JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — ‘Honest, Officer, I Thought Owned That Land.’ Wrong

If you read The Bismarck Tribune on Tuesday morning, you read Amy Dalrymple’s pretty good story about Monday’s marathon Little Missouri Scenic River Commission meeting.  I’m going to write more about that later. I’ll just say, for now, be careful what you wish for.

What I want to write about today is one of the things the commission discussed Monday — the illegal bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River on the Wylie Bice Ranch in Dunn County.

I’ve written about this a few times, but there are new developments and I’m going to address it one more time — for now.

Wylie Bice is the uber-rich rancher from west of Killdeer, N.D., the man who built a trucking company from scratch and sold it for at least $79.9 million. Higher numbers have been bandied about, but we know from business journal reports he got at least that much. He’s a real North Dakota success story. Good for him.

He may have had some debt to pay off with the proceeds, but he had enough left over to buy a neighbor’s ranch, giving him land on both sides of the Little Missouri State Scenic River.

He needed to get back and forth, so he built a bridge — a mighty expensive bridge, probably a couple of million dollars worth — and put one end of it on land he didn’t own. It took a few years for the owners — the U.S. government’s Bureau of Land Management — to find out about it, and when it did, it did what government agencies do: It set out to do a study to determine what to do about Bice’s transgressions.

That study starts next week, at the end of a public comment period. What the BLM has done is required Bice to submit an application to build a bridge on their land (a bridge that already exists).  He’s done that. Now they’re requiring an Environmental Assessment, which Mr. Bice will have to pay for.

The Environmental Assessment could be done yet this fall. It will lay out a series of alternatives, which could include tearing down the bridge, granting an easement and leaving the bridge in place or a new option that surfaced this week — just selling the land the bridge is on to Bice. It’s only about 80 acres, and it’s isolated from other BLM land holdings in Dunn County, and it’s certainly worth less than $79.9 million, so Mr. Bice can afford it.

But it’s looking more and more like Bice is not the kind of man you want to do business with. For one thing, he’s a liar.

If you go read Amy Dalrymple’s story from the Sunday Tribune, you’ll find this line:

“Bice said he believed he owned the property and he chose the location to avoid removing a lot of trees.”

That’s the lie.

Although he didn’t contact the BLM about putting a bridge on its land, he certainly knew it wasn’t his land.

You see, Bice (or his engineer) did one thing right: they applied for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to put a bridge over the river, for which the Corps has management responsibilities. The Corps is only responsible for the river itself, though, not the riverbank. Bice owned the land on one side of the river and the BLM the other.

In his application to the corps, Bice put in photocopies of two maps of the area. Both clearly show the land on the west side of the river is owned by the federal government. He even drew in the bridge on both maps, from his land onto  BLM land. Here’s his map, from the Dunn County Atlas, with his note on the bottom showing the location of his bridge.

There’s a second map in the application, from the U. S. Forest Service’s National Grasslands map, but I won’t bother you with it.

So it is pretty obvious he knew he was putting a bridge where he shouldn’t be putting a bridge, at least without permission from the people who owned the land. Still, the excuse he used for building the bridge where it shouldn’t be, when questioned by the Tribune reporter, was that he thought he owned it.

Sorry, Bice, you’re busted.

I got my copy of the Corps permit application a year ago by sending an e-mail to the Bismarck office of the Corps of Engineers on July 1, 2017, which said:

“I am interested in finding out whether a permit was issued to Wylie Bice, Grassy Butte, N.D., to construct a bridge over the little Missouri in Dunn County, North Dakota. The legal address is Section 33, Township 148 North, Range 97 West. If so, I would like to see the permit and any accompanying documents related to the project. The bridge was likely built in the last five years. Thank you.”

Just two days later, on July 3, I got this response from a nice lady at the Corps office, along with a copy of the permit application and the letter approving the permit:

“Mr. Bice obtained a nationwide permit to install a bridge in 2013.  Attached is the verification letter and application information.  The project manager that worked on this has since retired, so if you have any questions, feel free to give me a call.”

Well, I read the application and the letter approving it, and looked at the maps, and saw that the west side of the bridge was on BLM land. So I wrote back:

“Thank you for sending me that information. I have just one more question. The bridge enters/exits the Little Missouri River on the north side on BLM land. Does your permit cover access to the BLM land as well as authorizing the bridge? Or would that need a second permit?”

The nice lady at the Corps wrote right back:

“Our permit is not a land right.  By signing our permit application, the applicant is providing assurance that he/she has the authority to construct the project as presented in the application.”

Well, that settles that, then. I also found this language in the letter approving the bridge:

“Dear Mr. Bice … You may proceed with your project in accordance with the terms and conditions of DA Nationwide Permit No, 14 … This determination is applicable only to the permit program administered by the Corps of Engineers. It does not eliminate the need to obtain other federal, state, tribal, and local approvals before beginning work.”

In other words, Bice, you probably should go knock on the BLM manager’s door and ask him if it is OK to put a bridge on his land.

I did follow up with a phone call to the Corps lady, just to confirm. She said it was the responsibility of the person doing the project to contact the BLM. She said they assumed he had done that — it would only make sense to get permission before building the bridge.

So if you read the Tribune story, and Bice’s statement that he thought he owned the land, and thought to yourself, “Well, anybody can make a mistake,” well WRONG. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Well, after that exchange with the Corps, I called the BLM office and asked what the heck was going on. They were surprised. They said they’d get back to me. They did. With this response “Well, we’ve got a situation here.”

No shit, Sherlock.

So now, I expect Bice to make a nice generous offer to the BLM for the land and hope it will accept it and just go away. I suppose that’s the most logical solution.  But I hope that’s not what happens. That’s just not right. Just because you have A LOT of money, you shouldn’t be able to get away with something like this. It just leaves a bad taste.

My suggestion is a hefty fine (although that won’t bother him, either), grant him an easement for the bridge and the road to it, charge him back rent for the easement and rent going forward and make him clean up the area around the bridge, get rid of his water depot, and reclaim the grassland where he planted alfalfa. This IS public land, land we all own.

So where the whole thing stands right now is, the BLM is now accepting comments on Bice’s application to build a bridge, until Monday (Aug. 13). It sent a letter to “interested parties” (I got one) outlining the alternatives they are considering:

  • 1. Take no action (leave the bridge, road, pond and alfalfa fields on the land as is). This would not achieve the project purpose, but the BLM will analyze the effects to serve as a baseline.
  • 2. Remove the bridge, road, pond and alfalfa fields and rehabilitate the public land to a condition similar to that of the surrounding public land.
  • 3. Sell or exchange the affected public land to the adjacent landowner.
  • 4. Authorize the bridge, road and pond through rights-of-way, and the alfalfa fields through a lease.
  • 5. Authorize only the bridge and access road through a right-of-way, remove the pond and alfalfa fields and rehabilitate the public land. In the event a right-of-way for the bridge and road are granted by the BLM, the site would still remain inaccessible to the public, via road, due to the lack of public roads to the site.

I actually really prefer No. 2, tearing the damn thing down, but it probably just doesn’t make sense to do that now that it is there. I wouldn’t mind if a lot of people suggested that, though.

You can read the letter here. It says:

We would appreciate your input on:

  • Other actions that would meet the purpose of resolving the issue.
  • Suggested changes to the alternatives.
  • Other concerns over project impacts.
  • Data/information the BLM should consider in making a reasoned decision.
  • People or groups the BLM should contact about this project.
  • Future actions by BLM or others that could have a cumulative effect together with the proposed action.

So if you want to commentand make some suggestions, go to this website. Down in the bottom right-hand corner of the page is a place to comment. I’m sending them this blog as my comments. We’ll get another chance to comment on the Environmental Assessment later. I’ll let you know when that time comes.

Oh, and if you want a really good look at the site on an illustrated Google Earth photo, go here. These government guys have some cool tools.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Gov. Burgum Needs To Take Responsibility For His Actions

I don’t think North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum has a disingenuous bone in his body. But sometimes political naivete can make someone appear disingenuous (actually, my definition of disingenuous is “fake naivete”).

There’s still a bit of naivete in Burgum. The transition from the business world to government is not an easy one. He’s still learning, although he’s a pretty fast learner. And when count on your ability to learn fast, in the public eye, for all the world to see, you can make mistakes.

So I’m writing off his charge to the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission to approve an industrial water policy for the Little Missouri State Scenic River as naivete, a mistake and not disingenuousness. Let me explain what I am talking about.

As I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, the North Dakota Legislature last May approved, and Gov. Burgum signed, legislation authorizing the use of water from the Little Missouri State Scenic River for fracking oil wells.

Ever since 1975, until that day in May 2017, it had been illegal to use Little Missouri River water for industrial purposes, like fracking. That policy was part of the “Little Missouri Scenic River Act” passed by the 1975 North Dakota Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Art Link.

But the state engineer over at the Water Commission office had been illegally issuing industrial water permits from the Little Missouri for about 15 years, more than 600 of them, and the Water Commission, chaired by the governor (Govs. Hoeven and Dalrymple), had been approving them. So the change in the law served the purpose of making those permits legal.

Conservationists, having observed how little regard for the law and for the environment existed in the Capitol, opposed the change to the more-than-40-year-old law and let Burgum know about it, asking him to veto the bill. Ignoring those pleas, he signed the bill but then took a series of executive actions.

While the new law allowed free and open access to the entire Little Missouri River for industrialization, Burgum initially limited that to just the part of the river downstream from the Long-X Bridge, which is located on the east end of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Essentially, he allowed industrial water use in the last 40 miles of the river before it flows into Lake Sakakawea. That stretch of the river is mostly in Dunn County, where most of the heavy oil activity near the river takes place. So he really didn’t slow down development by limiting industrial water use on the rest of the river.

In doing that, he protected all three units of the national park from industrial development. For the time being, that is. Because he said this was going to be an “interim policy,” and he told his state engineer over at the State Water Commission office to present some options for a more permanent policy.

A month later, the engineers at the Water Commission office did just that, and at a State Water Commission meeting in June, Burgum joined his fellow Water Commission members in voting to open up the entire Little Missouri State Scenic River Basin to industrial water use, backtracking from his earlier policy of protecting the national parks.

He and the Water Commission did that with no public hearings and no public input. They just listened as the Water Commission engineers presented four different possible levels of development and recommended the most destructive one, and the Water Commission adopted it. No one except the engineers and the commission members got to address the issue. I guess that’s the way Burgum did things in the business world. But it shouldn’t happen in state government. Public comment should be required when major decisions like this are made by appointed boards, chaired by the governor.

I remember the days in the 1970s, when Art Link and Myron Just were the two elected members of the Water Commission — I was actually working for Myron back then — and they’d never have done anything like that. God, I long for those days again.

So in June, just six weeks after the Legislature passed a bill allowing industrialization of the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley (another law change that had no public hearing because it was an amendment slapped onto the end of the Water Commission budget bill with just days to go in the session), and Burgum signed it into law, Burgum had a new “interim policy” on industrial use of the Little Missouri State Scenic River — anything goes.

But that’s when he did something I view as disingenuous.

He said he wanted this “interim policy” to be in effect until it was presented to his newly reactivated Little Missouri Scenic River Commission for its approval. Once approved, which he expected, this would become permanent policy.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission was also created in 1975 by the Scenic River Act but that it had essentially been discharged of its duties by Govs. John Hoeven and Jack Dalrymple. In other words, it quit meeting.

Those duties outlined in the law were to “advise local or other units of government to afford the protection adequate to maintain the scenic, historic, and recreational qualities of the Little Missouri River and its tributary streams.”

So Burgum was asking the Scenic River Commission to give the final approval for the industrialization of the Little Missouri State Scenic River, which would seem to be in direct conflict with the commission’s charge under the law to maintain the river’s “scenic, historic and recreational qualities.”

The way he asked them was to send an engineer out to their meeting in Dickinsn in October and ask the Scenic River Commission to approve the interim policy of the Water Commission, so it could become a permanent policy. You read that right. He asked the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission to give its blessing to a permanent policy that would allow industrial use of Little Missouri River water over the entire length of the river in North Dakota.

The appearance that gave was that Burgum had assuaged the conservation community by reactivating the Scenic River Commission, and then the very first thing he asked them to do was approve an industrial water policy. It just makes no sense. That’s not the Doug Burgum I know. Or used to know.

Luckily, the Scenic River Commission demurred, saying they wanted more time to think about it. I don’t think Burgum, or the engineers who passionately presented their case to the Commission, expected that. But to the general public, and those of us paying attention to all this, it gave the appearance that the commission was doing its job, maintaining the river’s “scenic, historic and recreational qualities.”

Good for them.

I wrote in an earlier blog that the policy is likely to be revisited at the commission’s next meeting, either with a presentation by the same engineers who pitched it at the last meeting, or maybe that the Governor himself should come and pitch it. Well, I’ve changed my mind about that.

I think that is a bad spot to put the commission in. There were a lot of people in the audience at the last Scenic River Commission meeting who finally got a chance to speak against the policy. Commission members appeared to listen.

I think both the governor and the engineers should stay home from the next meeting and let the commission get on with selecting an agenda for itself that indeed involves maintaining the “scenic, historic and recreational qualities” of the river. To do anything else would be disingenuous of the governor. I hope he gets that by now.

If he wants to adopt a permanent policy to industrialize the Little Missouri, let him do that. Don’t try to pass that off to a volunteer group charged with just the opposite. That’s the definition of disingenuous. Not naivete.

I’m posting a few pictures with this story that I made by scanning the Little Missouri Scenic River Valley on Google Earth. Take a look at them. They show what’s been going on the last few years as a result of the state engineer issuing illegal water permits and the absence of oversight by the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission during the Hoeven and Dalrymple administrations.

Take a look at the well pads and water depots just yards from the state’s only officially designated State Scenic River. This is what needs to stop. I really hope the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission will step in and do what the law that created it allows them to do. Here’s that law:

61-29-05. Powers and duties of commission. The commission may advise local or other units of government to afford the protection adequate to maintain the scenic, historic, and recreational qualities of the Little Missouri River and its tributary streams. The commission shall also have the power and duties of promulgating management policies to coordinate all activities within the confines of the Little Missouri River when such action is deemed necessary.

Who’s In Charge?  

Footnote: The Little Missouri State Scenic River Act was the brainchild of an early North Dakota State Parks director, Gary Leppart. He wrote the legislation and recruited a couple of local Republican legislators — Earl Rundle from New England and Karnes Johnson from Sentinel Butte, to sponsor it. Those two were enormously popular back home, and their legislative districts encompassed most of the Little Missouri River Valley. They helped bring local support for the bill, which might have been seen as an intrusion by state government into local affairs had Leppart not had local Republicans as sponsors. Rundle, who stood about 5-foot-4 with an enormous girth and an ever-present cigar, actually got in a canoe and went for a trip down river to show his support. My friend Mike Jacobs, who was a reporter at the Dickinson Press at the time, went along. He tells a pretty good story about the trip.

Leppart told me just the other day that “There really wasn’t any entity to oversee the river, so we just assumed the State Parks Department could do it. But I thought there should be some local input, that we should get people who lived beside it, to get involved. That’s why we wrote the law the way we did. And the support of local legislators helped get it passed.”

The law provided for six Bad Lands ranchers and three state officials — the state Parks director, the state engineer and the atate health officer — to serve on the commission. The commission was staffed by the State Parks Department. The Parks director served as the official secretary of the commission, and the Parks director’s staff handled the details of setting up meetings and distributing minutes. For many years, the Parks director managed the affairs of the commission, alerting members of issues they needed to deal with, and scheduling meetings to deal with them.

Burgum changed that when he reactivated the commission, handing the administrative duties over to the state engineer’s office. That was a bad idea. The state engineer implements state water policy. Engineers need to engineer things. Generally, they aren’t concerned with “scenic, historic and recreational qualities.” That’s just their nature.

On the other hand, those are the EXACT things State Parks directors do — “maintain scenic, historic and recreational qualities” of special places set aside for the public’s enjoyment. Leppart kept a close eye on this commission, and kept it active, as did his successors, Bob Horne and Doug Eiken. But Doug Prchal and Mark Zimmerman, who succeeded them, ignored it, and the result was rampant development along the river valley, aided and abetted by 600 illegal water permits issued by their sister agency, the state engineer’s office and by an Oil and Gas Division director who never learned to say “No.”

I blame Prchal and Zimmerman for the massive development on the banks of the Little Missouri State Scenic River today as much as I do the state engineers who issued those water permits and the Oil and Gas Division directors who issued drilling permits and oil tank battery permits beside the river. Although I truly believe the real blame lies with Hoeven and Dalrymple, who were rolling over for the oil industry. The bureaucrats were likely just following orders, and to not follow them would have meant their jobs, I suspect.

But I think Burgum didn’t know a lot of that history and didn’t think through who should be managing the Scenic River Commission when he reactivated it, and so he put the state engineer in charge.

It’s time to move that back to the Parks Department. The people there care about things like scenery, and history, and recreation. And they care about the river, and the river valley, and the Bad Lands, and the environment. Good for them. Let’s put them in charge of the whole state!