The engineering firm drafting the Environmental Impact Statement for Billings County’s request to put a new bridge across the Little Missouri River north of Medora, N.D., has determined the best place to put the bridge is just 17 miles north of Medora, about a third of the way — as the crow flies — between the two current bridges near Medora and Watford City.
Billings County wants to build the bridge “to provide the public with a centrally accessible, safe, efficient and reliable link between state Highway 16 and U.S. Highway 85,” according to the county’s website.
To set the scene, Highway 16 is a narrow two-lane road running along the extreme western edge of North Dakota, going north of Interstate 94 from Beach to well, almost nowhere, except the oilfields of McKenzie County, southwest of Watford City. Highway 85 goes north from Belfield to Williston and is soon to be a four-lane divided highway.
The county argues that the 70-mile distance — by highway — between existing bridges at Medora and south of Watford City justifies a new bridge. The new bridge, and one has to assume some new or improved roads leading to the two highways, would in theory make life easier for the oil industry. Here’s a link to a blog I wrote almost five years ago, explaining the project and its problems.
KLJ Engineering of Bismarck, hired by Billings County to conduct the Environmental Impact Statement for the project, required because the county wants federal funds to build it, and because it is crossing a navigable river under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is recommending that the new river crossing be located where the Little Missouri passes through the historic Short Ranch — as the crow flies, about five miles south of the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Jennifer Turnbow, spokesperson for KLJ, said the draft of the final EIS itself will be released in the next two or three months, and public hearings on it will be held at that time. A long-awaited draft, and long-awaited public hearings. Long-awaited, as in nine years.
The first public hearings on the project were held in July 2008. At that time, the idea was to put the bridge within spitting distance of the Elkhorn. After getting the crap beat out of them at the public meetings, and after outrage expressed in the news media by almost everyone for encroachment on Theodore Roosevelt’s home, “the cradle of conservation,” Billings County Commissioners retrenched and went looking for a new location for the bridge.
A second round of public hearings were held in 2012, and not long after that, the engineering firm narrowed the choices to the Short Ranch, five miles south of the Elkhorn, and the Goldsberry Ranch, five miles north of the Elknorn. This map shows the locations.
And then, the project went dark for more than four years. Although KLJ claimed it was collecting data on the two locations, and promised an early 2015 arrival of a new EIS, the 2015 date kept getting set back with no explanation from the engineering firm. Finally, KLJ set a “Summer 2016” release date for the EIS. That came and went as well. Finally, rumors began trickling out to the public, likely from some of the cooperating federal agencies, and last week, on Feb. 27 and 28, I had the following e-mail exchange with KLJ’s project spokesperson, Jennifer Turnbow:
I am hearing talk that you have selected a site for the Little Missouri Crossing. What’s up? Have you chosen a site for the Little Missouri Crossing? What is the status of the project? Will there be any public announcements on the project in the near future?
We are working with the lead agencies on the review of the Draft EIS. The Draft EIS has identified a preferred alternative, along with analyzing all the build and no-build alternatives. We will be sending out a notice of availability for the Draft EIS and public hearing within two to three months.
Well, thanks. I’ve been told that Alternative K, Option 1, is the preferred alternative. And that you have shared that with other people. Can you confirm that? That would be easier than me sending FOIA requests to everyone.
The preferred alternative is Alternative K, Option 1.
Well, OK then. Alternative K is the Short Ranch. KLJ was actually studying three different options on the Short Ranch. Option 1 puts the bridge about half a mile from the Shorts’ ranch headquarters.
To be honest, that news surprised almost everyone who has been following the project. I really thought the spot that made the most sense — from the perspective of those who wanted a bridge — was the crossing north of the Elkhorn, which would have been about halfway between the bridges on I-94 at Medora and U.S. 85 south of Watford City. Besides, there were pretty direct routes out to Highway 16 on the west and Highway 85 on the east from that spot.
The crossing at the Short Ranch is just about 15 miles north of Medora, and there is no direct route to either Highway 16 or 85 from there. To get to Highway 85 involves going northeast and then back southeast in a big, 12-mile loop, before heading east to the highway. To get to Highway 16 from the crossing, you have to go south within seven miles of I-94 before going west. In my opinion, the whole idea is just goofy.
I’m not the only one to point that out. As far back as 2008, members of the Short family were making that point and expressing their opposition to the crossing and high-traffic road in the middle of their ranch — or anywhere, for that matter.
A bit about the Short family. They’ve been on the ranch for more than 100 years and have been one of the most respected families in the Bad Lands. The scion of the family, Don Short, served as a U.S. Congressman in the 1950s and ’60s. His son, Con, took over the ranch and was active in the operation until his passing last summer. His son, David, now operates the ranch.
Con was a straight-shootin’, plain-talkin’ Bad Lands cowboy. Billings County Commissioners are lucky he’s gone. His battered old cowboy hat would have gone through the roof when he heard this news. Still, he got in his shots. He registered his opposition to the project early and often during previous rounds of discussion. Here he is at a public meeting held by KLJ in 2008:
“I want to register my opinion of being against the whole damn thing. I just think North Dakota will benefit, and Medora and the Badlands will benefit, if we didn’t do it.
“The river bottom that they’re crossing is pristine. In my lifetime, there has been no roads on it, it has never been farmed, there’s never been a cottonwood tree cut down. I consider this one of the best mule deer country — or the best mule deer country in the Badlands. My family and I are a hundred percent against this project. We will use all of our resources in fighting this. Thank you.”
Again in 2012, at a public meeting in Medora, Con, hunched over by either arthritis or too many years breaking broncs, or both, got to his feet in front of a crowd of about 100 at a public meeting and said:
“I’m sorry, I don’t stand up very well. I’m Con Short. Some of this family is mine. To be really honest, we’re proud of being ranchers in Billings County. We’re proud of the friends we have here. We love the Badlands. I have been involved before on stopping more bridges and more roads up through the Badlands, and I’m amazed at how much help we have getting them stopped, and we will get this project stopped, too. Mr. Arthaud (Jim Arthaud, Billings County Commission chairman and champion of the bridge project) might not know that. But I’m telling him now we’ll get it stopped. We’ll take it to the courts or whatever we have to do.
“I am amazed — I am amazed that a county commissioner from Billings County wants this to happen in this county. All you have to do is take one look at that map up there. The roads are already in place. Improve them. You do not need a bridge across the Little Missouri River except for your own ego. You don’t need it. The tourists and everything else. We appreciate your time. I appreciate my family coming here. We’ve been here since 1902. Some of them obviously haven’t been here as long as I have. Billings County is the prettiest place in North Dakota or within a few inches of being the prettiest place. Why ruin it with more roads and more bridges? Thank you.”
When Billings County Sheriff Pat Rummel got up to argue that the county needed this bridge for ambulance and fire emergencies, Con challenged him. This is from the transcript of the meeting:
CON SHORT: You surely haven’t crossed our place with a fire truck, ever, physically.
RUMMEL: Probably not. That’s what I say.
CON SHORT: And you never needed to.
RUMMEL: That’s what I’m saying, I don’t remember ever a life-threatening situation. But there’s going to be someday.
CON SHORT: Do you know who I am?
RUMMEL: Yes, I know who you are.
CON SHORT: I started the Beach ambulance squad. We never needed to.
RUMMEL: I’m saying someday there’s going to be a need for a life-threatening –
CON SHORT: Japan might go to war again, too.
Well, Con’s gone, but the family stands united against the project — not just on their place, but anywhere. And they’ve got a pretty big hammer. The proposal puts the bridge and accompanying road, with a 500-foot easement, on their private property. And they’re not likely to give permission to do that. So, the county is going to have to use eminent domain. That will be a court fight for the ages.
In addition, since the day this project started being discussed, Commission Chairman Arthaud has said it would be done on public property — Forest Service land, not private land. Now, his engineering firm is telling him it should be on private land. I’m not sure how that’s going to sit with him, or with the other commissioners.
Arthaud told National Public Radio reporter John McChesney in an interview a few years ago, “We know damn well where that bridge belongs,” says Jim Arthaud, chairman of the Billings County Board of Commissioners. “On federal ground, about three miles north (of the Elkhorn).”
And at the public meeting in Medora in 2012, Arthaud, sensing Con Short had the crowd with him, did this little dance:
“Yeah, we think we probably have a better handle on it than most people, but to sit there and say we want it to go across the Shorts’ place, we didn’t pick that crossing. This is part of the process. We didn’t pick the crossing up at Magpie Creek, either. We don’t think that that’s a place for a crossing for Billings County, either. So don’t — don’t sit here and think that Billings County commissioners have decided to do that. And we have never been able to answer that question until — if you get chosen as that spot to be, then it’s a question that we’re going to have to sit down and answer amongst ourselves, and we’ll definitely take the input of the people that are there. But we think it should be on public land where all the public owns the land. I hope that helps.”
On public land. Arthaud’s been pretty consistent in saying, the last few years, almost guaranteeing, that the bridge will go on public land. So how’s he going to react to the recommendation of the engineering firm to put it on private land — an engineering firm that’s billed his county somewhere around a million dollars so far on this project?
David Short said it best in 2012, at the very end of the very last public meeting on the bridge: “We’re against every river crossing because we love the Bad Lands and we love the Little Missouri River.”
David Short’s got a lot of people who agree with him.
Now, there will be more public meetings. In “two or three months.” Almost exactly five years after the last one. Con Short’s gone, but he left a big family. With a lot of supporters. I guess we’ll find out just how badly Billings County’s commissioners really want a bridge.