LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Our Comment Letter On The Proposed Little Missouri River Bridge

Jim has written about the proposed new bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River north of Medora, N.D., that is being shoved down our throats by a megalomaniac county commissioner who wants to spend up to $20 million of our gas tax dollars on a “Bridge to Nowhere.”

At the insistence of the Federal Highway Administration, the county is deep into an Environmental Impact Statement process — in fact nearing the end stages of that process — and will soon be asking for federal funds to build its bridge. One of the final steps in the process is a public comment period, which is open now and runs through Sept. 4. If you go to this website, you will find the details and a link to another website which contains the actual Draft EIS, for your reading pleasure.

If you have any feelings about running a lot of traffic through the valley of the Little Missouri State Scenic River, or wasting millions of taxpayer dollars, you should send in comments on the project. Below is the letter Jim and I have sent expressing our feelings. This letter and Jim’s earlier blog should give you plenty of information about the project, so you don’t have to read the entire 178-page document. (Although if you really want to spend a summer afternoon reading, here’s the link to the Draft EIS.)

Even easier, if you agree with what we have written, feel free to just copy and paste a link to this blog into an e-mail addressed to LMRC@kljeng.com and tell Jen Turnbow you agree with the letter in the blog, and your comments will be duly noted.

Jen Turnbow, Project Manager

KLJ

P.O. Box 1157

Bismarck, N.D. 58502-1157

Aug. 17, 2018

Dear Ms. Turnbow:

Please accept these comments on the Draft EIS for the Little Missouri River Crossing in Billings County, North Dakota. We are writing to recommend Alternative L, the no-build option.

If built, this bridge would be the most colossal waste of taxpayer dollars in memory. If it is built with federal or state matching funds, approved by the North Dakota Department of Transportation, it will be a huge embarrassment for both the North Dakota DOT and the Federal Highway Administration because it is truly a “bridge to nowhere.”

North Dakota has substantial infrastructure needs, as witnessed by several state legislators recently, and the proposed $11.2 million, and likely as much as $20 million, could be much better spent correcting existing problems rather than building a new bridge unlikely to be used by many except possibly the oil industry.

In spite of all being said by the county and KLJ, it appears the only real beneficiary of this bridge would be the oil industry. Federal, and state tax dollars should not be spent to accommodate a single industry, especially at the expense of real and substantial damage to the historic, recreational and scenic properties of the states only designated State Scenic River.

If the bridge is built with Billings County taxpayer dollars, as the commission has indicated it might do if federal or state dollars are not available, it should be subject to a referendum by Billings County voters before it is approved.

Almost no one wants this bridge. It has simply become a cause celebre for Billings County Commission Chairman  Jim Arthaud, who has already spent several million dollars in Billings County tax dollars pursuing it, and despite the fact it is not in his preferred location, has gone too far down the road for him to consider abandoning it without losing face. It is simply now a monument to his persistence, a monument on which he would like his name inscribed.

Almost no one will use this bridge, according to testimony at the public hearings, unless KLJ, the project’s engineers, are misleading us with this statement:

“Traffic volume increase of 3.5 percent for roads associated with the alternative and adjacent roadways. Not expected to generate new traffic; however the redistribution of local trips attracted to the new bridge is anticipated to increase the typical 2.5 percent traffic growth rates by 1 percent for roads associated with the alternative and adjacent roadways.”

If that statement is true, there is no need for the bridge. If that statement is misleading (which is not only possible, but likely), and the volume of heavy truck traffic increases dramatically, it will destroy the sanctity and peacefulness of the state’s only designated State Scenic River, likely in violation of Chapter 61-29 of the North Dakota Century Code, the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act, enacted by the North Dakota Legislature “to preserve the Little Missouri River as nearly as possible in its present state … (and) maintain the scenic, historic and recreational qualities of the Little Missouri River and its tributary streams.” The North Dakota DOT, as a lead agency for this project, should not approve a project which would violate the law.

Today there are ZERO trucks driving through the river valley and across the Little Missouri State Scenic River between Medora and the Long-X Bridge. That is what the residents of the river valley, although there are few, want the case to be. According to testimony at the public hearings, there are fewer than ten families living alongside the river who could possibly benefit from this bridge. But they live in fear of the noise, danger, and massive dust clouds that could be generated by heavy truck traffic through the river valley and on their farm-to-market roads.

The County Commission has leaned heavily on the need for the bridge to accommodate emergency vehicles. That argument doesn’t wash. Almost all of the county’s emergency vehicles are located in Medora, less than a mile from the bridge across the Little Missouri River there, and can go either way — east or west — to respond to an emergency.

For all of these reasons and others, the county should quit wasting taxpayer dollars and select Alternative L, the no-build alternative, and the North Dakota DOT and the Federal Highway Administration should reject the use of state and/or federal funds for this project.

Respectfully,

Lillian Crook & Jim Fuglie

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Comment Now On The ‘Bridge To Nowhere’

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote here about the proposed new bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River north of Medora, N.D., that is being shoved down our throats by a megalomaniac county commissioner who wants to spend up to $20 million of our gas tax dollars on a “Bridge to Nowhere.”

At the insistence of the Federal Highway Administration, the county is deep into an Environmental Impact Statement process — in fact nearing the end stages of that process — and will soon be asking for federal funds to build its bridge. One of the final steps in the process is a public comment period, which is open now and runs through Sept. 4. If you go to this website, you will find the details and a link to another website that contains the actual Draft EIS, for your reading pleasure.

If you have any feelings about running a lot of traffic through the valley of the Little Missouri State Scenic River, or wasting millions of taxpayer dollars, you should send in comments on the project. Below is the letter Lillian and I have sent, expressing our feelings. This letter and my earlier blog should give you plenty of information about the project, so you don’t have to read the entire 178-page document. (Although if you really want to spend a summer afternoon reading, here’s the link to the Draft EIS.)

Even easier, if you agree with what Lillian and I have written, feel free to just copy and paste a link to this blog into an e-mail addressed to LMRC@kljeng.com and tell Jen Turnbow you agree with the letter in the blog, and your comments will be duly noted.

Here’s what we wrote, and the address to which you can send your comments.

Jen Turnbow, Project Manager

KLJ

P.O. Box 1157

Bismarck N.D. 58502-1157

Aug.17, 2018

Dear Ms. Turnbow:

Please accept these comments on the Draft EIS for the Little Missouri River Crossing in Billings County, North Dakota. We are writing to recommend Alternative L, the no-build option.

If built, this bridge would be the most colossal waste of taxpayer dollars in memory. If it is built with federal or state matching funds, approved by the North Dakota Department of Transportation, it will be a huge embarrassment for both the North Dakota DOT and the Federal Highway Administration because it is truly a “bridge to nowhere.”

North Dakota has substantial infrastructure needs, as witnessed by several state legislators recently, and the proposed $11.2 million, and likely as much as $20 million, could be much better spent correcting existing problems rather than building a new bridge unlikely to be used by many except possibly the oil industry.

In spite of all being said by the county and KLJ, it appears the only real beneficiary of this bridge would be the oil industry. Federal and state tax dollars should not be spent to accommodate a single industry, especially at the expense of real and substantial damage to the historic, recreational and scenic properties of the state’s only designated State Scenic River.

If the bridge is built with Billings County taxpayer dollars, as the commission has indicated it might do if federal or state dollars are not available, it should be subject to a referendum by Billings County voters before it is approved.

Almost no one wants this bridge. It has simply become a cause celebre for Billings County Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud, who has already spent several million dollars in Billings County tax dollars pursuing it, and despite the fact it is not in his preferred location, has gone too far down the road for him to consider abandoning it without losing face. It is simply now a monument to his persistence, a monument on which he would like his name inscribed.

Almost no one will use this bridge, according to testimony at the public hearings, unless KLJ, the project’s engineers, are misleading us with this statement:

“Traffic volume increase of 3.5 percent for roads associated with the alternative and adjacent roadways. Not expected to generate new traffic; however the redistribution of local trips attracted to the new bridge is anticipated to increase the typical 2.5 percent traffic growth rates by 1 percent for roads associated with the alternative and adjacent roadways.”

If that statement is true, there is no need for the bridge. If that statement is misleading (which is not only possible, but likely), and the volume of heavy truck traffic increases dramatically, it will destroy the sanctity and peacefulness of the state’s only designated State Scenic River, likely in violation of Chapter 61-29 of the North Dakota Century Code, the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act, enacted by the North Dakota Legislature “to preserve the Little Missouri River as nearly as possible in its present state … (and) maintain the scenic, historic, and recreational qualities of the Little Missouri River and its tributary streams.”

The North Dakota DOT, as a lead agency for this project, should not approve a project that would violate the law.

Today there are ZERO trucks driving through the river valley and across the Little Missouri State Scenic River between Medora and the Long-X Bridge. That is what the residents of the river valley, although there are few, want the case to be. According to testimony at the public hearings, there are fewer than 10 families living alongside the river who could possibly benefit from this bridge. But they live in fear of the noise, danger, and massive dust clouds which could be generated by heavy truck traffic through the river valley and on their farm-to-market roads.

The County Commission has leaned heavily on the need for the bridge to accommodate emergency vehicles. That argument doesn’t wash. Almost all of the county’s emergency vehicles are located in Medora, less than a mile from the bridge across the Little Missouri River there, and can go either way — east or west — to respond to an emergency.

For all of these reasons and others, the county should quit wasting taxpayer dollars and select Alternative L, the no-build alternative, and the North Dakota DOT and the Federal Highway Administration should reject the use of state and/or federal funds for this project.

Respectfully,

Lillian Crook

Jim Fuglie

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Halcyon Days Are Gone

In the halcyon days of the 1970s in North Dakota, when the state was a quieter, kinder, friendlier, more thoughtful place, the Legislature passed a bill, and the governor signed it, designating the Little Missouri River as our state’s only official State Scenic River and creating a commission to look out for it.

The Little Missouri Scenic River Commission did its job through the administrations of four governors who cared about the Bad Lands and its river — Art Link, Allen Olson, George Sinner and Ed Schafer — two Democrats and two Republicans. It met regularly, rerouted proposed pipelines to protect trees, kept gravel miners, oil drillers, seismologists and road builders out of the river valley, made sure oil wells and tank batteries were above the bluff line well away from the river and even passed rules regulating barbed-wire fences across the river.

Then came the administrations of John “Good-Paying Jobs Uber Alles” Hoeven and Jack Dalrymple, and the commission faded into obscurity. It ceased to meet, and its rules ceased to be enforced, and soon the industrialization of the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley began.

Oil wells started showing up on the riverbank, just yards from the river. The state engineer began issuing industrial water permits to take water from the river for fracking, in direct violation of the law (600 of them at last count). The roar of diesel trucks and jake brakes, and the steady thump, thump of one lung pumpjacks, echoed throughout the valley.

With the election of Doug Burgum, who was an easterner, but owned a Bad Lands ranch, there was some hope that the state’s only Scenic River might once again get some special attention at the highest levels of government. Didn’t happen. Oh, Burgum reformulated the commission, but then he asked it, as its first official act, to ratify a policy making it legal, for the first time in more than 40 years, to use Little Missouri State Scenic River water for industrial purposes — read: fracking. They did that this week.

The commission is an interesting mix of folks. By law, it is composed of six Bad Lands ranchers, one from each of the six Bad Lands counties, and three bureaucrats — the state engineer, the state health officer and the state parks director. For the first 25 years of its existence, it carried out its mission, with reasonable ranchers who really cared about the river valley, and dedicated state employees from the State Parks and Health Departments and state engineer’s office, teaming up to fulfill its mission, as outlined in Chapter 61-29 of the North Dakota Century Code: “to maintain the scenic, historic, and recreational qualities of the Little Missouri River and its tributary streams.”

The law also says 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.”

One of the things they did with that authority, to help “maintain the recreation quality” of the river, was to adopt a fencing policy, which said that fences across the river “must have a gated opening of at least 8 feet.” They adopted that policy at a meeting in April 1995.

Now, I’ve been canoeing the Little Missouri for more than 40 years, and for the first 35 years, I rarely encountered a fence across the river. Once or twice in all those years. But a few years ago, Lillian and I canoed from the Logging Camp Ranch, south of Medora, into Medora, a trip we’ve done probably half a dozen times. And in that 40 or so river miles, we encountered eight fences across the river, none of which had gates. We were forced to get out and portage around every one of them. On about fence No. 6, I angrily vowed to bring a wire cutter with me the next time I canoed that stretch of the river. I cooled down after a couple of beers in Medora, and instead just decided to never canoe that stretch of the river again. And I haven’t. Which is too bad, since it is the stretch that goes around Bullion Butte, one of the nicest places on the entire river. Entire planet, for that matter.

Later, I asked a rancher down in that country why there were so many fences all of a sudden. He said, “Jim, neighbors don’t get along like they used to.”

Well, he’s right, of course. In the halcyon days, cattle along that stretch ran free and were rounded up and sorted in the spring for branding. Now, fences keep everyone’s herds separate.

I’m writing all this on the heels of this week’s Scenic River Commission meeting in Dickinson, at which the commission was asked to weigh in on three issues.

The first was Burgum’s policy of allowing for industrial use of water from the river for fracking. The policy was adopted by the State Water Commission, which Burgum chairs, about a year ago, but the Scenic River Commission mulled it over for a while before finally giving it the okay this week.

So instead of looking out for the river, maintaining its “scenic, historic and recreational qualities,” the first official action of the newly formed commission was to give its blessing to the industrialization of the Little Missouri State Scenic River. There are already approved industrial water permits at 10 ranches on the river right now. Who knows how many there will be in a year, or five years.

The second was a request for support for the new bridge across the Little Missouri River north of Medora. The group discussed it for more than an hour before commission member Gene Allen from Beach made a motion to support the “no-build” alternative laid out in the Environmental Impact Statement, which would have put the commission on record as opposing the new bridge. That brought Billings County Commission chairman Jim Arthaud roaring from the audience to the front of the room, where he took over the meeting and said in no uncertain terms that Billings County needed and deserved the bridge.

Well, after more discussion, the motion failed on a 5-3 vote, with only Allen, Slope County rancher John Hanson and Parks Director Melissa Baker voting in favor of it.  Then there was silence while commission chairman Joe Schettler, Dunn County’s representative on the commission waited for a motion to support the bridge. No motion was forthcoming. So, after a long pause, Schettler recessed the meeting for a bathroom break. So the commission took no position on the bridge.

The third was a discussion of the illegal bridge already built over the river in Dunn County by Wylie Bice, which I wrote about the other day. After some discussion, the group decided that since the bridge is already there, not much can be done about it. So they gave it tacit approval.

But the discussion turned to the idea that it was actually the Corps of Engineers fault the bridge was there because they signed off on the bridge but hadn’t checked with the Bureau of Land Management, on whose land the bridge is located, to see if it was OK with them. So the group passed a motion to send a letter to the Corps asking them to please share information on things like this.

I found it a bit ironic that a bunch of conservative ranchers were urging the government agencies to share personal information with each other. Guess it depends on the situation.

So now, the commission moves on to other things — what other things I am not sure. It’s an interesting group. The county representatives are appointed by the county commissioners. They must be ranchers who live on the river, except for the Golden Valley County representative (lawyer Gene Allen from Beach). (Golden Valley is one of the Bad Lands counties even though the river doesn’t flow through it.)

A couple of them take their responsibility to protect the river seriously. More of them are there to protect their county’s economic interests by not letting environmental protection get in the way of the industry that fuels their county’s economy — oil. The chairman himself has an industrial water permit and sells water from the river to the frackers. To be fair, he hasn’t been voting on these things, saying he will only vote to break a tie.

State Parks director Melissa Baker is there to protect the river. State Engineer Garland Erbele is there to do what engineers do — build things. He’s no friend of the river. The Health Department is represented by Dave Glatt, head of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. He’s a lackey for the energy industry, Burgum’s worst appointment to date, who can’t be trusted to stick up for the river. He voted FOR the industrial water permit policy and AGAINST the motion to oppose the new bridge in Billings County, even though it has the potential to be the worst environmental problem ever to face the river if the oil trucks start crossing through the valley by the hundreds, or thousands, as the county has predicted. I told him after Monday’s meeting that, as the state’s top environmental officer, he ought to be ashamed of himself.

So what we’ve got, I was moaning to a friend of mine who knows these issues, is what we asked for: an active Little Missouri Scenic River Commission. I guess we have to be more careful about what we ask for. It’s just a rubber stamp for the energy industry, I complained to my friend. And that is bad because their approval of things like industrial water permits and bridges (and who knows what else in the future) gives those who would abuse the Little Missouri State Scenic River the credibility of having been approved and endorsed by an official state government commission.

A couple of years ago I began writing about the need to reactivate the commission. I really, really wanted to bring it back and put it to work protecting the river from industrial development. I remember those halcyon days when the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission members really, really cared about the river. And I really, really long for those days again, I told my friend.

“Jim,” he said, “things are different now. You need to lower your expectations.”

I guess.

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 — ‘A Bridge To Nowhere’

Well, after nearly a dozen years of delay, it looks like Billings County is finally going to build a bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River north of Medora, N.D. The county posted a notice in the Federal Register on Oct. 12, 2006, that it was beginning an Environmental Impact Statement process “for a proposed roadway project and river crossing over the Little Missouri River.”

Last week, almost 12 years later, the county presented its Draft EIS to the public and took testimony for and against the project at a pair of public hearings in Medora and Bismarck. Now a mechanical process will lead to a final decision on the location of the bridge, involving mostly the North Dakota Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. More about that in a minute. First, a little history.

In the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, with an alarming number of farmers and ranchers facing foreclosure, especially on the barren prairies of North Dakota, President Franklin Roosevelt declared it was the policy of the United States government to keep as many people on the land as possible in hopes of better times.  Emergency plans were implemented.

In North Dakota, ranchers in the western part of the state were offered the opportunity to avoid foreclosure — by banks that did not want to become landowners — by selling their land to the government, which would then lease it to back to them for pennies on the dollar. The money from the sale would settle their debts to the banks, and even though times were tough, they might be able to survive on the meager income from their ranching operations.

The ranchers were able to keep the home section, where their homesteads and ranch buildings were located. For ranchers along the Little Missouri River, that meant they could keep their river frontage — important because it provided water for their cattle. One look at a Little Missouri National Grasslands map today shows clearly the result of that. Nearly all the land directly beside the river is privately owned. The rest — a million acres of it— is owned by the federal government and leased to those ranchers alongside the river for their ranching operations.

Much of that private land along the river is owned by descendants of those who benefited from Roosevelt’s program, and much of the government land is leased by those same descendants. A typical Bad Lands rancher today owns just a section or two of land along the river and leases the rest of his acreage from the government. FDR’s program continues to work today. (The current map shows the thin strip of white along the river — private land — in a sea of green — public land.)

So six years ago, when Billings County Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud said that he wanted to put the new bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River on public land, he knew that was likely not possible because there are very few places between Medora and the northern border of Billings County where the government owns land on both sides of the river.  “I mean, I can tell you where I think it needs to go. It needs to go on public land where it affects all the public, where it doesn’t affect private people,” Arthaud said at a public meeting back in 2012.

One of those places where there is public land on both sides of the river, of course, is beside the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. That’s where Athaud originally wanted to put the bridge, but a huge public outcry put an end to that idea.

”We know damn well where that bridge belongs,” Arthaud told National Public Radio’s John McChesney in an interview in the late summer of 2012. “On federal ground, about three miles north (of the Elkhorn).”

McChesney also reported that “Arthaud also owns a trucking company. He says the bridge will be out of earshot and eyesight of the ranch. But studies of those effects have not been completed. It is estimated that at least 1,000 trucks a day would cross the bridge. But Arthaud says tourists would use it, too.”

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

Ouch.

Arthaud’s an interesting character. He’s one of North Dakota’s wealthiest men. He sold his trucking company, the largest oilfield service company in the state, once reportedly valued at more than half a billion dollars, to a private equity firm but has other business interests. Still, he spends an inordinate amount of time in his capacity as a county commissioner, treating Billings County as his own little kingdom.

He’s politically active — he chaired former Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s re-election committee in 2012, and he and his wife, Lynn, have donated more than a quarter of a million dollars to Republicans and conservative causes since 2000, according to the watchdog website FollowTheMoney.org, giving him lots of good political connections, which he may need in the coming years. Because the request for federal funding to pay for the bridge project is going to go directly to the governor of the State of North Dakota.

Arthaud knows something about dealing with politicians. Here’s a story from a friend of a friend of a friend. Someone was in Arthaud’s office and needed something from Sen. John Hoeven. Arthaud picked up the phone, dialed up Hoeven’s office in Washington, D.C., got Hoeven on the phone, got what his friend needed, hung up, and said, “That’s what $20,000 will get you.”

Here’s how the funding process works.

At the public hearing last week in Bismarck, Arthaud said the county is going to look at all possible funding sources for the bridge (and if they can’t get state or federal funding, by God, they’ll pay for it themselves!), which has a price tag that may exceed $20 million. The EIS prepared by the Bismarck Engineering Firm KLJ puts the actual cost of the bridge at $11.2 million but says under a “worst case scenario” an equal amount may need to be spent relocating utility facilities. I expect that to be the case. So I’m just going to call it a $20 million project from now on.

In the olden days, it would be as easy as Arthaud having his friend Sen. Hoeven earmark $20 million in the next federal highway appropriations bill, but earmarks are a thing of the past. Today, states get a share of the federal gas tax money, and they spend it as they see fit, with minimal oversight from the Federal Highway Administration.

So now, when the final EIS is approved and the county is ready to build, it will send a request for the money to the North Dakota Department of Transportation. In essence, Gov. Doug Burgum gets to decide if federal funds will build the bridge.

Dave Short, whose family land the bridge is slated to cross, calls this “The Bridge to Nowhere.” He’s mostly right. At the public hearings in both Medora and Bismarck, KLJ and Arthaud contended that the bridge is being built mostly for local use. But there are only a handful of ranchers along the river who will likely find any use for the bridge — mostly four or five who will have a shorter trip to Medora, although they will have to drive 35 miles an hour through the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park to get there.

Some years ago, Arthaud bragged to The Dickinson Press that “a thousand trucks a day” would use the new bridge to get between U.S. Highway 85 and North Dakota Highway 16. That was the stated intention of the bridge — to connect the two paved highways, making a cut-across for oilfield rucks that then wouldn’t have to go down to Interstate 94 to get across the river.

That talk has mostly disappeared, and now it’s local use, tourists and “some” truck traffic that will benefit from the bridge, the county says. Well, even if “some” is a hundred trucks a day, it’s a nightmare scenario for the affected ranchers.

Here’s the story now, the EIS says:

“Traffic generated within the study area consists primarily of oil and gas-related, recreational, agricultural and local traffic. Most of the existing roadways within the study area carry less than 100 vehicles per day (approximately 50 percent are heavy trucks). Travel patterns throughout the study area generally concentrated on Belle Lake Road, Forest Highway 2, County Road 50, Magpie Creek Road, Blacktail Road, East River Road and Franks Creek road. Traffic on these roadways is expected to grow approximately 2.5 per cent each year.”

So the governor is going to have to decide if there’s justification for a $20 million bridge to accommodate that small amount of traffic. My friends and I have been worried about the “1,000 trucks a day” scenario and the damage it could do to the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley. But last summer, a friend of mine did a driving tour to see how much time would be saved if an oil trucker wanted to take the cut-across from Highway 85 to Highway 16 instead of going down to the interstate. Guess what? Because of the 35 mph winding gravel roads, it’ll take longer to take the cut-across (and be a much more miserable trip) than it would take by going down to the interstate.

But there’s one thing no one is talking about that does bother me, if indeed it becomes a truck route. The traffic between Highway 85 and the river will utilize Blacktail Road and East River Road and will come within a mile of the Elkhorn Ranch. That potential for noise and dust at Theodore Roosevelt’s “Cradle of Conservation” — one of the most peaceful places in all of North Dakota — troubles me.

Dave Short and the rest of his family, whose land is on the west side of the river and has been described as “one of the best bottoms on the Little Missouri,” as well as Doug Mosser, whose ranch the bridge will impact on the east side of the river, are both opposed to the bridge. To gain right-of-way from the ranchers, the county will likely have to condemn it, using the eminent domain process, a heavy-handed government tactic much disliked in conservative Billings County, and all of western North Dakota’s ranch country, for that matter.

So here’s the scenario ahead. A public comment period closes Aug. 20. If you have strong feelings about wasting federal highway dollars that could be better used elsewhere, then you should submit comments on the project. Republican legislators just announced they plan to spend more than $280 million from the state’s Legacy Fund in the next biennium to solve what Gov. Burgum called “critical infrastructure needs across our entire state.” If indeed we have “critical infrastructure needs across the entire state,” perhaps the federal gas tax dollars would be better spent on those than on a “Bridge to Nowhere.”

Or if you don’t like the possibility of a hundred, or maybe even a thousand, trucks a day kicking up a dust storm through the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley, you should submit comments.

Or if you don’t like the idea of some renegade county commissioners destroying one of the state’s most historic ranches using eminent domain to take land and put in a bridge and a road through the ranch, you should comment.

After Aug. 20, the county and KLJ will read your comments and respond to them. Then the Federal Highway Administration will read the EIS and the comments and make its suggestions about the project. Eventually, probably next year some time, the FHWA will sign what is called a “Record of Decision” giving the project the green light to proceed.

Then the county will ask North Dakota Gov. Burgum for funding from the state’s allocation of federal highway tax dollars. Generally, the state will grant funds for 80 percent of the project and the county has to come up with the other 20 percent.

If Burgum says yes, it will be the biggest waste of tax money in his time as governor and a total sellout of the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley. The governor’s got a ranch on the Little Missouri about 30 miles south of where this bridge is proposed. I wonder how he’d like it if the county wanted to put a bridge and a road through HIS place for a thousand trucks a day to use?

If, however, the governor says no, that’ll tighten up the shorts of the Billings County commissioners a bit as they decide whether it’s really a good use of THEIR money. Stay tuned.

To submit comments:

Jen Turnbow, Project Manager

KLJ

P.O. Box 1157

Bismarck, ND 58502-1157

Or: LMRC@kljeng.com

Here’s a link to a webpage with the Draft EIS on it.

One more note:

Way back in 2007, when KLJ was just beginning the EIS process, not having an inkling it was going to take 11 years, KLJ requested a meeting with the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission “to seek guidance from the Commission, if the river crossing structure alternatives comply with the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act.”

The minutes from that 2007 meeting say “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.”

Here’s what NDCC 61-29 says, in part:

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.”

Well, as you’ve read here before, the commission went out of business for about 10 years after that meeting but was revived by Gov. Burgum last year, and now it is active. Sort of.

Well, last week I reminded State Parks Director Melissa Baker, who serves as secretary of the commission, of that excerpt from the meeting minutes. I think it took her about 10 minutes to get on the phone and start the process of setting up a meeting. I like that woman.

The meeting will be held next at 2 p.m. Monday (MDT) in the Legends Hall of the Ramada Grand Dakota Lodge in Dickinson. Here’s a link to a web page with the meeting notice and also the minutes from previous meetings.

I’m guessing KLJ will make a presentation similar to the ones it made at the two public hearings on the bridge last week. I’ll be interested to see what a bunch of ranchers (the commission is made up of mostly ranchers along the Little Missouri) think of this idea. And how they think the bridge will contribute to the “scenic, historic and recreational qualities” of the Little Missouri State Scenic River.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Of Refineries And Bridges

There is news this week on several fronts involving threats to the North Dakota Bad Lands. There are some long documents to read. Here’s a summary. More when I get done reading them.

THAT DAMN REFINERY

First, Meridian Energy’s proposed oil refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. You probably read that the Dakota Resource Council and its legal ally, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, filed a complaint with the North Dakota Public Service Commission asking the PSC to assume jurisdiction over the siting of the refinery before construction can begin.

On Monday, the PSC accepted the two groups’ complaint and agreed to serve the complaint on Meridian. What that means is that Meridian will now have to respond to the request for a full site evaluation. I’m pretty sure it also means that it cannot start construction of the refinery (Meridian has its Permit to Construct for a month but have not started any work at the site yet) until the PSC hears both sides of the story. The PSC has heard the environmental group’s side in the 17-page complaint, and now it will l get to hear Meridian’s case, arguing that it is not subject to PSC review.

And then, the PSC will decide whether to accept jurisdiction over the plant and require Meridian to undergo a full site review to decide if this is a good place to put a refinery. If it does that (and I won’t be surprised if it does), expect Meridian to go to court and challenge the PSC’s ability to do that. If Meridian doesn’t, expect ELPC to go to court to try to get a judge to order it done.

ELPC’s complaint asks for a cease and desist order, keeping Meridian from going ahead. I’m not sure if Monday’s motion grants that order. I’m waiting for a call back from an attorney to answer that question, but I’m guessing it does. I’ll keep you posted.

THAT DAMN LITTLE MISSOURI BRIDGE

The second long document I have to read is the long-awaited 80-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement on Billings County’s proposed Little Missouri River Crossing north of Medora, which was released a couple of weeks ago.

I say long-awaited because public hearings on this project were held in the summer of 2012, and we’ve been waiting more than six years now to see this document. No one seems to know what the holdup was, but no one was complaining, except the Billings County Commission, which has shelled out millions of dollars to the engineering firm KLJ for it.

The EIS identifies the proposed location of the new bridge — about 12 miles north of Medora — and explains why this is the best location for a new Little Missouri River crossing. The location is on private land — the historic Short Ranch — in spite of the fact that Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud said unequivocally at the public hearings on the project in June 2012 that the bridge would be built on public land.

Apparently KLJ couldn’t find a place to put it on public land. It will be interesting to hear Arthaud try to explain what happened. It will also be interesting to hear him explain why no one has bothered to even contact the Short family to let them know what is going on. The bridge is proposed to cross the river just downstream from the Short’s home place, within eyesight of the ranch headquarters, and no one from the county or the engineering firm has even bothered to talk to them.

The release of the EIS also triggers a new round of public hearings, scheduled in Bismarck and Medora. The DOT ran some huge, 25-column-inch ads in the Bismarck and Medora papers a couple of weeks ago advertising the public meetings, scheduled for next week, in Bismarck and Medora. But then, with no public fanfare, DOT changed the dates to the following week with just a short notice buried deep on the Billings County website.

So here’s the deal. The Medora hearing is now scheduled for 5 p.m. (MDT) July 23, in the Medora Community Center. The Bismarck hearing is at the Courtyard by Marriot Hotel in North Bismarck at 5 p.m. July 26.

These hearings are to gather public input on the bridge project. If you don’t like the idea of another bridge across the Little Missouri, in the middle of no goddam place, you should go to one or both of these hearings and make your feelings known. You should probably read the EIS before you go. You can find links to it here.

THAT OTHER DAMN BRIDGE

The third thing in the news this week is a notice from Bureau of Land Management that it is “seeking public comments regarding an application to authorize an existing single-lane ranch bridge over the Little Missouri River, with an associated access road, in Dunn County.”

You read that right. An application to authorize an existing bridge.

This is the bridge I’ve written about before, built by rancher Wiley Bice, west of Killdeer, on BLM land without BLM permission. The BLM knew nothing about this bridge on its land until I told them about it last year, even though it had been there for a few years. Bice also planted alfalfa on BLM land without permission.

In February, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the application Bice submitted for this bridge, but even though the government is compelled by law to give me that application, it refuses to do so. Now I’ve received a letter asking me to comment on an application I have not seen.

I’ve pretty much lost patience with the BLM. Noted author Ed Abbey called it the Bureau of Livestock and Mines. A friend of mine in Montana called it the Bureau of Leasing and Mining. Both were pretty accurate. I know the BLM has been busy with an oil boom in North Dakota, although it hasn’t been booming so much the last couple of years, but it is apparent to me that it doesn’t even go out and look at its land to see what is going on.

I’m pretty sure no one had looked at the parcel that Wiley Bice built his bridge on — and planted alfalfa on — and built a road on, for more than five years. They’re the Bureau of Land MANAGEMENT. How can it MANAGE our public lands if it never goes look at it to see who’s abusing it?

Anyway, according to this letter, if you go to this website you will find all you need to know — not really, just all they want you to know — about this project, and how to comment. You have until Aug. 13 to respond. I have no idea what will happen after that.

Well, actually, I kind of do. The BLM will conduct an Environmental Assessment (a little bit cheaper version of the document Billings County did for their bridge) on the project, and then tell Bice to go ahead and build his bridge. Oh, wait, it’s already built. Never mind.

In a separate letter I found a copy of Tuesday, North Dakota BLM manager Loren Wikstrom writes that the alternatives being considered in the EA are:

  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; and
  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.

Loren has already told me that No. 5 is their preferred alternative, and that they’re not looking to make Bice  tear down a bridge that cost a couple of million dollars. He’s also told me they are making Bice pay for the cost of the EA and the reclamation. No big deal to Bice. As I wrote here earlier, he sold his oilfield trucking company for about $100 million. This is small change for him.

So I wouldn’t waste time writing letters to the BLM about this. It’s a done deal. A rich guy builds a bridge on public land, gets his hands slapped and lives happily ever after. That’s how the Bureau of Land Management manages your land.

Anyway, those three things are a pretty good indicator that there are still plenty of threats to North Dakota’s Bad Lands. So many it’s hard to keep track. I’ll try to write about each of them as things progress. Somebody has to keep an eye on these bastards.

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 — So, Who’s Going To Pay For The New Bridge Over The Little Missouri River?

I need to clarify a few things and bring you up to date on the ongoing saga of the proposed new bridge across the Little Missouri River north of Medora, N.D.

The bridge is a project — if completed — could be an environmental disaster for the North Dakota Bad Lands. That’s why I keep writing about it.

To review, Billings County wants to build a bridge and improve roads to move traffic between U.S. Highway 85 and state Highway 16. 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, west of Watford City. Highway 85 goes north from Belfield to Williston and is soon to be a four-lane divided highway.

Here are two numbers to remember:

  • It’s about 40 miles, as the crow flies, between Highway 85 and Highway 16. So if a new bridge is built, and oil trucks or ranchers or tourists want to use the new bridge to get from one highway to the other, it would involve driving 35 mph (the expected speed limit) for at least 40 miles on gravel roads. Actually, more like 50 miles because there is no straight shot east and west up in the Badlands — you have to wind around buttes and canyons. This is some pretty rugged country.
  • The distance between existing bridges over the Little Missouri River is 70 miles. There’s a bridge south of Watford City on Highway 85, where the Little Missouri passes through the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and two bridges at Medora, one in town and one out on I-94 a mile north of town.

The county argues that the 70-mile distance between existing bridges justifies a new bridge. Although the county has claimed the bridge is for ranchers who live there and emergency services, a new bridge would in reality just make life easier for the oil industry.

When this idea first surfaced back in 2008, the plan was to put the bridge about halfway between the existing bridges, hard up against the Elkhorn Ranch site, home to Theodore Roosevelt, now maintained by the National Park Service as a unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The huge public outcry sidelined that proposal.

Now, a new Environmental Impact Statement is about to be released, and that new document, written by KLJ, the county’s engineering firm, has determined the best place to put the bridge is about five miles south of the Elkhorn, where the Little Missouri passes through the historic Short Ranch, once home to another colorful and historic North Dakota politician, former U.S. Congressman Donald Levingston Short.

OK, that much we talked about in earlier blog posts. Here are a couple things we haven’t discussed yet.

WHO PAYS?

Billings County is paying for the EIS and has spent more than $2 million so far. The bridge itself, with associated improvements to roads leading to it, is listed in North Dakota’s State Transportation Improvement Program for 2016-2019 as a $15 million dollar project. Of that, the STIP says, about $12.1 million would be expected to be federal funds and $2.9 million local funds, a standard 80-20 match formula that the state and federal transportation departments use on projects like these.

Except that the state DOT made a surprise announcement in March: There is no plan to give federal funds to this project. A North Dakota DOT spokesman told me that there never was any intent that federal funds would be used for the project — it’s always been assumed (by the state DOT, anyway) that the county would pay the whole cost.

Well, excuse me, but it’s always been assumed by everyone else except the DOT that this would be a federally funded project. In fact, I asked the KLJ people at the meeting in 2012 who would be paying for the bridge, and this was their response: “Well, it’s different for different phases. So for the environmental study that we’re in right now, Billings County is paying for that. Once it goes to construction, that could be partially federal funding, partially Billings County funding or a variety of the two, depending on what kind of federal funding is available at the time.”

I pressed for more information, asking a representative of the Federal Highway Administration who was at the meeting who would be paying for the project. Her response: “The design and construction, that is dependent upon, I would say, the federal highway bill.”

An equally nebulous response. These folks are really good at not really answering the questions. But let me outline the process that would be involved if the federal government did agree to pay for a share of the project, maybe even 80 percent of it.

Each year, the state of North Dakota and its 49 sister states get hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government to build and maintain highways, streets and bridges. This is money from the federal gas tax, returned to the state in which it is collected. In the upcoming biennium, I think the state will get more than half a billion dollars. In the old days, prior to 2010, there were funds set aside and “earmarked” in Washington for specific projects. It was the way congressmen and senators got themselves re-elected, by delivering the goods to their home states.

No more. Earmarks are a thing of the past, and now states just get a chunk of money, and governors and legislators decide where and how it will be spent. So the Little Missouri Crossing project is listed in the STIP for the 2016-2019 time period. If there are to be federal funds used to build it, Billings County will have to come hat in hand to Bismarck and ask for the $12.1 million.

But state DOT officials who dole out the federal dollars say they have no plan to give Billings County the money. Never have. That leaves me scratching my head.

Was it necessary for Billings County to spend more than $2 million dollars on an EIS, if all along, it has been planning to shell out the whole $15 million? I’m pretty sure the county has that much in the bank — it is one of the richest, if not the richest, county in the state. Last year, Billings County collected nearly $11 million in various oil and other mineral interest royalties and taxes. And it has been doing that for years. In a county with just 783 people, according to the 2010 census. That’s income of almost $14,000 for every man, woman and child in the county. Could the county afford to pay for the bridge? Probably.

I asked officials at both the state and federal highway agencies why the county would choose to do an expensive EIS, and why it’s the Federal Highway Administration that gets final sign-off on the project before it is built, if there’s no intent to get federal funds.

And why would they agree to put the bridge somewhere nobody really wants it, causing hard feelings and lawsuits between neighbors, in a small county with fewer than 800 residents, all of whom know each other? Why have they gone through this five-year delay process? Why didn’t they just go build a bridge when the boom was on, when they really could make a case for needing it? And why didn’t they build it where they wanted it?

The answer was the same from both the state and federal spokespersons: “Well, just in case they DO decide to seek federal funds, they have to have an EIS.”

Uh huh. Just in case.

Anybody want to make bets on that?

STILL COMING CLOSE TO THE ELKHORN

Here’s something else nobody is talking about yet. Because of the way roads wind through the Bad Lands to accommodate the terrain, access to the bridge from Highway 85 will take those thousand trucks, or however many show up on a given day, within about a mile of the Elkhorn Ranch site.

That’s because the route proposed by KLJ uses Blacktail Road and East River Road to get to the bridge from Highway 85, and the junction of those roads sits atop the high ridge looking down into the Little Missouri River Valley, directly above the Elkhorn Ranch site, which is just across the river, a little over a mile to the west. In fact, you can almost see the ranch site from there, looking down from the cab of a big truck.

Lush prairie grasses and sages blanket the ground where the Elkhorn Ranch house once stood (within the fenced off area) beneath the towering cottonwood trees. Roosevelt, sitting on his porch, would have seen the swift water of the Little Missouri River rush by just beyond those trees (since T.R.’s time, the river has meandered further from the trees.)
Lush prairie grasses and sages blanket the ground where the Elkhorn Ranch house once stood (within the fenced off area) beneath the towering cottonwood trees. Roosevelt, sitting on his porch, would have seen the swift water of the Little Missouri River rush by just beyond those trees (since T.R.’s time, the river has meandered further from the trees.)

So what’s been feared the most by the National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Friends of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Boone and Crockett Club and the many people who visit the ranch site on occasion just to sit in silence under the same cottonwoods that were there when Roosevelt lived there—the cacophony of noise from all those trucks, and the clouds of dust they’ll kick up—may come to pass after all.

It’s not as bad as if the trucks are going to go roaring down the hill to a crossing beside the Elkhorn, but it’s gonna be pretty noisy and pretty dusty. It’s possible Billings County will avoid that by building a new road farther south, as I mentioned in my last blog, but I think that creates some problems with sensitive wildlife areas, and it adds substantially to the cost of the project. It also would likely lead to revisiting the EIS. So we’ll have to ask some questions at the public meetings about the best road between Highway 85 and the bridge.

FOUR LANES ON HIGHWAY 85

I want to add one more reminder to this. Soon we’ll be getting a look at the draft EIS on the Highway 85 project between Watford City and Belfield. That project is likely to call for a four-lane highway through the eastern edge of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and either two new bridges over the Little Missouri River or one really wide bridge.

How the state and federal highway departments deal with that is going to be the topic of some discussion. There are some very thoughtful minds at work, trying to figure out how to cause the least disruption of wildlife and scenery, as well as avoid negative impacts on the national park. I’ll try to keep you posted on this project as well.