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The long-awaited final act of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp on federal government-owned land began to be played out Wednesday, with all but a few dozen final holdouts leaving the Oceti Sakowin camp as cleanup work before spring arrives is ramped up Thursday morning.

Pipeline protester Raymond Kingfisher had a few words to share as he boarded a bus to leave the Oceti Sakowin camp in southern Morton County.

“We go, we go in peace. Spread the word the fight is not over,” he said as black smoke billowed into the sky behind him.

Some of the camp's structures were burned for spiritual reasons. Others were set afire because it was easier than dismantling them and hauling the pieces out.

Gov. Doug Burgum, flanked by local, state and federal officials at the Morton County Courthouse, briefed reporters on protest camp actions as dusk fell on the muddy tract of land in southern Morton County still strewn with an array of abandoned structures, nearly 300 abandoned vehicles and personal belongings.

A rough estimate put the number of those still inhabiting the camp Wednesday evening at 25  to 50 people, leaving the camp at its lowest level since it began months ago.

Burgum said officials will begin to move in to the camp site at 9 a.m. today to begin the stepped-up cleanup efforts.

“They’ll have every opportunity to leave without arrest,” Burgum said of the remaining protesters. “Anyone who obstructs our ability to do cleanup is subject to arrest.”

Ten protesters were arrested along Highway 1806 outside of the camp late Wednesday afternoon, Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said. They were still being processed at the time a 7 p.m. briefing on Wednesday. They were being held on charges of obstruction of a government function, a Class B misdemeanor.

Total arrests since August are now at about 720.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Col. John Henderson said the goal is to return the land to its original state. The hope is to do so in 25 days, but work will be conducted for as long as it takes to achieve that goal. The cost of the contract for cleanup is $800,000 but could rise to more than $1.1 million.

“That’s the key unknown,” Henderson said when asked whether or not cleanup can be completed in time before potential spring flooding.

A traffic checkpoint has been put into place along Highway 1806 south of the Cannonball River Bridge, which will be manned 24 hours per day.

“This camp is closed,” North Dakota Highway Patrol Lt. Tom Iverson said. “No vehicles will be allowed in, so if anybody wants to go to the camp, they can’t. It’s shutdown.”

It is unknown exactly how many protesters have accepted help from a travel assistance center, which offers free bus tickets and a one-night hotel voucher among other services.

Burgum said the cost of a bus ticket and some hotel rooms is much cheaper than the ongoing tab for responding to the protests, which is now in the tens of millions of dollars.

Opponents of the four-state, $3.8 billion pipeline have been camping in southern Morton County near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation boundary for months. They’re concerned over river contamination if the pipeline were to leak in the future as well as disturbing tribal artifacts and sites.

Tribal leaders in recent months have been urging protesters to leave since the battle over the pipeline has largely reached a phase of court battles.

(Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at nick.smith@bismarcktribune.com.)

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