“Williston is great because you see the railway line and station and then like three streets, so it would be fascinating to superimpose today over 1910,” he said.

Rundquist said he hopes the maps will show people how rapidly humans are affecting the environment of western North Dakota.

“When people leave, what’s going to happen to the apartments that are going up?” he said. “What about all the houses?”

The Fort Berthold maps will be available online late this fall, but the other maps are a long way from being completed.

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.

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