JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Who’s Looking Out For The Little Missouri State Scenic River — Redux

I’ve given some more thought to the issue of Little Missouri River water permits since I last wrote about it May 3.

I reported then that Gov. Doug  Burgum had signed into law an amendment to the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act, making industrial use of Little Missouri water legal for the first time since the act was passed in 1975. But at the same time he sent word over to the State Water Commission, which issues water permits in our state, not to issue any of those permits in the upstream reaches of the river — between the North Dakota-South Dakota border and the Long-X Bridge at the north Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Quick geography lesson for those not familiar with the Little Missouri: It rises in the hills north of Devils Tower in Wyoming and flows north through Montana and South Dakota, entering North Dakota in the extreme southwest part of the state, and flows north and east into Lake Sakakawea east of Killdeer. Carving the North Dakota Bad Lands, home to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, along the way.

It’s that stretch between the North Unit of the National Park and the big lake that Burgum has left open for industrial development. It’s no coincidence that the focus of oil development along the river is along that stretch.

That’s his concession to the oil industry. In fact, his own Water Commission staff admitted to a reporter for The Dickinson Press the other day that “That’s where most of the oil industry activity has been.” Commission engineer Jon Patch said “They’ve been using local supplies that then pipe the water to nearby wells that are ready to be fracked.”

Using that water illegally, until now, it should be pointed out. There’s still the issue of those 600 permits that were granted by Patch and his staff, illegally, over the past 10 years or so. It appears that nothing is going to be done about that. As far as the state is concerned, that’s water under the bridge, so to speak.

I asked the governor’s spokesman, Mike Nowatzki, if there were going to be any repercussions for the noncompliance with state law by the Water Commission staff. You’ll recall from an earlier story I wrote the staff said they were “unaware” of the law that prohibited them from issuing industrial water permits from the State Scenic River. I pointed out to Nowatzki that, generally, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Nowatzki wrote back, “As for the “noncompliance” issue, I’m not aware of any related legal actions/proceedings and I’m unable to provide any legal opinions.”

Well, he’s right, but there is someone who can provide legal opinions — the attorney general. So I fired off an e-mail to Liz Brocker, Wayne Stenehjem’s spokesperson: What is going to be done about the “noncompliance” with the law by the State Water Commission staff for the past 10 years?”

Liz answered politely: “With regard to the questions … whether there is a criminal violation of a statute would be under the jurisdiction of the county state’s attorney who would make a determination based on the evidence following an investigation. The Water Commission is a state agency headed by the governor, so any determination on whether further action is necessary or appropriate would properly need to be addressed there.”

Well, I thought her response was pretty nifty, in tossing the ball in two different directions: It’s the governor’s job to determine if he wants to fire someone, and it’s the local state’s attorney who would have to investigate and file any charges for violating the law.

Nowatzki had sort of already indicated that the governor was not interested in punishing the Water Commission staff. I thought about contacting the Burleigh County State’s Attorney and asking him if he was going to pursue this, but we’ve been in the middle of crime wave here since the oil boom began, and he has enough stuff on his plate right now without chasing after some doofus state employee who claims he didn’t know about the law that regulates his job.

I asked a former Water Commission staff member this week whether it was really possible that the engineers didn’t know they were breaking the law. The response was, yes, it’s possible. But it was also possible that they were operating under orders from above to help out the oil industry regardless of the law. Not much happened at the Water Commission during the Dalrymple years without clearance from the governor’s office. One of the most important things the governor could do to enable the oil boom was to make sure they had water for fracking. Without water, there’s no fracking. Without fracking, there’s no oil boom.

So that’s where things stand for now, at least as long as Burgum is governor. He has shown some concern for the Little Missouri State Scenic River but has also accommodated the oil industry. We’ll keep an eye on the process. We’ll see how many industrial water permits get issued. And we’ll certainly ask anyone who decides to run for governor in the future whether they’ll keep Burgum’s restrictions in place.

THE GOOD NEWS

Now, then I want to also revisit a piece of good news about the Little Missouri. Last December, just as the governor was taking office, I took advantage of an old friendship with his new chief of staff (I think he calls her the CEO), Jodi Uecker, and urged her to ask her boss to please revive what I have always considered an important board, the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission. I had written a couple of blog pieces about it earlier last year and placed articles in a couple of other publications I write for, and I shared those with her. You can read them here and here.

Well, Jodi listened. And her boss listened to her. And a couple of weeks ago, he instructed the state engineer, who heads the Water Commission staff, to do just that. It might take a while to get going. It has met only once since 2001 (only coincidentally, the year Ed Schafer, the last North Dakota governor to give a rat’s ass about the Bad Lands and the Little Missouri, left office and turned the governor’s office over to the Hoeven/Dalrymple administration).

The way it works is, as outlined in the Little Missouri Scenic River Act of 1975, Section 61-29 of the North Dakota Century Code, each county commission in the six Bad Lands counties appoints one member, who must be a rancher who owns property adjacent to the Little Missouri River, and those six serve with the state engineer, the State Parks and Recreation director and the director of the State Health Department on the nine-member commission. The six ranchers elect a chairman from among their ranks, and the Parks director serves as the recording secretary for the commission.

Officially, it is the duty of the chairman to call meetings, but unofficially, it has been the Parks director who really gets it done (the current chairman, Alvin Nelson of Grassy Butte, has been dead for several years). I went on a search for meeting minutes about a year ago, and what I learned is that the only meeting held since 2001 was actually called in response to a request from the KLJ Engineering firm, to seek the commission’s blessing for a proposed new river crossing in Billings County. That was August 29, 2007. Nearly 10 years ago.

At that meeting, KLJ, working for the Billings County Commission (Medora is the county seat, in case you’re wondering where Billings County is) said as soon as it had prepared the Environmental Impact Statement for the project, it would get back in touch with the commission to present its findings and seek permission to go ahead with the project.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the meeting minutes:

“The specific purpose of requesting the meeting, KLJ noted, is to seek guidance from the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission, if the river crossing structure alternatives comply with the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act … KLJ concluded their presentation and asked whether any of these types of river crossings (low water crossings or bridges) would be in violation of the Little Missouri River Act.”

“The Commission noted as this project progresses and specific alternatives are recommended for both structure type and location, the commission will need to be presented with detailed information fully addressing the scope and impact of this project to the Little Missouri River. Only then will the commission consider the project for compliance with NDCC 61-29.”

Well, how about that. Now, 10 years later, after numerous delays, KLJ is just weeks, maybe days, away from releasing that EIS. And it is pretty obvious, from those minutes, that both the engineering firm and the state of North Dakota took the responsibility of the commission pretty seriously back in 2007. I hope they still do.

KLJ will be coming looking for the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission to present it to. I hope the state engineer, who has been tasked with reviving it, can get it done in time to weigh in on the project because it has the potential to be the worst environmental disaster ever to hit the Bad Lands.

You see, there was no oil boom — not even a hint of an oil boom to come — back in 2007, so this was a pretty routine request. A new bridge for the ranchers and tourists to use. No one envisioned a miles-long caravan of trucks kicking up thousands of tons of dust a day and scaring off every type of wildlife within eyesight and earshot, while using this crossing of the Little Missouri River to move their water, sand and oil.

So while Gov. Burgum is willing to sell off the northernmost portion of the river, which makes me nervous because it contains Little Missouri State Park, arguably the state’s most fragile and scenic park, which means we’re going to have to keep a close eye on water permit requests for that stretch of the river, he seems committed to offer some protection for the upstream parts of the river.

I hope he kicks the state engineer in the ass and has him get this done right damn now. The oil industry, the Billings County Commission and the bridges they want, wait for no man. The Little Missouri State Scenic River needs all the oversight it can get. That was the intent of the 1975 Legislature. I’ll report back when the EIS is released.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Little Missouri Crossing: How To Take A Bad Idea And Make It Worse

A thousand trucks a day. That’s what Billings County Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud bragged to the Dickinson Press one day, a number of years ago, when he was asked how many vehicles would use a new bridge over the Little Missouri River north of Medora, N.D.

A lot of water has flowed beneath that proposed bridge since 2012, the last time the public was invited to consider a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project. He might lower that estimate by a few hundred today.

As I wrote here a few days ago, a new draft of that EIS is ready to go, and we’ll get a look at it in the next couple of months. KLJ Engineering has caught everyone by surprise, including, I think, the Billings County Commission, by its proposed suggested location of the new river crossing on the Short Ranch, just 15 miles or so north of Medora.

Everyone’s asking, “Why there?”

We’ll find out when we actually read the document, but it’s important to remember that what is driving the suggested location is an Environmental Impact Statement. And that means just what it says. What will be the impact on the environment of a new bridge across the Little Missouri River desired by the Billings County Commission? (You can see a map of the proposed location here. The Preferred Alternative at the Short Ranch is Alternative K, Option 1)

The Environmental Impact Statement is required by the National Environmental Policy Act because Billings County is requesting the federal government pay a significant portion of the cost of the project and because the construction of the bridge may impact a federal waterway, the Little Missouri River.

The NEPA was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970. It also created one of the biggest bogeymen in federal government, the Environmental Protection Agency, a much despised agency in western North Dakota. I’m going to share a story in the next few days about how valuable the EPA has been for western North Dakota. Search back in your memory and see if you remember the name Halek. I’ll get to that in a day or two.

But back to NEPA. My friend, Dave Pieper, retired Dakota Prairie Grassland supervisor, points out that it was oil that brought this law into existence. Congress and President Nixon acted to begin protecting our environment in part in response to the public outcry after the 1969 Santa Barbara, Calif., oil spill.

In a letter to the editor a few years ago, Dave summed it up nicely:

NEPA has two primary goals: 1) It obligates federal agencies to consider every significant aspect of the environmental impact of an action before proceeding with it, and 2) It ensures that the agency responsible for the action will inform the public what the action is, and that it has considered environmental concerns in its decision-making process. It is a law of public disclosure.”

The Federal Highway Administration, which gets final sign-off on this project, is requiring Billings County to prove that there are sufficient environmental safeguards built into this project to satisfy the requirements of NEPA before it starts signing checks, which could run as high as $15 million. Higher if new roads have to be built to accommodate the traffic the bridge will enable to cross through the Badlands.

We’ll know more when we read the document, but it appears as if KLJ, hired by Billings County to clear the way for federal funds, is proposing what they believe is the least environmentally damaging location to put the bridge. I’m told the cost to the county, which must pay for the EIS, is now approaching $2 million, about double what I cited in my story the other day. Luckily, Billings County can afford it. Thanks to oil tax revenue over the past 40 years, it is perhaps the richest county, per capita, in the state. It’s a cash cow KLJ has found convenient and desirable to milk for all it is worth. By just doing the job they were hired to do.

There are no such things as federal “earmarks” for projects such as this anymore, so federal money for the project will have to come from North Dakota’s annual allocation of federal highway funds. So when, or if, the project gets the green light as a result of the EIS , the acceptance of the proposed location by Billings County, and approval by the FHWA, then officials at North Dakota’s DOT will have to decide if the money should be spent there, or on other more needed or worthy projects elsewhere in the state. Ultimately, I suppose, Gov. Doug Burgum will have the final say in when, or if, the project gets built. His agency holds the purse strings.

From what I’ve been told, KLJ told the commission at its January meeting that the Short Ranch is the preferred alternative, but there has been no discussion  by the commissioners yet. So to speculate on what will happen next is probably fruitless.

What we know is, there will be a series of public meetings, testimony will be taken, both written and oral, and then the final EIS will be written and will need to be accepted by the County Commission, which will present it to the FHWA, along with the request for funding.

From what I can tell, if, in the end, a bridge is built at the Short Ranch, the biggest beneficiaries will be a few local ranchers. Because of its proximity to Interstate 94, it’s not likely to become a big truck route. To get to the bridge from U.S. Highway 85 is a circuitous route, through some pretty rough Badlands terrain. We’ve been told that the anticipated speed limit on the roads approaching the bridge is 35 miles per hour. When those big old trucks, loaded with oil or water, start up some of those hills at 35 mph, they’re gonna be going backward by the time they get halfway up. The next time, they’ll take I-94.

But there will be some shortcuts created for the locals. A few of the ranchers who live on the west side of the river will be able to get to Medora faster than by going down to the freeway as they do now. And they’ll be able to go see their friends across the river more easily at times of the year when they can’t use their own low-water crossings.

Speaking of low water crossings, I’m guessing the EIS will also recommend the type of crossing — a solid concrete bed with culverts through it, or a bridge. Each, I suppose, has its strong points. We’ll see what comes out of that. I can tell you which canoeists prefer.

The ability to get back and forth to Medora might have also played a key role in the rejection of the only other alternative still under consideration, at the Goldsberry Ranch, about 10 miles farther north. There’s no access to Medora on the east side of the river from the Goldsberry Crossing. The big Whitetail Creek drainage is so steep and rugged that it is unlikely a north-south road would ever be built through it to connect to a road south of it to Medora. So if someone were coming from the west and crossed the bridge, they’d have to go all the way to Highway 85, then south to Belfield, then back west 15 miles to get to Medora.

Most of the talk about the Short Ranch recommended location, I suspect, will be about the convoluted access to the bridge from both state Highway 16 on the west and 85 on the east. While the Goldsberry ranch location offered pretty direct access to both highways, that’s not true of the southern crossing. There’s some speculation that the commission could decide to build a more direct route to Highway 85 by improving and extending Mike’s Creek Road. It runs pretty much straight east (well, as straight as Badlands roads can run)  from near the Short place, but it’s a pretty small road and would require major improvements, and it dead-ends short of Highway 85. An extension would have to be built to get cars and trucks to the highway.

An interesting and ironic aside is that I think the road dead-ends at the ranch of Commissioner Jim Arthaud. They’d have to go through his place to complete the road to the highway. I’m not sure how he’d feel about that. And as I mentioned the other day, getting out to Highway 16 on the west site involves going south almost to I-94 before heading west to the highway. Makes no sense at all. I called if goofy, and since I wrote that, I’ve found several other people using the same word.

The stated goal for this project at the outset was to move traffic from Highway 85 to Highway 16 without going all the way to the interstate. It’s my opinion that this proposal does not meet that goal. We need to remember that originally, the County Commissioners proposed to build the crossing right beside the Elkhorn Ranch, which was about halfway between the two existing bridges, and which, with good outlets to both highways, did accomplish the goal. But the firestorm of opposition to putting it beside the historic Roosevelt ranch stopped that idea dead in its tracks. That’s what sent KLJ and the county scrambling, and this new EIS is the result.

I hope this is a deal killer. We don’t need a thoroughfare for trucks through the Little Missouri River Valley, and no one other than the oil industry, fronted by Arthaud, was asking for one. Until he sold his trucking business a few months ago, Arthaud would have been one of the major beneficiaries of the bridge. Of course, there was an oil boom going on then, and there were a lot more trucks on the road. With Arthaud out of the picture, and the oil boom gone bust, we’ll see how much enthusiasm there still is for this project. I, and many, many other people concerned about the Little Missouri River Valley, hope the enthusiasm is gone, and that this really bad idea gets thrown into the shitpile of equally bad busted dreams and scorched-earth plans somewhere in a pit beside a back road in oil country, never to be seen or heard from again.

Footnote: Let’s give credit, or put the blame, where it is due. From the beginning, when the proposal was to put the new bridge hard up against the Elkhorn Ranch, this was Jim Arthaud’s project. He owned the big trucking company MBI, what he bragged was the biggest oilfield service company in the state, and he wanted a shortcut through the Badlands. He had managed to get himself elected as chairman of the Billings County Commission, found a couple of old ranchers to serve as “yes men” for him and has run roughshod over the Badlands environment ever since. His county’s road crew, for example, is the crew excavating gravel from a pit directly across from the Elkorn. He absolutely rejects giving any special significance to what its supporters call the “cradle of conservation.” Until public pressure forced him to back away from the crossing beside the Elkhorn, he had gotten his way whenever he wanted to. To show you his attitude, let me just share with you a quote from Arthaud in a radio interview with NPR’s John McChesney a few years ago. McChesney asked him about the impact on the Elkhorn, and Arthaud argued that the new bridge would be good for the Elkhorn. He said:

“The whole public would be able to use that place, not just the elitist environmentalists. That lousy 50, however many acres it is, 200 acres or whatever, where Teddy sat there and rested his head and found himself.”

And here’s one more look back at an earlier article I posted about this project and other threats to the Elkhorn Ranch.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — New Little Missouri Bridge Site Selected — And No One’s Going To Be Happy

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:

Hello, Jennifer,

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?

Thanks.

Jim

 Jim,

 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.

Thank you,

Jen

 Dear Jen,

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.

Thank you.

Jim

 Jim,

The preferred alternative is Alternative K, Option 1.

Jen

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.

Footnote: You can learn more about the project at Billings County’s website, or a couple of earlier blog posts, here and here.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — North Dakota’s Best Place: Can We Keep It That Way?

June, for me, marks the beginning of the end of “spring fishing season.”

I’m mostly a Missouri River fisherman. My fishing buddy, Jeff, lives on the river just south of Bismarck and keeps his boat tied to the bank behind his house. It’s pretty easy to just jump in the boat and go, and we do — a lot. We’re going this morning, in fact.

But by late June, or sometimes early July, the bite slows down in that section of the river, and that’s when I head for the Badlands.

This year, I’ll probably spend more time there than ever. Because this year, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is participating in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

Writer and historian Wallace Stegner called national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

American filmmaker Ken Burns, who borrowed the title “America’s Best Idea” for his six-part miniseries, called national parks “an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved for everyone.”

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, 70,000 of the best acres in North Dakota’s Little Missouri Scenic River Badlands, is where you’ll most often find me in July, August and September — and even into October, when I can get a few days off from pheasant hunting.

It’ll probably be a little bit busier this year than normal, because the park is getting some much-deserved recognition lately.

In January, the New York Times, in its annual list of “52 Places To Go In 2016,” put our park at Number 5. Above TRNP on the list were Mexico City, Bordeaux in France, Malta and St. John in the Virgin Islands. Below TRNP: everything else in the world. Pretty elite company.

“Few presidents have done as much for conservation as Teddy Roosevelt,” the Times wrote. “Fly into Dickinson in western North Dakota to visit the park named after him, where rolling grasslands dotted with bison collapse into the spectacular red, white and gold badlands of tumbling mud coulees. Lonely dirt roads bring you to one of the park’s less-visited attractions, Elkhorn Ranch, about 35 miles north of Medora, where Roosevelt arrived in 1884 as a young New Yorker ready to raise cattle and heal from the deaths of his wife and mother. Transformed and inspired, the 26th president eventually set aside more than 230 million acres of federal land to help preserve the wonder of places like Crater Lake, Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon.” (None of which made the Times’ list).

Theodore Roosevelt National Park Forever Stamp.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park Forever Stamp.

Just a couple of months after the Times’ story this past winter, the U. S. Postal Service announced that Theodore Roosevelt National Park would be featured on one of 16 “Forever Stamps” to be issued this year in celebration of the National Parks Centennial. In announcing the stamp, the Postal Service wrote, “According to the National Park Service, when Theodore Roosevelt came to Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1883, he was a ‘skinny, young, spectacled New Yorker.’ He could not have imagined how his adventure in this remote and unfamiliar place would forever alter the course of the nation. The rugged landscape and strenuous life he experienced here would help shape a conservation policy that we still benefit from today.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s new quarter-dollar coin.
Theodore Roosevelt’s new quarter-dollar coin.

And this summer, in a ceremony celebrating “Founders Day,” the actual 100th Birthday Party for the National Park Service, the U.S. Mint will unveil a new quarter-dollar coin featuring an image of Theodore Roosevelt astride his horse, Manitou, in the North Dakota Badlands as a tribute to the park named after him. The ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. Aug. 25 at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center just east of Medora. You’re invited.

The Mint, in its press release, said, “Theodore Roosevelt National Park is named after Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, who owned a ranch on the land that is now part of the park. Thanks to President Roosevelt’s love of nature, many of the national parks in operation today were formed by his administration.”

The New York Times. The U.S. Postal Service. The U.S. Mint. Pretty heady company. Pretty significant recognition for our little old park in the North Dakota Badlands.

Did you notice a theme in those press releases?

Conservation.

All of them talked about TR’s conservation ethic and love of nature — and his significant contribution to preservation of some of America’s best places. That’s a different kind of recognition of our national park than what it has mostly been getting the past five years or so. Because much of the publicity has not been good. Mostly, it’s been about threats to this important place in America’s conservation history.

It began a few years ago, when the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of the park was named one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Trust cited threats from a new oilfield road and Little Missouri Scenic River crossing adjacent to the Elkhorn Ranch site and a gravel mining operation just across the river. The threats are real. The gravel mine began operation this spring, and an Environmental Impact Statement on the river crossing is due out this summer.

The latest threat to the park is a proposed oil refinery just three miles from the park boundary. That project is the most in-your-face proposal yet to emerge from the Bakken Oil Boom. The idea of putting an oil refinery — a noisy, smelly, ugly industrial complex — just across the highway, within eyesight and earshot of a National Park dedicated to our greatest conservation president ever — a president so important that he is the only U.S. president to have a national park named for him — just boggles the mind.

The refinery has received preliminary zoning approval from local authorities. Final approval could come from the Billings County Commission on Tuesday, when Meridian Energy Group, the California company proposing to build the plant, presents its answer to some some conditions set forth by the county zoning board and the commission itself at its meeting in May.

State and federal agencies have yet to weigh in, but Meridian has assured everyone they are committed to keeping the air clean near the park. We’ll see.

But beyond clean air — the plant will have to take steps to ensure that the park’s Class 1 Air Quality status is maintained — there’s the visual impact.

Not long ago, in a fit of boosterism to impress local government and economic development officials, Meridian bragged that the company would attract “compatible industrial process units” to locate alongside the refinery. “Meridian has received inquiries from agricultural chemicals firms, brewing companies, and others interested in locating facilities nearby once the project is in operation,” they said.

In fact, Meridian even produced a slick video presentation about that, but then, realizing the folly of bragging about an industrial park running all the way along the entrance to a national park beside Interstate 94, it dumped the video from its website. In its place is a new video touting the company’s commitment to Belfield, N.D., and the surrounding area. It’s three minutes long. It’s pretty. You can look at it here.

Meridian’s proposed addition to the town of Belfield
Meridian’s proposed addition to the town of Belfield.

Also missing from the website now is a sketch of what looks like “Davis Refinery Village.” The sketch shows a development east of the proposed refinery, with a little more than 500 acres, not much smaller than the entire existing city of Belfield, hard up against the town’s west edge, almost doubling the size of the town. It includes housing for more people than now live in Belfield — 400 units of work-force housing or motels, 500 units of multifamily housing (read: apartments) and 200 units labeled “single-family duplex.” The design also includes a modular housing manufacturing facility, commercial and industrial property, a school site, six-plex theater, clinic, gymnasium, restaurant and bar, storage facilities and a bowling alley. Quite an addition to a town of less than 1,000 souls.

Unlike the refinery, which is in Billings County, the development looks like it is across the county line in Stark County, so it likely won’t be discussed at Tuesday’s Billings County Commission meeting. In looking at Tuesday’s agenda, it looks like the Meridian refinery rezoning request is pretty much scheduled to take up the whole day.

Both former Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor, now a consultant for the National Parks Conservation Association, and current Superintendent Wendy Ross, have called the refinery proposal “unacceptable.” It’s not often federal employees take such visible positions, so they are obviously very concerned.

There are a number of other visual intrusions on the park, mostly the result of nearby oil development. The night skies, for example, are no longer dark, as they should be in a wilderness area — about one-fourth of the park is officially labeled as wilderness, where no traffic other than foot traffic is allowed.

In a recent article in NPCA’s magazine, Park Ranger Bill Whitworth said, “The point of wilderness is to remove yourself from the impact of human settlement, and the oil and gas industry has taken that away.”

On one trip to Buck Hill, the highest point in the Park’s South Unit, a year ago, I counted more than two dozen visual intrusions on the horizon, either from well drilling sites or gas flares. If you drive the scenic road through the North Unit at dusk, the entire northern skyline is afire. The slowdown in oil activity caused by the recent slump in prices has eased that some, but it will be worse when prices come back.

Little Missouri State Park, just down the road from the North Unit of TRNP, has suffered much the same fate. It was once one of my favorite Badlands getaway spots because the scenery is just as spectacular, the hiking trails are an almost magical escape from civilization, and there are generally fewer visitors. But today, the development is so overwhelming and the flaring is so intense there that I won’t even go there anymore.

But this summer, we will celebrate 100 years of America’s Best Idea. I’m going to go to the bank in Medora, get a few rolls of those quarters, then walk next door to the post office and buy a bunch of Forever Stamps, and then go over to Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s Visitor Center and buy some postcards to send to all my friends. I hope I see you out there.

It’s North Dakota’s Best Place. I hope it can keep that title.