A surprise beneath the soil

While working on updating and expanding the parking lot by the Jake Christensen Stadium, contractors, engineers and college administrators had a startling discovery: a large but unknown number of preserved trees buried beneath the soil.

There are a few different theories about how the trees were buried deep in the ground. Larry Papenfuss, athletics director and associate professor of physical education and health, thinks the prevailing theory is that the stadium area used to be a slough, and then a ditch was dug to drain the slough. The trees were probably on the edge of the slough and they were used to fill low spots and cover them with soil, according to Papenfuss.

“It was very much a surprise and a shock,” Papenfuss said. “[The trees] had to be placed in there at least 75 years ago.”

Some trees were about three feet in diameter, while others were 20 feet long, much to the surprise of the contractors and staff on the site. Papenfuss estimates that about 50 trees have been discovered so far, but that number may continue to grow.

Jon Lowry, engineer-in-training at Lightowler Johnson Associates in Fargo and project manager, said more trees are being discovered as the project continues to the south and west of where they have been digging thus far in the project.

“We didn’t find all the trees yet,” he said. “Some of them were over 30 inches in diameter. Who knows how many trees there are?”

Wayne Flack, director of facilities management, said no one really knows from where the trees originally came. His theory is that there was a bulldozer which pushed over the trees about 60 years ago. Then a Caterpillar machine pushed them into a pit adjacent to the former location of the trees, and they were covered with dirt.

Flack said his first thought after discovering the trees was the cost associated with finding them. They had an unanticipated cost that had to be dealt with, but luckily they had a contingency. Between eight and 10 percent of the project’s budget was available to cover the surprise, according to Flack.

“The excavation had to go significantly deeper,” he said. “We ended up going 10 to 12 feet down instead of the two feet [we had planned]. The heavy rain added to the week delay of the project.”

The crew performed soil borings when starting the project, which help determine what’s in the ground in a digging site. The borings, according to Flack, didn’t hit the trees because they were too deep.

“There were 60 years of compacted soil there,” he said. “Everything looked fine.”
They then hit a branch and had to excavate deeper, and this is where the surprise occurred.

The crew had to make a decision whether to cover the trees up again or pull them out, and the decision was made to pull them out to prevent future problems with asphalt work, according to Papenfuss.

Papenfuss said they weren’t sure of the price, but unit pricing they did shows it is in the $30-40,000 range. This money was within the contingency they had laid out for the project, and it didn’t cause the project to go over-budget since it was a donor-targeted project.

The funding was not tied to the operational budget of the college, Papenfuss said.
“This project is where we’ve been given permission to go to potential donors, like former school athletes and people who had not given money to the college before, and expand the donor base of the college,” he said. “We’ve brought back to the college a lot of people who weren’t very close to the college before.”

Papenfuss said this project was the first phase of a $5.5 million project, which will also include a new locker room. This part of the project cost $1.3 million, which includes putting turf on the baseball and soccer fields and adding two new parking lots, one of which is close to completion, according to Papenfuss.

Papenfuss said that despite the setbacks due to discovering the trees, the overall project has been worth it.

“Everybody’s just been super impressed and they can see the vision for how it’s going to be and how it’s going to look,” he said.

The trees have been excavated and they were taken to a farmer who is going to use them for firewood, which was a cheaper alternative than using a landfill.

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