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Funds half there to buy former alert site from Air Force

The effort by North Dakota's State Historical Society to raise $1 million to buy a former nuclear missile alert and launch site north of Cooperstown, N.D., and a nearby missile silo from the U.S. Air Force is about halfway home with half a year t...

The effort by North Dakota's State Historical Society to raise $1 million to buy a former nuclear missile alert and launch site north of Cooperstown, N.D., and a nearby missile silo from the U.S. Air Force is about halfway home with half a year to go.

Merl Paaverud, director of the State Historical Society in Bismarck, said he prompted the Air Force this week to begin the paperwork to shift ownership of the two sites over to the society.

That will take about six months, which is how long the society gave itself to raise the $1 million it figures it needs to preserve and operate the sites as tourist and historical treasures, Paaverud said Thursday.

In October, Paaverud announced the society had obtained a $250,000 grant through the Save America's Treasures. This spring, the state Legislature matched that grant and added $50,000 toward the operation of the proposed new historical sites.

A few dollars in contributions have come in, but there's still nearly $450,000 to raise by Dec. 31, Paaverud said.

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The money would be put in a trust fund to operate and maintain as State Historical Sites Oscar-Zero, a launch control facility four miles north of Cooperstown, and November-33, a missile silo two miles east of the Griggs County city of 1,000.

If the money can't be raised, the Air Force plans to destroy the impressive underground facilities and sell the land.

Last alert

The last alert at Oscar-Zero took place almost exactly 10 years ago to the day, and the site was closed in 1998 as the 50-year-old Cold War with the ex-Soviet Union faded away. The 150 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) buried in silos across northeast North Dakota were removed, and the 15 alert and launch control centers were emptied.

There is mirror image network in northwestern North Dakota, where 150 missiles remain in their silos on alert for another dozen years or so.

Most of the missile facilities in the region have been torn down, the deep silos imploded and/or filled with sand and concrete. But this one has been kept up, after a fashion, with the idea of some ongoing civilian purpose in mind.

Oscar-Zero had 10 to 30 personnel stationed there during the Cold War. Missile officers, two at a time, took 24-hour shifts 45 feet below the earth's surface, their fingers only inches from triggers that could have launched 20 ICBMs, each with three nuclear warheads, from 10 unmanned missile silo sites ringing the launch facility for miles around. If all heck had broken loose, Oscar-Zero could have launched up to 50 ICBMs.

The small, dank rooms encased in concrete so far below the prairie still look much like they did when Cold War tensions were tight. They have drawn interest in recent years from news crews around the world, curious about how nukes co-existed with wheat in the fields of North Dakota.

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The entire complex in northeast North Dakota was built 40 years ago, within little more than a year. The big construction boom helped push Cooperstown's population up by 50 percent, to nearly 1,500 in 1970.

Taking over and preserving this launch site would be a way for the Historical Society to show a big slice of world and state history, of a time when North Dakota could claim to be the world's third largest nuclear power.

Last week, at the Historical Society's board meeting in Minot, Paaverud updated everyone on the fundraising project.

"From wherever," is where he's looking for the rest of the $1 million, Paaverud said Thursday. Local officials in Cooperstown are involved

"They are trying to raise some funds," Paaverud said. "They see great opportunity for bringing tourism to the area."

A Scenic Byway out of Valley City, N.D., for example, may add an extension up to Oscar-Zero, which would be "a great boon," to the area's tourism prospects, Paaverud said.

The Air Force continues to keep the pumps and fans and lights running at the facility, and mows the grass. But Paaverud hopes that next year the Historical Society will be running it and welcoming visitors. "We'd like to get it and open it as soon as possible," he said Thursday. "We are halfway there. But we have a long way to go."

For more information, visit www.nd.gov/hist .

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Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237 or at slee@gfherald.com .

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