Minuteman Missile Area Landowners Association

While construction crews built some of the Minuteman sites in South Dakota on land already owned by the government, contractors constructed most of the sites on private property. During the site-selection process, some landowners did not feel that the Army Corps provided enough information to sign rights-of-entry to their property. To ensure that the government took landowners’ rights into consideration during site selection and fairly compensated landowners, a group of farmers and ranchers formed the Minuteman Missile Area Landowners Association (MALA) in the early 1960s. MALA disseminated information to area landowners, believing that working collectively would aid the defense effort while safeguarding their private interests.

Members paid a minimal fee of one dollar to participate in the organization, primarily to cover the cost of postage and mailings. The MALA’s first president was Eugene Pellegrin of Enning, South Dakota, and the first vice president was Cecil Hayes of Elm Springs, South Dakota. Eight additional members, including Burle Dartt, Ray Naescher, Ben Paulsen, Tony Oergerli, Robert Simpfendoerfer, Delbert Paulsen, Ferdinand Schroeder, and Leonel Jensen, served as directors to assist in collecting and distributing information. In addition to nearly 150 MALA members supporting their cause, United States Senator Francis H. Case also attempted to assist negotiations between the landowners and the Air Force and Army Corps. Although Case was a longtime proponent of strong national defense and a supporter of the Minuteman program at Ellsworth Air Force Base, he often corresponded with the landowner organization and the Army Corps concerning the project and advocated for fair and timely compensation.

Most landowners understood that the national defense program required the installation of Minuteman missiles, and the technical reasons why the Air Force required use of their land. Prior to signing any agreements, however, MALA members wanted the government to address the disadvantages of having a silo or control center constructed within their property. Many landowners were concerned that the location of the proposed sites would disrupt irrigation systems, take irreplaceable land, or interfere with agricultural operations. While their primary stated goal was to obtain a reasonable settlement for land and construction damages, the group also wanted to minimize the effects of the missile system upon nearby schools, roads, and the local police force.

Prior to signing rights-of-entry needed for construction, the MALA voiced their concerns with Air Force and Army Corps personnel at several meetings in Rapid City in 1960 and 1961. MALA members questioned how the Air Force selected locations for the silos and control centers. Individual MALA members desired to know if selected sites could be moved to sections of their property less desirable for agricultural purposes. In early April 1961, an Army Corps real estate representative explained that the missiles were part of an interrelated system and the location could not be altered aside from minor changes. One property owner offered to donate the land if the Air Force would move the proposed silo to a corner of the wheat field instead of in the middle. His offer was rejected, and, in this case, the Air Force did not alter the proposed site for this facility.

MALA members also pressed the Air Force at these meetings for further information about compensation for their land and losses. Many wanted to know what assessment they should expect for their property, and if they would receive compensation for damages incurred during construction or from decreases in land value due to the presence of the missiles in the area. Army Corps officials responded that landowners were entitled to fair compensation for their losses and that the dollar value would be reached through negotiation between the government agency and individual property owners. Compensation for damages would be negotiated in much the same way. Although many landowners received compensation for their land and losses, some felt the settlement offered was inadequate.

After months of meetings and negotiations, seventy-five percent of the property owners of proposed missile sites signed rights-of-entry agreements by July of 1961. At the same time, approximately ninety percent of landowners involved with the underground cables had also signed agreements. MALA president Pellegrin stated in a newspaper article that many of the property owners who refused to sign the agreement were negotiating for damages unique to their property. In some cases, property owners never signed the rights-of-entry agreement needed to begin construction and in these cases, the Army Corps filed declarations of taking and deposited money with the court for the property owner. The Army Corps based the compensation on the government’s original estimate of fair market value for the property.

Despite efforts of the MALA to protect their rights and obtain compensation for their losses, some members of the public and government criticized the organization’s members. They condemned landowners for slowing the defense effort, termed them unpatriotic, and accused them of holding up new business created by the influx of construction workers and additional Air Force officers. The Air Force and Army Corps often reminded members of the MALA and other residents of western South Dakota of the importance of the Minuteman program to the security of the United States. For example, the land acquisition pamphlet distributed to property owners stated, “like its prototype, the Minuteman of 1774, this immensely-important project for our national defense is authorized by the Congress of the United States.” Criticism aside, however, not every delay in Minuteman construction could be pinned on reluctant landowners. As late as March 1961, Congress had not yet fully appropriated the funding for the Minuteman missile program at Ellsworth Air Force Base. Therefore, property owners did not stall construction of the sites in South Dakota or the nation’s defense effort. In reality, the land acquisition and construction of the Minuteman missile facilities in South Dakota was an accelerated program that exceeded many expectations. Approximately one year after Army Corps representatives started testing soil and mapping missile facilities contractors began construction. After the construction of the silos and control centers in western South Dakota the MALA disbanded. The organization remained inactive until the early 1990s when the Air Force began the deactivation process of the Minuteman IIs and a new generation of property owners worked together to disseminate information and provide support.

MALA's Return and Missile Field Deactivation

Prior to the dismantling of the silos, a controversy ensued in South Dakota over the best method of removal. The Air Force proposed to implode the silos to a depth of six meters below ground surface, the most economical of the two options specified in the START Treaty. Local ranchers expressed concern over the use of this method, fearing vibrations from the explosives would harm the quality of their water in underground wells. Many ranchers preferred the second acceptable option allowed by the treaty, which required the mechanical excavation of the silo to eight meters. The ranchers felt that the second option had less possibility of disturbing the underground water supply. In a state plagued by low annual rainfall, the integrity of the water system formed a rallying point for property owners.

Ranchers’ concerns for their water supply and other aspects of deactivation resulted in the resurrection of the South Dakota group, the Missile Area Landowners Association (MALA), a local ranching interest group that had been active during the early years of Air Force land acquisition for silo construction. MALA made property rights and potential civil problems they feared that might result from deactivation central issues in their negotiations with the Air Force. The group focused on potential damage to wells, the release of easements for the HICS on private land, and establishing the right of landowners to have the first opportunity to repurchase land once the Air Force was ready to sell the silo and control center properties. Other issues included the disposal of gravel from the sites, which was a concern for landowners near Red Owl, in northern South Dakota, because it was expensive to get gravel to their part of the state. MALA also presented the option of retaining the silos for grain or water storage; however, this alternative violated the START Treaty and could not be pursued. Gene Williams and other members of MALA worked to bring attention to their cause and several national newspapers, including The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, and national television shows, including ABC Nightly News, CBS Evening News, and The Today Show, sent reporters to South Dakota. Williams summarized the group’s efforts to protect their rights by stating, “It sure looked like we had an opportunity, maybe, to cut some deals for ourselves if we were going to give $100 million to the Ukraine we should be able to give some gravel to the guys around Red Owl.”

MALA successfully lobbied South Dakota representatives to pass legislation specific to the deactivation of the LFs and LCFs, requiring the Air Force to give landowners the right of first refusal to purchase former silo sites located on their property at fair market value. Because the missiles at Ellsworth were the first ICBMs removed as part of the START Treaty, the land purchase rules established for South Dakota set the standard for missile sites across the country.

MALA did not successfully change the method used to destroy the silos. The Air Force had already established stringent specifications for vibration and sound for the implosion that would protect adjacent property. In addition, the Air Force had conducted studies to show that local wells and aquifers would remain intact during the implosion. The Air Force identified two sites for the contractor to demonstrate compliance with these specifications and many people observed the implosion of the first silo which proved to be uneventful. Many landowners were given the opportunity to push the button to implode the silo adjacent to their property. As part of the deactivation process, the Air Force also released its easements for HICS buried on private property. HICS is a hardened, pressurized, buried cable that allowed the control centers and silos at the 44th SMW to send messages between facilities. The release of over 2,800 easements for HICS suggests the number of property owners affected by the placement of this cable on their property.

The Air Force clearly spelled out procedures by which landowners might purchase former LFs and control centers adjacent to their property. If multiple landowners held land adjacent to a missile site, the land was offered for sale to these owners in separate parcels. The General Services Administration (GSA), which coordinated the sale of the silos and control centers for the Air Force, offered these parcels to landowners at fair market value. If a landowner opted not to buy the land, the property was offered to government agencies first and if a government agency did not purchase the land, the property was offered for private bid. Property owners received written notice from GSA of the terms of the sale and had thirty days in which to accept the offer.

Owners who purchased the former silo sites received a level graded parcel covered with gravel and surrounded by a chain link fence. The former silo stood underneath the gravel, but the silo was filled with rubble and sealed with a reinforced-concrete cap. Deed restrictions on these former silo and control center sites prohibit installing wells, digging below two feet in depth at silos or digging over the capsules or elevator shaft at control centers, and a requirement to maintain drainage on the property. In addition, the new owners of the control centers could keep the buildings associated with the facility and gained the right to move the buildings, or reuse them for their own needs.

Once the Air Force completed deactivation of the 150 silos and fifteen control centers at Ellsworth Air Force Base, the missile sites began to be sold as excess government property. The last Minuteman silo in South Dakota, Kilo- 06, was imploded on 13 September 1996 and the Army Corps completed their deactivation work at the silos and control centers on 16 March 1999. After these activities were complete, the Air Force began environmental documentation at the sites in preparation for offering them for sale to adjacent landowners. Beginning in August 2001, the Air Force began selling the former silo and control center sites.

Part of a series of articles titled A Cold War Cast Of Thousands.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Last updated: October 20, 2020