JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Charlie Creek To Belfield — A History Lesson

The last major threat to the visual integrity of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, at least that I can recall — though there have been many skirmishes with the oil industry — was in 1989, when the Western Area Power Administration came really close to putting a huge transmission line along the east boundary of the South Unit of the Park.

I’m reminded of that in the context of the Meridian Energy Group’s horrible idea to put their proposed Davis Oil Refinery in about the same place, along the east edge of the park.

In the 1960s, WAPA, one of four federal power marketing administrations that serves our part of the United States, determined there was going to be a need for more electricity in part of its region in the future, and Basin Electric, headquartered in Bismarck, had surplus power to sell. All that was needed was a way for Basin to get its power into the WAPA system.

They determined that the best way was to build a transmission line — one with those big metal towers — from Basin’s Charlie Creek substation in McKenzie County, near the junction of state Highway 200 and U.S. Highway 85, to tie into an east-west WAPA power line near Belfield, N.D., about 40 miles south. WAPA commenced a federal Environmental Impact Statement process to find the best location for the line and its towers (unlike Meridian, which refuses to even submit to a state site review process) in 1969, and issued a draft EIS.

Some 20 years later, when demand reached the point that WAPA decided it needed the extra power, it commenced a review process with a public comment period and public hearings on the project. The review process focused on two identified corridors for the power line: a western line, called W1-1, which was four miles shorter and a million dollars cheaper than one farther east, called E-4-1R. WAPA recommended using the shortest, cheapest route, W-1-1.

Unfortunately, that route ran beside the eastern boundary of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and would have been visible from most high places in the park. The eastern route ran alongside Highway 85, five miles or so east of the park, and out of sight from the park.

So in the spring of 1988, WAPA published a notice of its intent to build the line next to the park and opened a public comment period. Tracy Potter and I were running the State Tourism Office at the time, and if WAPA could have picked any two people on the planet it did not want in THAT office at THAT time, it would have been the two of us. Our boss, Gov. George Sinner, turned us loose to organize against building the line next to the park.

In advance of the public hearings, which were to be held in Belfield and Grassy Butte, N.D., on July 26-27, 1988, we got on the phone and began rounding up supporters to send letters to WAPA, asking it to move the line east, to the highway, out of sight of the park. We did a pretty good job.

U.S. Sen. Quentin Burdick wrote:

“In recent days, I have received a number of letters from concerned citizens who believe that the route recommended for the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) will have long term negative effects on the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As well, the North Dakota Tourism Office and the State Highway Department have also expressed opposition to the recommended route.

“It seems clear from the concerns raised by the opponents that WAPA should reconsider the options and seek a more acceptable routing for the line. Granted, the additional $1 million in construction costs must be an item of consideration. However, when viewed in the context, it seems the additional $1 million is not too large a price to pay to protect such a national treasure as Theodore Roosevelt Park.”

How about that! Why don’t we have U. S. senators like that anymore?

And Congressman Byron Dorgan wrote:

“The visual impact (on Theodore Roosevelt National Park) is unacceptable. I hope you will hear the concerns of myself and of many others who are committed to protecting the natural, scenic beauty of the Badlands.”

I know that our newest senator at the time, Kent Conrad, weighed in on this as well, but I can’t find his letter.

Even our boss, Gov. Sinner, and his lieutenant governor, Lloyd Omdahl, sent a jointly signed letter (although I think Tracy probably wrote it for them):

“North Dakotans have jealously guarded the Badlands scenic areas from avoidable intrusions. Consequently the Park today still provides awesome views of natural beauty unmarred by artificial structures. Whether or not future generations will be able to share this beauty will be determined by this generation and the decisions it makes about development in the area. We must proceed cautiously in the consideration of proposals to change the landscape.”

Other letters came from concerned citizens, and the usual suspects — the National Parks Conservation Association, the Sierra Club, the Theodore Roosevelt Nature and History Association and others, many of whom are now involved, 30 years later, in the current fight to move the Davis refinery away from the park.

Tracy led the testimony at the public hearing in Belfield, followed by TRNP’s Chief Ranger Bob Powell, Gary Redmann from the State Highway Department representing then-Commissioner Walt Hjelle, Wally Owen from Medora, who ran the horse concession in the park, and finally, batting cleanup, Medora Mayor and President of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation Rod Tjaden, who I think was also state chairman of the Greater North Dakota Association, the state’s chamber of commerce, at the time. (Humorous aside: Tjaden, not known for hanging out with the environmental crowd, sent me a note a few months later that said “Dammit, Fuglie, I’m getting mail from the Sierra Club, and it’s YOUR FAULT!”)

After the public hearings, WAPA went into hibernation for about six months, and in early 1989 released its final EIS, with its final recommendation on a route for their transmission line, which concluded with this statement:

“Through public comment, it was determined that visibility of the line from residences, local urban areas and TRNP was of significant importance. In particular, a large number of comments expressed concern for the visibility of the proposed line from TRNP. It was determined that the agency-preferred route would be changed from W1-1, as specified in the DEIS, to E4-1R (the environmentally preferred route).”

A loud cheer could be heard throughout western North Dakota. The system worked. The park was protected.

Well, that’s our history lesson for today. Sadly, history doesn’t often repeat itself. A month or so ago, I sent letters to our current governor, Doug Burgum, and to our congressional delegation, asking them to meet with the Meridian people and ask them to move the proposed refinery away from the park. I got a couple of responses.

This in an e-mail from Jodee Hanson in the governor/s office:

“The Governor respects the public comment period, which is still ongoing, and is staying apprised of the Department of Health’s permitting process being conducted within the boundaries of the law.”

To which I responded:

“Thanks for the note Jodee. Relay to everyone there that the ‘boundaries of the law’ are the minimum standard for action by public officials. There is much more that can, and should, be done. Like a one-on-one between Burgum and Prentice, heart to heart, CEO to CEO. I am inspired by Julie Fedorchak and Connie Triplett seeking a PSC review. The governor could make that happen by putting the hammer down on Prentice: “Y’know, Bill, we’re in this together for the long haul. We’re going to be looking at each other and talking to each other for a long time. Let’s be responsible and see what a PSC site review tells us.”

I also got an e-mail from a staffer for Congressman Kevn Cramer:

“Congressman Cramer has been in contact with both the N.D. Department of Health and EPA ensuring the project meets human health and environmental requirements.”

To which I responded:

“Relay to everyone there that meeting the “human health and environmental requirements” is not enough in this case. There is much more that can, and should, be done. As a former State Tourism director, Kevin understands the impact on our National Park. I’d suggest a one-on-one between the congressman and Meridian CEO Bill Prentice, heart to heart. I am inspired by Julie Fedorchak and Connie Triplett seeking a PSC review. The Congressman could help make that happen by meeting with Prentice:”

I’ve not heard anything from our two senators. I’m going to send them, along with Cramer and Burgum, a copy of this blog post to remind them of what can be done if everyone pulls their own weight.

Maybe. Just maybe …

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Jim Fuglie

Jim Fuglie is a native of Hettinger, N.D., a U.S. Navy veteran (1968-1972) and majored in communications at Dickinson State College (now Dickinson State University) in Dickinson, ND. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, as a speechwriter and communications director for North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Myron Just and as Executive Director of the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Party. He worked at the Herald from late 1975 to early 1976. In 1985, Jim was appointed North Dakota Tourism Director by Governor George Sinner and served in that post until 1992. He later worked as Development Director for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation and as public relations director for Kranzler Kingsley Communications in Bismarck. He retired in 2009, and he and his wife Lillian, the retired Director of Library Services at Dickinson State University, now live in Bismarck and spend much of their time exploring the back roads and trails of the North Dakota Bad Lands.

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