It looks like Wylie Bice is going to have to write a check for $30,000 to the U.S. government and tuck away $100,000 in a bond bank somewhere as his penalty for building an illegal bridge on public land in the Bad Lands. (If you’re not familiar with this story, here’s the background.)
Those are the numbers being floated around the BLM’s offices in North Dakota and Montana, but they aren’t official, and if I really want to see what the outcome of this fiasco is, I have to file another Freedom Of Information Act request to get the official word.
So I did that this week, writing:
“I’d like to know the final resolution of the Wylie Bice Trespass Case, so I am requesting copies of all documents in the trespass file regarding the settlement of the case, including the calculation worksheet and the amount of fines, rent, trespass fees, surety bond requirements and all correspondence between your office and Mr. Bice. I’d also like copies of any agreements between BLM and Mr. Bice regarding his future use of the BLM land and fees associated with that.”
I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for a response. I’ve been down this road before.
I first began corresponding with the BLM in the summer of 2017, when I discovered this bridge and also discovered the BLM did not know there was an illegal bridge on its land. The BLM official in Dickinson, N.D., acknowledged early on that yes, there was a bridge there, on BLM land, that officials didn’t know about, but because it was a “trespass case,” involving possible legal ramifications, his superiors (hey, we’re dealing with the government here) had told him he couldn’t tell me a whole lot about it. After we danced around for a few months, he suggested I file a FOIA request to get the information on the case. I did that. I was pretty thorough. Here’s what I wrote:
“I am requesting copies of all documents, written and electronic, regarding the Wylie Bice trespass case currently under review in Dunn County, North Dakota, including, but not limited to:
- Copies of all written and electronic correspondence between BLM staff (and counsel) and Mr. Bice and his counsel, including his attorneys and engineers.
- Copies of notes made regarding telephone conversations and personal visits between BLM staff (and counsel) and Mr. Bice.
- Copies of all easement applications submitted by Mr. Bice for his bridge, road and other easement requests. (Note: you do not have to send his bridge engineering information—I already got that from the Corps of Engineers)
- Copies of all Mr. Bice’s reclamation plans submitted to BLM with his easement requests.
- A copy of the trespass file, if available under this act. If the file is not available, a short written summary of the contents would be acceptable and appreciated.
- Copies of all internal communications discussing this case among BLM staff and with counsel.
- Copies of documents outlining next steps and timelines for proceeding with this case.
“In summary, I’d like you to just dump everything you’ve got on this case into a file and send it to me. Electronic or written copies, or a combination thereof, whichever is easiest for you, are fine with me. I actually prefer electronic files.
“I am also requesting copies of future correspondence and documents similar to those outlined above, pertaining to this case, on a continuing basis. If that is not an appropriate request, I will submit requests similar to this in the future.”
It took the BLM nine months to send me what I requested in my letter. It sent me a flash drive containing 98 pages of documents, none of which contained any confidential information, that I could see, that couldn’t have been released without the formal process which wasted a lot of their time.
Even though I requested documents on an ongoing basis, I have never received anything from the BLM since the initial packet. And when I requested the information on the final disposition of the case this fall, the Dickinson BLM guy, to his credit, asked his superiors to send it to me as part of my original FOIA request, but they said no, he has to send in another one. Good grief. Another waste of time. Mine and theirs.
Anyway, after pondering about what to do about this whole thing for quite a long time, the BLM decided to do an Environmental Assessment, take public comments, mull them over and figure out what to do about the bridge. The BLM released that decision in August of this year: The bridge stays, but a water pit he built to sell water to the oil industry has to be reclaimed, as does some prairie land Bice had converted to alfalfa for hay. And he has to pay a fine and some other penalties. The $100,000 bond is apparently to cover future costs if something goes awry. It must remain available to the BLM until the bridge comes down and the site is reclaimed, if that ever happens.
It’s been almost 2½ years since I first called the BLM and was told, “We’ve got a situation here,” which caused me to chuckle. To its credit, the BLM has handled the “situation” pretty well.
During the comment period last summer, a whole bunch of us suggested the BLM impose the harshest penalty allowed by law for what Wylie Bice did — prison time and a $100,000 fine and tear down the bridge. The BLM did none of that. BLM officials are reasonable folks. Maybe a little too reasonable. Also, they have new bosses in Washington D.C., these days, which may say something about the appearance of leniency.
I did press them a bit on why they are allowing the bridge to stay. Their response was that if they made him tear down the bridge, Bice has enough money that he’d just go build another one a half mile down river, causing even more disruption to the environment. Well, maybe.
When I expressed concern about the fact that his water pit on his own land was still going to be available, and the bridge would facilitate a steady stream of trucks and their accompanying dust clouds through the valley of the Little Missouri State Scenic River, which is what most of us are concerned about, they said they had been told that the bridge was not designed to carry semi trucks. And that’s why he had put a water pit on BLM land, on the west side of the river, to accommodate trucks from the west. We’ll see. I’ve talked to one trucker who hauled a load across the bridge last year. He said it was quite an experience. “I felt like a driving Wallenda,” he said. I think we need to be keeping an eye on that western approach to the bridge to see if Bice was telling the truth about not allowing trucks to cross the bridge.
The BLM folks tell me that the reclamation work on the water depot and the alfalfa field are supposed to be under way by now, but the wet weather may have thrown a monkey wrench into those plans. I’ll check back with them in a couple of months. Or in the spring.
So for now, I might be done writing about the Wylie Bice bridge. At least for a while. I’ll watch my mail for a response to my FOIA request with the official disposition of the case, and see if the numbers I got are accurate, and if anything else changes. I’ll let you know when I hear. Don’t hold your breath.