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 — No Veto, But No More Industrial Permits, Either — At Least For A While; A Partial Victory For The Little Missouri River

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum may not have been in politics very long, but he has learned the No. 1 rule already: Politics is the art of compromise.

To that end, the governor DID NOT veto the section of North Dakota House Bill 1020, which now that it is law, legalizes the issuance of industrial water permits from the Little Missouri River, a practice which had been going on illegally for many years If you’re not familiar with that, read this).

But in signing the bill into law Tuesday, he issued what Donald Trump might wave in the air as an “executive order,” declaring that no new permits will be issued for nonagricultural use of water (fracking) until new rules are written governing those permits. Those new rules are likely to address use by counties to draw water to keep the dust down on gravel roads but hopefully will ban water for fracking. That’s probably OK. We’ll see what they say.

Generally, this is an acceptable compromise, I think, with those of us concerned about the industrialization of the Little Missouri River — with one exception — and it might turn out to be a pretty big one. The governor’s order applies to the Little Missouri between the South Dakota border and the Long X Bridge over the river at U.S. Highway 85, on the east end of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park south of Watford City. That’s about 85 percent of the river’s 275-mile length in North Dakota.

But it doesn’t apply to the section of the river between the Long X Bridge and where it flows into Lake Sakakawea, a distance of about 40 miles, mostly in Dunn County, and that last 15 percent is in an area that has been the hot spot of oil activity in the Little Missouri Bad Lands.

My friends who keep their eyes on oil activity in threatened areas tell me there are a number of large applications in process or pending just east of the Long X Bridge, and there’s a lot of Forest Service and BLM land that could be affected if industrial activity is allowed, including some incredible landscapes and wildlife habitat, as well as multigenerational ranches.

So, we will need to keep a close eye on this process, which the governor is going to make easier for us because he has ordered the Water Commission staff to make “the process and requirements for future issuance of temporary use permits for nonagricultural uses” transparent. Believe me, we’ll be taking advantage of that order. Looking at every permit.

Further, he ordered the Water Commission staff to make public all available data on the temporary use permits issued since 1990 and to do a preliminary report on that within 60 days. By July 1. Maybe we’ll read in that about the rancher along the river who sold the water from his temporary use permit to an oil company for more than $700,000 back in 2012 and 2013.

And as for those 600-plus illegal water permits issued by the Water Commission the last few years, the governor explained it this way:

“Recently, a State Water Commission hydrologist uncovered the 1975 law. A decades-long lapse in awareness and in practice has brought us to today.”

Well, OK. It just seems a little strange that the people who are responsible for issuing all the water permits in the state of North Dakota wouldn’t know the law, but that’s their story. I hope they are telling the truth and not covering up for some superior (prior to Burgum, maybe named John or Jack), who told them to go ahead and issue the permits in violation of the law — oil booms and all the money that accompanies them can cause people to do strange things.

But at the same time, if they are telling the truth, it’s kind of disappointing that they wouldn’t know the law they are charged with upholding and enforcing. The engineers responsible aren’t some rookies right out of college — they’ve been career employees and have risen to the positions of director and assistant director of a division of one of the most important agencies in state government. How could they not know the law? Well, anyway …

The best news of all from the governor this morning is that he has decided to revive the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission, the board created by the State Scenic River Act in 1975 to monitor development along the river. Some of us have been urging the governor to do that since we discovered a couple of years ago that it hasn’t met since 2007. You can read more about that here. If that board had been active the past 10 years, none of those illegal industrial permits would have been issued.

I consider the governor’s order a major victory for the Little Missouri State Scenic River. I’m going to the first meeting. Where hopefully they’ll be talking about the two proposed new bridges across the Little Missouri River. But that’s a story for another day.

So. The hundreds of people who contacted the governor and asked him to veto the law got half a loaf — maybe more. Now we will all know what has been going on, and we will have a chance for input and reaction to what goes on in the future (I just caught myself before I said “going forward” there, a phrase I hate). Constant vigilance will be necessary now. I think we’re up to it.

Gov. Burgum expressed concern for the Little Missouri River. Rightfully so. He owns ranchland on the river.

Gov. Doug Burgum expressed concern for the Little Missouri River. Rightfully so. He owns ranchland on the river.

Here’s the letter I got from the governor this morning, as did the others who contacted him about this:

Thank you for your input on House Bill 1020. I appreciate your concerns and would like to take this opportunity to explain why I have signed the bill into law.

As governor, a North Dakota resident and a property owner on the Little Missouri River, protecting our environment and being responsible stewards of our natural resources is a priority for me personally and for our administration.

The Legislature enacted a chapter of law called the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act (LMSSRA) in 1975 to preserve the Little Missouri River as nearly as possible in a free-flowing natural condition, and to establish the Little Missouri River (LMR) commission.

Records pertaining to LMSSRA indicate that it was enacted primarily because of concerns over several energy projects having interest in dams and diversions for purposes of coal gasification or electricity generation.

The legislation allowed for agricultural water permits but not for industrial uses. However, more than 600 temporary use permits have been issued for non-agricultural uses since 1990.

Recently, a State Water Commission (SWC) hydrologist uncovered the 1975 law. A decades-long lapse in awareness and in practice has brought us to today.

Currently, there are 35 temporary use water permits issued in the Little Missouri River basin. Of these, only two have been issued in the area from the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) to the South Dakota border, and neither of these is on the Little Missouri River proper (http://www.swc.nd.gov/pdfs/littlemo_temp_permits.pdf).

Given the importance of our Little Missouri River to our state, and as a course of action in response to the recent discovery of the SWC’s noncompliance with the 1975 law, I have:

1. Been assured by the State Engineer that no conditionalwater permits have ever been, or will be issued establishing industrial water rights from surface water in the Little Missouri River basin.

2. Asked the State Engineer to immediately suspend the issuance of any new temporary nonagricultural use permits in the Little Missouri River basin upstream from the Highway 85 bridge(known as the Long X Bridge), at the east end of the North Unit of TRNP. This area of new permit suspension stretches from the North Unit of TRNP, south along the river, through Medora, past Marmarth, N.D., all the way to the South Dakota border, and includes the entirety of the Maah Daah Hey Trail and both units of TRNP.

3. Initiated the reinstatement of the Little Missouri River Commission. We have searched archives and the last recorded meeting of this commission was held in Dickinson in 2007. Commission membership, by law, includes the Director of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, the State Health Officer, and the Chief Engineer of the State Water Commission, or their designated representatives; and one member from each of the following counties, appointed by their respective county commission: McKenzie, Billings, Slope, Golden Valley, Dunn and Bowman. The county representatives must be resident landowners who live adjacent to the Little Missouri River, with the exception of the Golden Valley County representative. The governor’s office will work with the State Water Commission and the respective county commissions to re-establish an active Little Missouri River Commission.

4. Asked the State Engineer to immediately reviewmodify and make transparent the process and requirements for any future issuance of temporary use permits for non-agricultural uses, and to make public all the available data on the temporary permits that have been issued since 1990. The State Engineer will deliver a preliminary report within 60 days. Also, this report and its findings will be presented to the Little Missouri River Commission and the State Water Commission. No new temporary use permits will be issued upstream of the Long X Bridge until the new system for application and approval is created.

5. Asked the State Engineer to evaluate the future need for additional Little Missouri River stream gauges. Presently, the SWC continuously monitors stream gauge flows in the Little Missouri River at three locations: Marmarth, Medora and the Highway 85 bridge. Many letters expressed concerns about water depletion in the LMR due to the industrial permits. The initial review of the river flows indicates this is a false hypothesis.  In a typical year, there is over 300,000 acre-feet of LMR water flowing past the Long X bridge. The peak year was the big flood year of 2011, when it reached a modern record of 1.1 million acre-feet of flowage. The low year of flowage since electronic recordkeeping began at the SWC in 1990 was 49,000 acre-feet (1992). In 2012, the peak year for industrial use between the TRNP North Unit and the South Dakota border, total reported use was 47 acre-feet, and it accounted for less than one-tenth of 1 percent (0.1%) of the total stream gauge flow.  For comparison, agricultural use that year was 1,024 acre-feet, while the Bully Pulpit golf course at Medora typically draws 155 acre-feet from its conditional use permit.

In addition to the above action steps, I thought you might find the following information useful:

Most temporary use permits are issued for periods of three to six months with a maximum of 12 months. All temporary permits are subject to cancellation by the State Engineer at any time, including for any violations in use, or when necessitated by drought conditions.

Temporary use permits cannot be renewed. A new application is required upon the term ending for the temporary use.

Many of temporary use permits (265 of 600) issued between 1990 and today were to support construction projects, including using water for dust control or as part of road/highway construction.

“Temporary use permits are strictly regulated by the State Engineer. Sample conditions can be found  at http://www.swc.nd.gov/pdfs/temp_permits_sample_conditions.pdf

Temporary use permits provide many benefits, including:

  • Limiting the impact on depletable water sources such as aquifers and artesian springs, a real concern in the area of the Fox Hills aquifer.
  • Avoiding the need to haul water across long distances, thereby reducing truck traffic and dust that impact wildlife, livestock, vegetation and human health. Eliminating temporary use permits would directly and substantially increase truck traffic within the LMR basin.
  • Reducing the risk of human injury from truck-vehicle collisions that may result from increased traffic congestion, as well as reducing the risk to wildlife. Truck vehicle miles traveled in North Dakota increased 88 percent from 2007 to 2015, and traffic crash fatalities increased from 104 in 2008 to 170 in 2012.
  • Reducing costs associated with building and maintaining roads due to increased heavy truck traffic.

If you desire additional technical information, or information on river flow, please contact Garland Erbele, State Engineer for the Office of the State Engineer at (701) 328-4940 or swc@nd.gov.

Our rivers, streams, lakes, aquifers and artesian springs provide a resource that supports our diverse economy, including the tourism/recreation, agriculture and energy sectors.

Thank you for your passion, concern and engagement in the public discourse about our conservation heritage and legacy.

Regards,

Doug Burgum
Governor

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — An Open Letter To Governor Doug Burgum, On The Occasion Of The Greatest Threat Ever To The Little Missouri State Scenic River

Dear Gov. Burgum,

Let me quote from the conservation easement you signed for some ranchland you and your friends own in southwest North Dakota’s Bad Lands six years ago:

“The Protected Property possesses agricultural, scenic, and historic, and cultural values. The Protected Property is located in the heart of the only Ponderosa pine forest in North Dakota, south of Teddy Roosevelt’s historic Maltese Cross Ranch. This area is rich in history and is deep in the North Dakota Badlands. The scenic Little Missouri River runs directly through the Protected Property and is the only state-designated scenic river in North Dakota. (emphasis added)

“The Little Missouri National Grasslands … offer significant open space and scenic values to local residents and the general public. In addition, the integrity of the Little Missouri River corridor is significant to the entire state, region and nation in the context of its historic and cultural role in the Native American history of the Upper Great Plains …” (emphasis added)

“Preservation of the Protected Property as an undeveloped area will provide significant public benefit via the tremendous scenic qualities and visual access the Protected Property possesses.” (emphasis added)

“These Conservation Values are of great importance to the Grantor, Grantee, and the people of the state of North Dakota. In addition, these values are vitally important to the people of the nation due to the significant relationship to the river corridor and the need to preserve the view along the Little Missouri River in this specific area.” (emphasis added)

That was YOU, Gov. Burgum six years ago, writing about YOUR ranch in the southern Bad Lands. A document filed in the Slope County Court House in Amidon, N.D.

Well, Governor, that was when you were just a ranch owner and only concerned about protecting your little piece of the Little Missouri River. Concerned enough to try to put a perpetual conservation easement on that land so it could never be developed. So that there could never, ever, be anything more than a gravel road leading to the river bottom. So that commercial and industrial development, like water depots and truck refueling stations, would be forbidden on that piece of the Little Missouri River. FOREVER.

Again, from your document:

“The purpose of these Covenants is to preserve and protect in perpetuity the Conservation Values of the Protected Property … in accordance with (Section) 170(h) of the Internal Revenue Code.”

I don’t know if you were successful, since perpetual easements are illegal in North Dakota. I don’t know if you were seeking, or received, federal tax breaks for putting this easement on your property because Section 170(h) of the Internal Revenue Code, which your refer to several more times in your easement document, specifically says, “A contribution shall not be treated as exclusively for conservation purposes unless the conservation purpose is protected in perpetuity.” And easements of this sort in North Dakota are limited to 99 years. Which is certainly not “perpetuity.”

Well, anyway. That was then, when you were responsible and concerned for just your little chunk of the Little Missouri River, and no one doubts that your motives were anything less that sincere about protecting the Little Missouri State Scenic River valley.

But now, Gov. Burgum, you’re governor of the whole state and responsible for protecting the entire Little Missouri River, “the only state-designated scenic river in North Dakota,” as you so ably pointed out in your easement papers.

That State Scenic River designation is part of our state’s laws, in Chapter 61-29 of the North Dakota Century Code, which says:

“Channelization, reservoir construction, or diversion other than for agricultural or recreational purposes and the dredging of waters within the confines of the Little Missouri scenic river and all Little Missouri River tributary streams are expressly prohibited. “ (emphasis added)

The only water that can come out of that river is water to be used for “agricultural or recreational purposes.” Because the North Dakota Legislature said, in writing this law in 1975, that the Little Missouri State Scenic River is too valuable to the state to allow industrialization of the river to take place.

At least, that is what it says today. But now there’s a new law in front of you, Governor, awaiting your signature (or your veto?) passed by the 2017 Legislature, which changes all that. For the past 10 years or so, your State Water Commission, of which you, now, as governor, are the chairman of, has been violating that law and issuing permits for industrial use of Little Missouri State Scenic River water. This year, your staff over there at the Water Commission has decided to come clean and ask that those permits be made legal. Mind you, they didn’t cancel the permits when we found out they were issuing them illegally. They just decided to change the law to make them legal. With the help of oil industry lobbyists and friendly Republican legislators. No doubt those oil industry lobbyists are perched outside your office right now, waiting to encourage you to sign the bill into law and give them, legally, million of gallons of Little Missouri State Scenic River water.

And that’s what the bill in front of you, HB1020 passed this week by the 65th North Dakota Legislative Assembly, does. And those legislators are asking you to sign it into law. So that their friends (and more and more, it’s starting to look like your friends, too) in the oil industry can continue to get that water.

And if you and the Legislature make it legal, the oil industry will probably want way more than they’ve been getting so far, from those 600 illegal water permits they were issued by your Water Commission staff over the past 10 years. They won’t have to worry about any penalties for breaking the law any more.

So are you going to sign it, Gov. Burgum? Are you going to legalize the industrialization of the Little Missouri State Scenic River valley? Or are you going to remember what you wrote six years ago about your little piece of the Little Missouri State Scenic River valley:

“The integrity of the Little Missouri River corridor is significant to the entire state, region and nation in the context of its historic and cultural role in the Native American history of the Upper Great Plains …” and an “undeveloped area will provide significant public benefit via the tremendous scenic qualities …”

Water tanker trucks and dry riverbeds don’t contribute much to the “integrity” or “scenic qualities” of the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley. Are you going to let that happen? Or are you going to accept your responsibility as governor of the WHOLE state, and the WHOLE Little Missouri State Scenic River, and veto the section of HB1020 that opens up the river valley to industrialization by the oil industry? The Little Missouri State Scenic River is counting on you, Gov. Burgum. You decide.

Gov. Burgum, please read, and contemplate a little bit, this poem from my dear friend, Debra Marquart, written before the bust. Debra is a native North Dakotan who, like you, cares deeply about her state, Gov. Burgum. Read this and maybe you’ll give that veto power just a little more consideration.

LAMENT

By Debra Marquart

(c) 2015

north dakota,   I’m worried about you

the company you keep   all these new friends   north dakota

beyond the boom, beyond the extraction  of precious resources

do you think they care what becomes of you

 

north dakota, you used to be the shy one

enchanted secret land only by a few   north dakota

 

when I traveled away and told people I  belonged to you   north dakota

your name rolled awkwardly from their tongues

a mouth full of rocks, the name of a foreign country

 

north dakota   you were the blushing wallflower

the natural beauty, nearly invisible, always on the periphery

north dakota   the least visited state in the union

 

now everyone knows your name   north dakota

the blogs and all the papers are talking about you   even 60 minutes

 

I’m collecting your clippings   north dakota

the pictures of you from space

the flare ups in your northern corner

like an exploding super nova

a massive city where no city exists

a giant red blight upon the land

 

and those puncture wounds   north dakota   take care of yourself

the injection sites   i see them on the maps

eleven thousand active wells    one every two miles

 

all your indicators are up   north dakota

four hundred billion barrels, some estimates say

more oil than we have water to extract

more oil than we have air to burn

 

north dakota   you could run the table right now   you could write your own ticket

so, how can I tell you this?   north dakota, your politicians

 

are co-opted (or cowards or bought-out or honest and thwarted)

they’re lowering the tax rate for oil companies

they’re greasing the wheels that need no greasing

they’re practically giving the water away

they’ve opened you up and said, take everything

 

north dakota   dear sleeping beauty   please, wake up

 

what will become of your sacred places,

what will become of the prairie dog

the wolf, the wild horses, the eagle

the meadowlark, the fox, the elk

the pronghorn antelope, the rare mountain lion

the roads, the air, the topsoil

your people, your people,

what will become of the water?

 

north dakota   who will ever be able to live with you

once this is all over   I’m speaking to you now

as one wildcat girl   to another   be careful    north Dakota

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Act Today To Protect The Little Missouri State Scenic River

There are two or three days left in the legislative session. A lot of bad things are going to happen to North Dakota in that short period of time. I’ve been watching every legislative session since 1975, and this one is by far the most irresponsible I’ve seen.

One of the worst things that could happen this week is the industrialization of the Little Missouri State Scenic River. I wrote about this last week. I won’t go back into it here. Instead, I’m asking you to help stop something bad from happening.

Below is an email I sent to Gov. Doug  Burgum this morning. In it, I am asking him to instruct his state engineer to withdraw the amendment to the Little Missouri Scenic River Act that he has requested in House bill 1020. You can read it here. It is on page 8, about halfway down the page. The words “temporary use,” which they are adding to the Act, are code words for Industrial Water Permits. The Water Commission’s own engineers told me that last week.

Please consider emailing Gov. Burgum by going to this link on his web page and ask him to have his state engineer withdraw his request for changes to the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act in HB1020. Please do it today. Tomorrow is probably too late. Thank you for your help.

Here’s the email I sent this morning.

Dear Gov. Burgum,

In 1975, the Legislature acted to protect the Little Missouri State Scenic River (its full and appropriate title) from industrial development by passing the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act, now Section 61-29 of the North Dakota Century Code.  Many of my friends and I were involved in that effort to protect the Little Missouri River, as the state faced a request from Tenneco to build a coal gasification plant in western North Dakota, using water from a dam on a tributary of the Little Missouri. The act specifically said “No water for industrial use from the Little Missouri or its tributaries.” That law has withstood the test of time, except that the State Water Commission has been violating it for years by giving out illegal industrial use water permits from the Little Missouri, by their own accounting more than 600 of them, to the oil and gas industry. Now the Water Commission has asked that an amendment to 61-29 be approved to allow them to legally give out industrial water permits. They have done so in an amendment to House Bill 1020, a Water Commission appropriations bill. I am writing to ask you to instruct the State Engineer to ask the Legislature to remove that amendment from HB 1020 today. You and I both know that the Little Missouri is too valuable to be used as an industrial water source. That’s why it has been named the state’s only State Scenic River, and is the only river protected from development by state law. Please act today to preserve that law, and our precious Little Missouri State Scenic River.

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — Native American Art & Crafts At Red Oak House

Because I promised my friend Marilyn I would share with her the photos of my Navajo rugs, I’m writing this blog. It’s just easier. I must confess that I feel a little like it is bragging, but, if nothing else, it is documentation for my loved ones. My husband Jim and I have a lifetime’s worth of Native American art collecting under our belts, thus we own some lovely, treasured pieces.

First, the Navajo rugs. We have three, all purchased at Goulding’s Trading Post in Monument Valley, Utah.

The first I bought in 1993.

This is called “Tree of Life” (left) and was woven by Lena Begay as shown on the provenance tag I keep in our safety deposit box.

The charming birds attracted me to this rug. A very knowledgeable friend of mine, a cultural geographer and serious collector of Indigenous art, tells me that it is a very fine rug and has increased in value since I bought it.

Next was this rug.

The third rug (right) we own, we purchased at Goulding’s when traveling in September 2008. We camped and hiked all over western Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, including Echo Park at Dinosaur National Monument, and all of the iconic national parks of Utah, as well as a few memorable nights at a lovely place in Bluff, Utah, the Desert Rose Inn, and a very fine establishment outside of Moab called the Sorrel River Ranch, where we arrived in the dark and woke up in our cabin right on the banks of the Colorado River. These places were our treat to ourselves after many nights of sleeping on the ground in a tent. One memorable night was spent near Natural Bridges National Monument, when shortly after setting up camp and eating supper, a thunderstorm brought a downpour. The washes all around us surged with water. We sat that out in our Jeep, in awe of the power of nature, and once the floodwaters had subsided, we fled to the nearby town for a motel room and laundromat, returning the next day to hike the entire canyon from end to end.

That autumn, the desert was ablaze with yellow rubber rabbitbrush, so we chose a yellow rug (right) in homage to the scenery.

This very old rug, woven by Bessie Little, is titled “Storm” and is from the historic LaFont Collection.  In spite of its age, it is in fabulous condition and greatly cheers our living room walls.

To accompany this rug, we also purchased this piece (below) that demonstrates the various plants that the Navajo women harvest to dye the wool.

While at Canyon de Chelly we observed the Navajo people herding their sheep in their oases in the red rock country.

When one loves Native American arts, one must own some of the iconic turquoise jewelry.  I purchased the ring shown below at Goulding’s, and the other pieces in the next three photos were gifts to me from thoughtful (and generous) friends.

This bear’s claw jewelry (right) I bought in 1993 from the Hopi artist James Selina at his roadside stand near the Second Mesa in Arizona. He told me that the bear’s claw is a symbol of strength and power, and it is true that I feel its strength against my skin.

In May 1999, I rafted the Colorado River and, on that journey, I purchased this bracelet (below) just outside of Durango, Colo. I wear it often and it makes me think of that sinuous river of rivers.

This beautiful handpainted Mandan turtle drum was something I purchased from my friend, the geography professor, when she was downsizing (she had a huge collection that enriched her teaching).

The feathers drew the unwelcome attention of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent who was on campus investigating smuggling (she had been to a conference and purchased something from a shady character who was the actual target of the investigation). The agent was brought to my office one day by the VPAA, something that understandably shook me up. The feathers on this piece are, it was agreed by all parties, turkey feathers and thus I escaped from this incident unscathed.

I also purchased this turqouise talisman (below) from the geographer.

The talented Lavalla Moore painted us this red-tailed hawk dreamcatcher (below) on leather she prepared herself.

The last piece that hangs in the living room is this Buffalo turquoise jewelry (below) that was purchased at Five Nations Gallery and Gifts, located in the Mandan, N.D., depot.

A visit to Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota found us buying this pipe (below), which is hanging in the library along with a Lakota pipe bag and doll.

The pièce de ré·sis·tance is a delightful pottery owl (right) I purchased in Santa Fe, N.M., at the end of our very long 2014 odyssey Jim writes about on his blog, From My Cold, Dead Wrist. This fine example of Santa Domingo pottery was made by Eddie Pacheco. He was selling his wares on the historic plaza, and it took me a very long time to select something. This piece spoke to me. Just this past week, I purchased the pottery ring at the Arizona State Museum in which he now nests.

I think my next acquisition is going to be a good basket. Somehow, I managed to resist purchasing one on my recent visit to Arizona, but stay tuned.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — State Agency Breaks The Law 600 Times; How Much Jail Time Do You Get For That?

The North Dakota State Water Commission has violated state law more than 600 times in recent years, by issuing permits for industrial use of water (read: fracking oil wells) from the Little Missouri State Scenic River. Employees there claim they didn’t know they weren’t supposed to do that. I believe them. But that’s no excuse. More on that in a minute. First, a little history lesson.

Let’s travel back in time 42 years. The 1975 North Dakota Legislature passed a bill that started with the words “This chapter may be cited as the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act.” And that’s how we came to have the Little Missouri State Scenic River, North Dakota’s only designated State Scenic River.

Bills become laws. Here are two chapters of this bill as it was written into the North Dakota Century Code after it was approved by a large bipartisan majority and was signed by Gov. Art Link. The law remains there, untouched, 42 years later. Until now.

“The purpose of this chapter shall be to preserve the Little Missouri River as nearly as possible in its present state, which shall mean that the river will be maintained in a free-flowing natural condition, and to establish a Little Missouri River commission.” — North Dakota Century Code 61-29-02

“Management. Channelization, reservoir construction, or diversion other than for agricultural or recreational purposes and the dredging of waters within the confines of the Little Missouri scenic river and all Little Missouri River tributary streams are expressly prohibited.” — North Dakota Century Code 61-29-06

That’s still the law, 42 years later. You can’t build dams on the Little Missouri River or any of its tributaries. Neither can you take any water from the river or its tributaries for any use other than irrigation or recreation.

Back in 1975, we decided the Little Missouri was special, and we decided to protect it from industrial use. And, you know, we observed that law for more than 30 years. Until someone invented fracking. Fracking takes millions of gallons of water to make an oil well operate in the Bakken. Some estimates run as high as ten million gallons per well.

And so, oil companies began looking for some serious water supplies. And they saw that pretty little river running through the Bad Lands and thought that might be a good place to get some. So they went to the Water Appropriations Division of the State Water Commission and asked, “Hey, could we have some of that water?” And the engineers at the Water Commission office said, “Sure.”

They said “sure” more than 600 times. And each time, they claim they did not know they were breaking the law. Chapter 61-29 of the North Dakota Century Code. Which specifically says they couldn’t do that.

And so those big old trucks backed up to the Little Missouri State Scenic River and sucked the water out to fill their tanks, and took it over to a well site and  mixed it with some sand and chemicals and pumped it down a well hole to break up the shale holding the black gold below.

The engineers at the Water Commission told me this week they weren’t worried about running the river dry because the Little Missouri has plenty of water. Uh, huh. Tell that to canoeists (like me) who know they only have a three- to four-week window each year when there’s enough water to float a canoe. Or to the hikers and bicyclists who regularly ride or hike across the river on the Maah Daah Hey trail without getting their knickers wet.

I had an old Bad Lands rancher tell me not so many years ago that nine years out of 10 you could canoe the Little Missouri River on Memorial Day weekend. Now it’s more like two or three out of ten. Just sayin’ …

Well, all this came to light last week when I was looking at the appropriations bill in the Legislature for the State Water Commission. Tucked away in that bill, down at the bottom of page 8 of a 13-page bill, is this:

“SECTION 16. AMENDMENT. Section 61-29-06 of the North Dakota Century Code is amended and re-enacted as follows: 61-29-06. Management. Channelization, reservoir construction, or diversion other than for agricultural or, recreational, or temporary use purposes and the dredging of waters within the confines of the Little Missouri scenic river and all Little Missouri River tributary streams are expressly prohibited. Flood control dikes may be constructed within the flood plain of the Little Missouri River. Diking and riprapping for bank erosion control shall be permitted within the confines of the Little Missouri scenic river. The construction of impoundments for any purpose on the Little Missouri mainstream shall be prohibited. This chapter shall in no way affect or diminish the rights of owners of the land bordering the river to use the waters for domestic purposes, including livestock watering, or any other rights of riparian landowners.”

Notice those three underlined words, “or temporary use.” That caught my eye. What’s the definition of “temporary” and what the heck is going on here? They are amending the State Scenic River Act. To allow something that hasn’t been allowed before, or it wouldn’t take an amendment to the law. What’s up?

Since the language was in the Water Commission’s appropriations bill, I sent an e-mail to a couple of members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committees and to my state senator, Erin Oban. I got almost instant replies, telling me who to contact at the Water Commission to get the story on this.

Which I did. I had a 40-minute phone conversation this morning. And here’s what I learned.

A couple of weeks ago, a young staff person in the Water Appropriations Division of the Water Commission came running up to the boss’s office with a copy of a blog post I wrote last year about the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission, in which I cited the language from Chapter 61-29 (above).

“Holy Cow! We’ve broken the law! 600 times!”

What the commission had done, of course, was fairly logical. If an oil company needed water, and the Little Missouri was close by, it issued permits for “diversion” of some of that water. Made sense to the Water Commission staff. If the oil company could get water close by, the oil company could save money, there would be fewer trucks hauling water from somewhere else, less dust in the air from those trucks  — what’s not to like about that?

Except the water was coming from the LITTLE MISSOURI STATE SCENIC RIVER. AND THAT’S AGAINST THE LAW.

But nobody at the Water Commission knew about the law. In spite of the fact that the law established a Little Missouri State Scenic River Commission, and the state engineer, who runs the Water Commission staff, is a member of that commission. I wrote a couple stories about that last year, under the headlines “Who’s Looking Out For The Little Missouri?” and “Turns Out Nobody’s Looking Out For The Little Missouri.”

I suppose because the Scenic River Commission has been inactive for many years (also in violation of the law) and because there’s no institutional memory on the Water Commission staff, we could forgive the current staff for not knowing about it. But as I pointed out to the staff people I talked to, ignorance of the law is no excuse. That’s something we’ve all had preached to us all our lives.

“Honest, officer, I didn’t know the speed limit was 45 here.”

“Sorry, dude, here’s your ticket. Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

Well, anyway, the staff decided it needed to do something about that. It could have sent a letter to everyone with a current permit and told them their permit was revoked. And then obeyed the law for the rest of it life.

Or it could try to change the law, so it could issue more permits, legally.

Which is what it did. It went running over to friendly Republican faces on the Senate Appropriations Committee and had them put an amendment on the Water Commission appropriations bill making those permits legal. And it almost slipped it through. A friend of mine happened to be in the Senate chamber one day last week when the chief clerk was reading the title of the bill on the Senate Floor and heard the words “Little Missouri Scenic River Commission” and mentioned it to me that night.

I did a little digging and now we all know the rest of the story. So far.

The bill has not passed yet. It is stuck in conference committee. The conference committee members are Reps. Jim Schmidt, Roscoe Streyle and Tracy Boe and Sens. Gary Lee, Ronald Sorvaag and Larry Robinson. If you know any of them, send them this blog, and call them and ask them to take the amendment to Chapter 61-29 out of the bill, to save what’s left of the Little Missouri River. Because if the bill passes, and the boom comes back, there are going to be 600 more water permits issued.

And send it to Gov. Doug Burgum as well. Because this is an appropriations bill, I’m pretty sure he has line-item veto authority under legislative rules and state law. Tell him to strike that chapter from the bill before he signs the Water Commission budget bill, HB 1020.

Seriously, do those things. Somebody has to look out for the Little Missouri, and if government won’t do it, we have to do it ourselves.

Thank you. Amen.

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.

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

The engineering firm drafting the Environmental Impact Statement for Billings County’s request to put a new bridge across the Little Missouri River north of Medora, N.D., has determined the best place to put the bridge is just 17 miles north of Medora, about a third of the way — as the crow flies — between the two current bridges near Medora and Watford City.

Billings County wants to build the bridge “to provide the public with a centrally accessible, safe, efficient and reliable link between state Highway 16 and U.S. Highway 85,” according to the county’s website.

To set the scene, Highway 16 is a narrow two-lane road running along the extreme western edge of North Dakota, going north of Interstate 94 from Beach to well, almost nowhere, except the oilfields of McKenzie County, southwest of Watford City. Highway 85 goes north from Belfield to Williston and is soon to be a four-lane divided highway.

The county argues that the 70-mile distance — by highway — between existing bridges at Medora and south of Watford City justifies a new bridge. The new bridge, and one has to assume some new or improved roads leading to the two highways, would in theory make life easier for the oil industry. Here’s a link to a blog I wrote almost five years ago, explaining the project and its problems.

KLJ Engineering of Bismarck, hired by Billings County to conduct the Environmental Impact Statement for the project, required because the county wants federal funds to build it, and because it is crossing a navigable river under the jurisdiction of  the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is recommending that the new river crossing be located where the Little Missouri passes through the historic Short Ranch — as the crow flies, about five miles south of the Elkhorn  Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Jennifer Turnbow, spokesperson for KLJ, said the draft of the final EIS itself will be released in the next two or three months, and public hearings on it will be held at that time. A long-awaited draft, and long-awaited public hearings. Long-awaited, as in nine years.

The first public hearings on the project were held in July 2008. At that time, the idea was to put the bridge within spitting distance of the Elkhorn. After getting the crap beat out of them at the public meetings, and after outrage expressed in the news media by almost everyone for encroachment on Theodore Roosevelt’s home, “the cradle of conservation,” Billings County Commissioners retrenched and went looking for a new location for the bridge.

A second round of public hearings were held in 2012, and not long after that, the engineering firm narrowed the choices to the Short Ranch, five miles south of the Elkhorn, and the Goldsberry Ranch, five miles north of the Elknorn. This map shows the locations.

And then, the project went dark for more than four years. Although KLJ claimed it was collecting data on the two locations, and promised an early 2015 arrival of a new EIS, the 2015 date kept getting set back with no explanation from the engineering firm. Finally, KLJ set a “Summer 2016” release date for the EIS. That came and went as well. Finally, rumors began trickling out to the public, likely from some of the cooperating federal agencies, and last week, on Feb. 27 and 28, I had the following e-mail exchange with KLJ’s project spokesperson, Jennifer Turnbow:

Hello, Jennifer,

I am hearing talk that you have selected a site for the Little Missouri Crossing. What’s up? Have you chosen a site for the Little Missouri Crossing? What is the status of the project? Will there be any public announcements on the project in the near future?

Thanks.

Jim

 Jim,

 We are working with the lead agencies on the review of the Draft EIS. The Draft EIS has identified a preferred alternative, along with analyzing all the build and no-build alternatives. We will be sending out a notice of availability for the Draft EIS and public hearing within two to three months.

Thank you,

Jen

 Dear Jen,

Well, thanks. I’ve been told that Alternative K, Option 1, is the preferred alternative. And that you have shared that with other people. Can you confirm that? That would be easier than me sending FOIA requests to everyone.

Thank you.

Jim

 Jim,

The preferred alternative is Alternative K, Option 1.

Jen

Well, OK then. Alternative K is the Short Ranch. KLJ was actually studying three different options on the Short Ranch. Option 1 puts the bridge about half a mile from the Shorts’ ranch headquarters.

To be honest, that news surprised almost everyone who has been following the project. I really thought the spot that made the most sense — from the perspective of those who wanted a bridge — was the crossing north of the Elkhorn, which would have been about halfway between the bridges on I-94 at Medora and U.S. 85 south of Watford City. Besides, there were pretty direct routes out to Highway 16 on the west and Highway 85 on the east from that spot.

The crossing at the Short Ranch is just about 15 miles north of Medora, and there is no direct route to either Highway 16 or 85 from there. To get to Highway 85 involves going northeast and then back southeast in a big, 12-mile loop, before heading east to the highway. To get to Highway 16 from the crossing, you have to go south within seven miles of I-94 before going west. In my opinion, the whole idea is just goofy.

I’m not the only one to point that out. As far back as 2008, members of the Short family were making that point and expressing their opposition to the crossing and high-traffic road in the middle of their ranch — or anywhere, for that matter.

A bit about the Short family. They’ve been on the ranch for more than 100 years and have been one of the most respected families in the Bad Lands. The scion of the family, Don Short, served as a U.S. Congressman in the 1950s and ’60s. His son, Con, took over the ranch and was active in the operation until his passing last summer. His son, David, now operates the ranch.

Con was a straight-shootin’, plain-talkin’ Bad Lands cowboy. Billings County Commissioners are lucky he’s gone. His battered old cowboy hat would have gone through the roof when he heard this news. Still, he got in his shots. He registered his opposition to the project early and often during previous rounds of discussion. Here he is at a public meeting held by KLJ in 2008:

“I want to register my opinion of being against the whole damn thing. I just think North Dakota will benefit, and Medora and the Badlands will benefit, if we didn’t do it.

“The river bottom that they’re crossing is pristine. In my lifetime, there has been no roads on it, it has never been farmed, there’s never been a cottonwood tree cut down. I consider this one of the best mule deer country — or the best mule deer country in the Badlands. My family and I are a hundred percent against this project. We will use all of our resources in fighting this. Thank you.”

Again in 2012, at a public meeting in Medora, Con, hunched over by either arthritis or too many years breaking broncs, or both, got to his feet in front of a crowd of about 100 at a public meeting and said:

“I’m sorry, I don’t stand up very well. I’m Con Short. Some of this family is mine. To be really honest, we’re proud of being ranchers in Billings County. We’re proud of the friends we have here. We love the Badlands. I have been involved before on stopping more bridges and more roads up through the Badlands, and I’m amazed at how much help we have getting them stopped, and we will get this project stopped, too. Mr. Arthaud (Jim Arthaud, Billings County Commission chairman and champion of the bridge project) might not know that. But I’m telling him now we’ll get it stopped. We’ll take it to the courts or whatever we have to do.

“I am amazed — I am amazed that a county commissioner from Billings County wants this to happen in this county. All you have to do is take one look at that map up there. The roads are already in place. Improve them. You do not need a bridge across the Little Missouri River except for your own ego. You don’t need it. The tourists and everything else. We appreciate your time. I appreciate my family coming here. We’ve been here since 1902. Some of them obviously haven’t been here as long as I have. Billings County is the prettiest place in North Dakota or within a few inches of being the prettiest place. Why ruin it with more roads and more bridges? Thank you.”

When Billings County Sheriff Pat Rummel got up to argue that the county needed this bridge for ambulance and fire emergencies, Con challenged him. This is from the transcript of the meeting:

CON SHORT: You surely haven’t crossed our place with a fire truck, ever, physically.

RUMMEL: Probably not. That’s what I say.

CON SHORT: And you never needed to.

RUMMEL: That’s what I’m saying, I don’t remember ever a life-threatening situation. But there’s going to be someday.

CON SHORT: Do you know who I am?

RUMMEL: Yes, I know who you are.

CON SHORT: I started the Beach ambulance squad. We never needed to.

RUMMEL: I’m saying someday there’s going to be a need for a life-threatening –

CON SHORT: Japan might go to war again, too.

Well, Con’s gone, but the family stands united against the project — not just on their place, but anywhere. And they’ve got a pretty big hammer. The proposal puts the bridge and accompanying road, with a 500-foot easement, on their private property. And they’re not likely to give permission to do that. So, the county is going to have to use eminent domain. That will be a court fight for the ages.

In addition, since the day this project started being discussed, Commission Chairman Arthaud has said it would be done on public property — Forest Service land, not private land. Now, his engineering firm is telling him it should be on private land. I’m not sure how that’s going to sit with him, or with the other commissioners.

Arthaud told National Public Radio reporter John McChesney in an interview a few years ago, “We know damn well where that bridge belongs,” says Jim Arthaud, chairman of the Billings County Board of Commissioners. “On federal ground, about three miles north (of the Elkhorn).”

And at the public meeting in Medora in 2012, Arthaud, sensing Con Short had the crowd with him, did this little dance:

“Yeah, we think we probably have a better handle on it than most people, but to sit there and say we want it to go across the Shorts’ place, we didn’t pick that crossing. This is part of the process. We didn’t pick the crossing up at Magpie Creek, either. We don’t think that that’s a place for a crossing for Billings County, either. So don’t — don’t sit here and think that Billings County commissioners have decided to do that. And we have never been able to answer that question until — if you get chosen as that spot to be, then it’s a question that we’re going to have to sit down and answer amongst ourselves, and we’ll definitely take the input of the people that are there. But we think it should be on public land where all the public owns the land. I hope that helps.”

On public land. Arthaud’s been pretty consistent in saying, the last few years, almost guaranteeing, that the bridge will go on public land. So how’s he going to react to the recommendation of the engineering firm to put it on private land — an engineering firm that’s billed his county somewhere around a million dollars so far on this project?

David Short said it best in 2012, at the very end of the very last public meeting on the bridge: “We’re against every river crossing because we love the Bad Lands and we love the Little Missouri River.”

David Short’s got a lot of people who agree with him.

Now, there will be more public meetings. In “two or three months.” Almost exactly five years after the last one. Con Short’s gone, but he left a big family. With a lot of supporters. I guess we’ll find out just how badly Billings County’s commissioners really want a bridge.

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

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Camping At The Elkhorn, Part 2

I’ve spent a lot of nights sleeping within spitting distance of the Little Missouri River. God willing, I’ll spend a lot more.

I’m pretty sure I’ve slept there in every month on the calendar. Some nights — and some months — were better than others. I’ve slept there alone, I’ve slept there with canoeing buddies, I’ve slept there with wives,  with kids, with dogs, with a herd of bison trampling through my campsite, with coyotes howling, with a full moon and a new moon.

I’ve slept there on bare ground with nothing above me but stars, and I’ve slept there in a tent, in a camper, on top of my sleeping bag on hot summer nights and buried under layers of blankets on cold winter nights. I’ve slept there in howling winds and nights when just the slightest breeze rustled the cottonwood leaves above me. I’ve slept there sober and not so sober — those were the nights with my canoeing buddies —  I’ve slept there with aching legs exhausted from bushwhacking through the Bad Lands all day, I’ve slept there with arms so tired from paddling into the wind I can hardly raise myself in the middle of the night to answer nature’s call. I’ve slept on the west bank, the east bank, and islands in the middle of the river. And every one of those nights was better than any night sleeping INDOORS, in a soft, warm bed in winter or in a summertime air-conditioned bedroom.

Most recently, I slept beside the Little Missouri River snuggled against my wife, Lillian, under layers of down sleeping bags Dec. 23, 2016, a cold winter night in the North Dakota Bad Lands, with warnings of the “blizzard of the year approaching” ringing in our ears. I’m saying right now, out loud, it was one of the best nights of my life.

We were on the tail end of a three-day, pre-Christmas Bad Lands getaway, something we try to do every year but don’t always succeed. The day before we had explored the “Grand Canyon of the Little Missouri River” in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where the ranger told us when we stopped at the visitor center, we were Visitors Nos. 6 and 7 to the park that day.

Except for the small herd of bison that created a temporary traffic jam on the Park’s scenic drive, we pretty much had the Bad Lands to ourselves that afternoon, and after watching the sun set over the snow-covered river valley, we headed for, appropriately, the Roosevelt Inn in Watford City for the night.

The Inn’s owners have turned the place into more than just a comfortable motel — it is a great Theodore Roosevelt museum onto itself, with hundreds of photos, documents and artifacts lining the walls throughout the motel. We spent more than an hour just looking at the display before supper at Outlaws’ Bar and Grill in downtown Watford City, a great small-town restaurant whose menu includes a 54-ounce “long-bone ribeye steak” (allow 45 minutes for cooking, the menu says).

We awoke early in the Roosevelt Inn the next morning and wandered backroads to Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, some 30 miles south, where we spent the daylight hours setting up camp, hiking, reading, gathering firewood, snacking, taking pictures and just absorbing the Bad Lands experience, the sky as blue as blue can get, the ground covered with a blindingly white blanket of snow, about 6 inches deep, decorated by meandering tracks of river-bottom deer and the THUMP thump thump pattern of jackrabbit tracks heading toward the tasty bark of creekside willows.

In all the hours we were there, about the only sound we heard was a rancher feeding cattle with his loader late in the afternoon. Winter birds were scarce, perhaps already hunkering down as the barometer dropped in advance of the oncoming storm.

I had hoped to see a shrike, a bird Lillian had introduced me to on our first winter visit there together almost 15 years ago. The shrike that flew by us that day, Lillian explained to me, was probably looking for a field mouse which, if successful, it would likely impale on the government-built barbed wire fence or a sharp twig in one of the ancient junipers as a sort of “cache,” to which it could return again and again for small bits of flesh to sustain it on cold winter nights.

No such luck on this trip. We had to settle for some crows (a distant shrike relative), a few flocks of sharptails and two golden eagles floating high above us on thermals, looking for their own food source, perhaps one of those jackrabbits that left their tracks in the snow.

Lillian setting up our campsite beside the Little Missouri.
Lillian setting up our campsite beside the Little Missouri.

After setting up camp on the frozen Little Missouri riverbank, we enjoyed a short sliding hike on the snow-covered river before I decided it was time to gather firewood for the coming chilly night, and Lillian set off on her own on the ice into the Bad Lands, as she often does, to clear her mind and collect her thoughts and sink deep into the soul-refreshing place she’s called the “center of her universe” since her childhood days on the family ranch on Deep Creek, a Little Missouri tributary a hundred or so miles south of here.

Firewood gathered (not enough, as it turned out later, leading to an early bedtime as the fire ebbed), I sat down with a small glass of wine and my book of choice for the trip, Bernd Heinrich’s “Ravens in Winter,” in perfect sunlight, the temperature hovering just below freezing but with no wind, making it wonderfully comfortable for an hour of reading as the sun sank slowly behind me and lengthening Bad Lands shadows danced on the snow-dusted buttes across the river from me.

Heinrich’s book is a delight, even though you’ll seldom see one of his ravens in western North Dakota — their first cousins, the crows will have to do — and I loved how he reminded this old Norseman in his introduction that, according to Nordic legend, Odin, the lord of the gods, kept a pair of ravens perched on his shoulders.

“They were Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory),” Heinrich wrote, “and he sent them out at dawn to reconnoiter the ends of the earth. At night they returned and whispered into his ear the secrets they had learned … Odin, with his universal knowledge, then advised the other Norse gods.”

Just as the sun was approaching the Bad Lands horizon, Lillian returned with her own secrets, including a tale of a chance encounter with the rancher and his hired men out feeding cows, who must have wondered what on God’s green (now white) earth would a woman be doing out walking alone in the Bad Lands in the middle of no damn place, in the dead of winter. Just to make sure she was OK, the rancher stopped by our campsite on his four-wheeler just before dark, a nice friendly North Dakota gesture.

Supper was some second-time-around thick soup, enough when reheated on our Coleman stove for two bowls each, with breadsticks for dipping and wine for washing it down. There was no finer meal served nor appreciated anywhere in North Dakota that night, I am sure.

The bed Lillian had made for us consisted of four self-inflating air mattresses, two atop two more, covered by a heavy cloth summer sleeping bag for a bottom bedsheet, and for our covers, two unzipped winter sleeping bags providing about 6 inches of down cover against the cold of the night, which turned out to be only in the low teens.

We slept like babies, but at 5 a.m., Lillian shook me and said she simply could not lay there any longer, wanting to get up and see what the day in the Bad Lands — Christmas Eve day — was to bring us.

It first brought us hot coffee, which should have cleared our heads and the sky above us, but it turned out a heavy ice-fog had moved into the valley of the Little Missouri River, and it followed us all the way to town where we had a hot breakfast.

I hesitate to end the story of this great trip on a sour note, but I’d be remiss if I left you thinking all was rosy in the Bad Lands that day.

There are many threats to our Bad Lands, and on Christmas Eve Day 2016, the sky just north of Theodore Roosevelt National Park was blackened by a huge plume of thick dark smoke, coming from the site where the Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. had recently spilled nearly 200,000 gallons of crude oil into Ash Coulee Creek, a tributary of the Little Missouri. We drove toward it and found the smoke was from the cleanup of the spill. They had set the land and the creek afire, as their way of removing the oil which had not already sunk into the ground or been trapped beneath the ice.

Smoke from the oil burning in Ash Coulee Creek on Dec. 24, 2016. The site is about nine miles north of Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit.
Smoke from the oil burning in Ash Coulee Creek on Dec. 24, 2016. The site is about nine miles north of Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit.

It was an ignominious end to what had been an otherwise marvelous pre-Christmas adventure, and as we sat atop the hill above burning Ash Coulee Creek, watching the most unlikely, almost unearthly, of all possible scenes spread out before us, we were reminded of the words of the great Roosevelt himself, our Conservation President, who wrote, more than a hundred years ago:

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

What would Theodore Roosevelt think, we wondered, if he were here to witness this scene? What would he think of us, as Americans, for letting it come to this? We have not done as he instructed. That was evident, watching the story of this massive environmental blunder unfold before us. This would make him sad. Well, shame on us.

How much longer we will be able to enjoy the beauty and solitude of the Little Missouri River valley, as Lillian and I had just done, depends, I think, on our willingness to do as Roosevelt said:

Inquire Seriously. Starting now.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Turns Out Nobody’s Looking Out For The Little Missouri

A couple of weeks ago, I posted an article here about the Little Missouri State Scenic River Commission and how important it had been to protecting the integrity of North Dakota’s only “State Scenic River” during our first oil boom in the 1970s and ’80s. If you missed it, you can go here to catch up.

Well, we’ve had another boom since then, and with some big threats facing the river, today’s government leaders seem to have abdicated any influence they may have in protecting that important resource from the greedy oil industry, always in a hurry to get from here to there. Time is money, you know.

Here’s more of what I learned about the the laws that were written to protect the Little Missouri River ― and how they have been ignored.

The Little Missouri State Scenic River Act

Part 2 

On Aug. 29, 2007, the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission, meeting in Dickinson, N.D., watched a PowerPoint presentation by Kadrmas, Lee and Jackson (KLJ), the engineering firm hired by the North Dakota Department of Transportation to design a new crossing on the Little Missouri River north of Medora. The purpose of the presentation KLJ stated, was “to seek guidance from the Little Missouri State Scenic River Commission, if the river crossing structure alternatives comply with the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act.”

KLJ said it had received “numerous comments” citing the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act, and stating that the project may not comply with the Act. You can actually go to Chapter 61-29 of the North Dakota Century Code and read the act. It’s very short, and very specific. It says the job of the commission is 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.”

Well, two weeks after the Dickinson meeting, Arik Spencer, a staff person for the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, wrote to KLJ on behalf of the commission that the alternatives presented seemed to be in compliance with the Act. Spencer asked that the commission receive detailed information on the project once the alternatives for location and type of structure had been finalized, 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.”

That was the last anyone ever heard of the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission. It seemingly disappeared into thin air.

I wrote here earlier that the commission was deeply involved in development issues facing the river, which flows through the scenic North Dakota Bad Lands, from the time it was created by the North Dakota Legislature and former Gov. Art Link in 1975, through the first oil boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s and into the 1990s. But there is no record of any other correspondence involving the commission, or minutes of any meetings ― in the last nine years ― since that 2007 meeting.

For a few years, that meeting was also the last anyone heard of the proposed river crossing as well. It got bogged down in right-of-way access and objections to its planned location, adjacent to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The project resurfaced in 2012, with the beginning of a new Environmental Impact Statement, which now, four years later, is expected to be presented to the public this summer.

I’ve written about this project before. Initially, it meant a new bridge across the Little Missouri River next to Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch. That plan was discarded after loud objections from the public. New location alternatives were presented. Everyone now expects, when the EIS is released this June or July, it will recommend a bridge about four miles north of the Elkhorn, bringing as many as 1,000 oil trucks a day through this very remote and very scenic part of the Little Missouri River Valley. And likely it will recommend that it be built pretty soon.

There will be public hearings on the project ― and opportunity for the public to comment in person or on paper. I’ll write about that when I know more.

And when the EIS is released, KLJ will face a commitment it made way back in April 2008, on page four of a newsletter updating progress on the project:

“The (Little Missouri State Scenic River) Commission has reviewed the preliminary range of reasonable alternatives and found them to not violate the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act (NDCC 61-29). However, coordination with the commission will be ongoing throughout the environmental process. Once alternatives have been defined and are carried forward for impact analysis, they will be presented to the Commission again. At that time, the commission will determine if the proposed project is in compliance with the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act.”

Well, good luck with that, KLJ.

Because for all intents and purposes, the commission no longer exists. Oh, it’s still there in state law, but no one’s paying any attention to that. The commission hasn’t met in almost nine years. Its last chairman, Bad Lands rancher Alvin Nelson, died more than a year ago and hasn’t been replaced. And state officials responsible for calling it to meet, and presenting measures for “protection adequate to maintain the scenic, historic, and recreational qualities of the Little Missouri River and its tributary streams,” as the law states, hardly seem to know it even exists.

As I pointed out in my earlier article, three state officials — the State Parks and Recreation director, state engineer and state health officer — are the ex-officio members of the commission, and they join six ranchers, one from each of the Badlands counties, on the commission. The Parks director serves as secretary to the commission and traditionally calls the meetings and presents agenda items concerning threats to the integrity of the river for the commission’s consideration.

When I first spoke to the current Parks director, Mark Zimmerman, a couple of months ago, he said the commission had not met in the five years he has been in his job. Frankly, I think he didn’t even know about it until I made him aware of it.

After some digging, his staff found three pages of minutes from a 2001 meeting, with three agenda items: a discussion of the liability dangers in creating a Little Missouri River canoeing map, the possibility of designation of the river as a National Wild and Scenic River and plans for irrigation of a proposed new golf course south of Medora.

(If you’re curious, the map never got printed, the National Wild and Scenic River designation didn’t happen, and we’ve been playing the golf course for about 10 years now.)

At the end of those meeting minutes, it says this: “In closing, Ray Clouse (Golden Valley County’s representative on the commission) indicated a need to elevate the work of the commission to the public at large. Some form of publicity is needed to make the work of the commission aware to the public, function and value of the work so projects and actions along the river flow through the organization. That will be a topic for a future meeting.”

Never mind the bad grammar by the person writing the minutes. What Clouse wanted was to make the commission more visible, so that people and companies with plans which might impact the Scenic River valley would let the commission — and through them, the general public — know about those plans.

That was 2001. As far as I can tell, there were no “future meetings,” except for that time KLJ called the group together to review its plans for the bridge in August 2007. After I pressed the Parks Department to dig a little deeper, it did find minutes of that 2007 meeting, along with the PowerPoint presentation. But the department made it pretty clear there haven’t been any meetings since.

I talked to Clouse, a rancher from Golva, N.D., who just happens to be an old friend of mine, earlier this spring. He’s no longer a member of the commission, but said while the commission had little authority, it was important to keep the river free-flowing, and the commission’s work contributed to that.

His reference to “little authority” stems from an opinion issued in 1989 by then-North Dakota Attorney General Nick Spaeth that limited the commission to “adopting advisory policies for consideration by regulating bodies.”  Spaeth said, “It is my opinion that the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission may not regulate activities affecting the Little Missouri River (emphasis added).”

But Spaeth went on to say that “Regulating bodies are to recognize that the commission has an important role to play in managing the river. The commission, because of its composition, is able to provide a unique local perspective to management issues (emphasis added). Therefore, regulating bodies should carefully consider the Commission’s recommendations.”

Attorney general opinions in North Dakota have the force of law unless the Legislature supersedes them. In this case, I can find no evidence that has happened. That’s why Clouse told me he felt the board was a “paper tiger,” but still important.

Of course, the commission can’t make any recommendations unless it meets. I asked current Parks Director Zimmerman if he thought the commission might ever meet again, considering the numerous threats to the river from encroaching development, including TWO new bridges going through the river valley in the next two years or so. Yes, TWO — both the proposed oilfield road and bridge over the river north of Medora, and the replacement of the historic Long-X Bridge as part of the widening of U.S. Highway 85 to four lanes adjacent to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was that project that brought the commission to my attention in the first place.

There is precedent for the commission’s involvement in bridge projects. In the late 1980s, North Dakota’s DOT replaced another bridge over the Little Missouri River, the Lost Bridge north of Killdeer, on state Highway 22. The commission was heavily involved in that project, working with the DOT on siting of the bridge. It even had aerial photos taken of the proposed routes for the new road and bridge, studied them, and then-Parks Director Doug Eiken, on behalf of the Commission, made a formal request to DOT to locate the new bridge adjacent to the old one, to cause the least disturbance possible to the Little Missouri River Valley.

And that’s exactly what happened. The commission spoke. DOT listened.

Now, we face a similar, but much larger, project–a great big four-lane bridge on Highway 85. At early public hearings and in written testimony on the Highway 85 project — for which an Environmental Impact Statement will be released any day now — conservation groups, led by Jan Swenson of the Badlands Conservation Alliance, asked that once again, the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission be consulted. It’s that board, composed mostly of Badlands ranchers, who have on-the-ground knowledge of potential impacts on the river valley from the project.

So when I asked Director Zimmerman about that, he said, yes, that might be a good idea. Referring to the attorney general’s opinion, he said, “We really don’t have any authority — it is kind of a feel-good commission,” but from a “tourism and environment aspect,” it might be a good idea to get the commission back together again.

He mentioned that on a visit to the Elkhorn a couple of years ago, both former Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor and North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple had expressed some concern over the gravel mining operation now taking place beside the Elkhorn Ranch (more about that one of these days, too) and said that the commission could at least serve as a “sounding board” for those types of concerns.

“I’d be happy to act as a catalyst to call a meeting,” Zimmerman said.

I hope he does that. I’ve mentioned just a few of the threats to the “scenic, historic and recreational qualities of the Little Missouri River.” There are many more.

A couple of years ago, I rounded a  bend in the Little Missouri north of Medora in my canoe and found a brand new oil well sitting right on the bank of the river. Obviously, the commission hadn’t been asked to weigh in on that. This magnificent and important river needs all the friends it can muster.

Besides, it’s the law. Chapter 61-29 of the North Dakota Century Code.