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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the lie.

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry, Bice, you’re busted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nice lady at the Corps wrote right back:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No shit, Sherlock.

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the letter here. It says:

We would appreciate your input on:

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

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

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

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — What Will Happen To The Newest Bridge Across The Little Missouri State Scenic River?

Last summer, I wrote an article about a North Dakota Bad Lands rancher who built himself a big bridge across the Little Missouri State Scenic River on federal land without getting permission. I wrote then, last July, “The folks at the BLM office don’t seem to know anything about the bridge or the road or the water pits, but they should, since things like that would certainly need ‘permission slips …”

Well, I asked the federal land agent at the Bureau of Land Management office in Dickinson, N.D., about it. He promised to get back to me. When he did, it was with these succinct words: “We’ve got a situation here.”

Since then, Loren Wikstrom, the manager of the BLM’s North Dakota field office, and I have talked by phone, e-mailed and even snail-mailed a few times, and a couple weeks ago, I spent some time with him in his office. He’s pretty close to getting to the bottom of this “situation.” Here’s an update.

The rancher’s name is Wylie Bice. His ranch is a few thousand acres beside the Little Missouri State Scenic River in Dunn County, just west of the Killdeer Mountains, in western North Dakota. Bice made a fortune — $100 million or so — selling his oilfield trucking company before the bust hit the oil patch. I guess he really wanted to be a rancher instead of a trucker, so he used some of the money to buy the ranch adjacent to his, which happened to be on the other side of the river.

It’s a pretty nice bridge! Cross over and you’re on federal land.
It’s a pretty nice bridge! Cross over and you’re on federal land.

That ranch had a federal grazing lease on some BLM land. which just happened to be right up against the river, where Bice wanted to put his bridge. So he did.

And not only did he put a bridge there, but he built a road to get to it, and he built a couple of large water ponds for storing water for sale to the oil industry for fracking, and he also spilled his farming operations over onto that BLM land. All of that without telling the BLM, or asking permission. Yep, I’d say that qualified as a “situation.”

So the BLM dispatched one of its employees up to see Bice. They went out and stood beside the bridge and talked about it. And then the employee came back to the office and wrote up a report for his superiors. And the BLM began taking action.

What they did is, they opened up what they call a “trespass file.” I don’t think it is a criminal file, just a civil matter, but the BLM considers it a serious violation, because they told me the trespass file is closed to public inspection until it is resolved. They did, however, tell me what is going on.

First, they told Bice he had a bridge and a road on BLM land without a permit, and they sent him an application for a right-of-way permit, which would essentially grant him permission to build a bridge and a road on their land (never mind that both of them are already there). They told him to fill out the application and to send it back, along with the engineering plan for the bridge and the road, so they could see if it meets their specifications.

Once he’d done that, if everything was in order, they would consider giving him the missing permit for the bridge and the access road. I thought that was a pretty nice reaction. It’s a pretty expensive bridge, probably a million dollars worth or more. I’m sure Bice would not want to have to tear it down.

The BLM gave him until January 15, 2018 — a couple of weeks ago now — to submit his paperwork. When I met with Loren Wikstrom a couple days after that deadline, he thought he might be able to give me the paperwork to look at in early February. I’m going to take him up on that.

If they do decide to issue a permit, Bice is going to have to pay rent on the land that the bridge and the road are on, and there’s going to be an administrative fine. They haven’t told me what the fine is going to be.

Along with the application, the BLM is requiring him to send his plan to “reclaim” his water depot. That’s right. Bice built two big ponds — I mean really, really big — into which he pumps water from the Little Missouri, where it is stored until an oil company needs it for fracking. Then he sells it, and the oil company comes and hauls it away.

A number of Bad Lands ranchers are doing this right now, thanks to our North Dakota State Engineer’s office, which issued more than 600 illegal water permits in the last few years to help out the oil industry. I wrote about that here last year. Seems like North Dakota’s state government is a lot more willing to just look the other way to help the oil industry than the federal government is.

It turns out that part of Bice’s water depot is also on BLM land, and the BLM isn’t going to allow that, so he has to remove the ponds and reclaim that land. The BLM also is going to charge him back rent on that land and fine him for putting that water depot on their land.

Bice also started a farming operation on that side of the river, although I don’t know what he planted. But part of what he planted was on BLM land. The BLM didn’t like that at all. It’s probably going to fine him for that as well and make him reclaim that land.

The BLM told me in a letter dated December 7, 2017, “BLM will oversee application of the National Environmental Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, Endangered Species Act and other applicable laws in considering the proposed right-of-way.”

The BLM guys went on to say that Bice “remains responsible for all applicable fines and back rent during the application processing period. In the event a right-of-way is granted, all fines and rent must be paid before issuance of right-of-way. Should the right-of-way be denied, the bridge, access road and other developments must be removed and the sites fully reclaimed to their original state at the expense of the responsible party (Bice).”

Well. Sounds like the BLM means business.

Then there’s another consideration. When someone wants to build something on federal land, especially in areas near Indian reservations, that darned old Historic Preservation Act comes into play. The BLM guys told me they never did get archeologists out there to do a cultural survey. That will likely have to take place once they get a completed application from Bice. The worst-case scenario, they told me, is “if they were to find artifacts or stone circles in the vicinity. That would be bad.”

I’m not sure exactly what “that would be bad” means, but I suppose it could mean denial of the right-of-way, and/or additional fines for violation of the Historic Preservation Act. The law is pretty clear on things like that, I suspect. I’m not going to look it up. I’ll let them tell me if that’s the case.

The water depot on BLM land, which is going to have to be removed.
The water depot on BLM land, which is going to have to be removed.

I don’t know if Bice is going to peaceably go in there and rip out the plastic liner in his pits, bulldoze them back to level ground, plant grass for the critters, pay his fines for trespassing, catch up on his back rent for the road and the pits and the bridge and the farming operation, or if he’s going to resist and set up another Cliven Bundy standoff situation. We’ll have to see how this plays out.

I did ask the BLM what happens if Bice doesn’t cooperate. The BLM’s response: “The BLM first tries to work with the responsible party in resolving trespasses amicably. However, if a trespasser is uncooperative, applicable civil or criminal measures may be pursued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

Uh-oh. As we saw in the case of Jason Halek, the fellow who violated the U. S. Safe Drinking Water Act by dumping 800,000 gallons of saltwater down an abandoned oil well near Dickinson, which I wrote about here a few months ago, the U.S. Attorney in North Dakota doesn’t take these things lightly. So that’s when the lawyers get involved. Bice has plenty of money for lawyers. And things can drag on for years.

I also learned this week that Bice has obtained two new industrial water permits (one issued just last week) to pump water from the Little Missouri into his water pits. (You can look at them here and here if you want to.) Nothing surprising there. The water’s free, and the State Water Commission engineers love giving it away. They did place some restrictions on the permits, pretty standard stuff, such as taking precautions to minimize the visual and audible disruption to the scenic Little Missouri River valley, by keeping the shorelines in and around intake locations free of construction debris and litter, keeping pumps and motors sheltered from view of canoeists, setting pumps and motors away from the shoreline to make sure gas and oil leaks don’t get into the river, and putting mufflers on internal combustion motors “to maintain the tranquility and ambiance and minimize audible disruption of the scenic river experience.”

Uh, huh. We’ll see how that’s going when I canoe through there this spring (which I am surely going to do). I’ll also see if his scrapers and bulldozers have completed the job of getting rid of those big water pits on land you and I and the rest of the people of the United States own, and if Bice has planted some grass and a few cottonwoods alongside the river. I get the feeling the bridge will still be there. For a long time. I’ll let you know what I find.

Meanwhile, if you want to have a look for yourself, I can tell you the legal address is the West half of Section 33, Township 148 North, Range 97 West.

That’s it on the left, on the Forest Service map. White is private land, yellow is public land – owned by the BLM. You’ll have to get a Forest Service map and follow the winding gravel and sometimes two-track, roads. The road from the east is a private road through private land, so you probably should go there from the west, across public land. And you probably shouldn’t cross the bridge, like I did, because you’ll be trespassing once you get about halfway across the river.

As I wrote last summer: “Y’know, with all the things I’ve learned, and all the stories I’ve heard, about the Bakken Oil Boom, this takes the cake.”

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Conflicts Of Interest Could Plague Scenic River Commission

The North Dakota Legislature approved, and Gov. Doug  Burgum signed, legislation last May authorizing the use of water from the Little Missouri State Scenic River for fracking oil wells. Now our state engineer, Garland Erbele, has issued industrial water permits authorizing more than 2.1 billion (that’s 2,142,000,000)  gallons of water to be taken from the river. So far.

The withdrawals are actually measured in acre feet, and the allocation by the state engineer, who works for the State Water Commission, is about 6,600 acre feet between now and next Oct. 30. An acre foot is enough water to cover one acre of land a foot deep in water. That takes about 325,000 gallons. I don’t know if the permittees will get as much as they’re authorized, but they could, if the technology is there, and the river cooperates.

I also don’t know how much water there is in the river, but I do know the river has been running pretty close to dry all summer and fall.

It’s a big number, but I am not really concerned about that. As the oil boys will tell you, if we don’t take it out, it just goes to New Orleans, and they have plenty of water.  There are plenty of other things I am concerned about, though. Like the impact of all this industrial activity on the integrity of the Little Missouri Scenic River Valley, North Dakota’s only State Scenic River. And conflicts of interest.

For example, the newly elected chairman of the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission, Joe Schettler of Killdeer, is a partner in a company called Streamline Water Services, and his company, which sells water to oil companies for fracking, has industrial water permits to draw 715 acre feet between now and next August.

And Scott Kleeman, Schettler’s proxy on the Commission if Joe can’t make it to the meetings, is part of a family operation that has an industrial water permit to draw 900 acre feet and sell it to oil companies between now and next April.

There’s also one more potential conflict. At last week’s meeting, neither the McKenzie County Commission member David Lee Crighton, nor his proxy, Kit James (who also has an industrial water business), was able to attend, so they sent Kaye Nelson to represent the county. Kaye is the widow of Alvin Nelson, the former commission chairman back when it used to have meetings, around the turn of the century. Apparently she attended a lot of the meetings with Alvin, so the county felt like she could represent them well.

The problem is, a company called Select Energy Services has a water depot on her ranch along the Little Missouri west of Grassy Butte, and it has an industrial water permit to take about 100 acre feet of water between now and next May.

To be fair, all of them have been in the water business a long time, and were in it when they took their seats on the commission. I’m guessing the county commissioners in their counties who appointed them knew about that. But they’ve not taken advantage of their positions on the Scenic River Commission for personal gain. So far.

Still, it would seem like there’s a pretty big potential conflict of interest there. One of the other commissioners told me this week that the fact they are in the water business threatens the integrity of the whole commission.

Right now, the industrial permits are being given out by the state engineer under an “interim” policy allowing river water to be used for fracking. “Interim” because Gov. Burgum wants the approval of the Scenic River Commission before he makes it permanent.

At last Wednesday’s commission meeting (I wrote about it earlier this week), there was a motion to approve Burgum’s “interim” policy. It was made by Gene Allen of Golden Valley County. But no one seconded the motion, so it died. And they voted to postpone consideration of the policy until their next meeting. Schettler was chairing the meeting, so he couldn’t second it. Nelson also demurred. Maybe she thought it would be inappropriate because she has a potential conflict. Or maybe it was because she really isn’t a member of the commission, and was just filling in.

In any case, it would be good if the members who are already in the industrial water business made that fact known to the rest of the commission and to the public. Well, I guess I just did that for them. If there are any other members who are in the water business, or have a potential conflict, I don’t know about it. If so, they should ‘fess up as well.

The rest of the list of industrial water users who have gotten permits since the governor signed the bill May 2 is pretty interesting, too. Erbele didn’t waste any time. On May 5, just three days after the bill became law, he signed the Kleeman family’s permit for 900 acre feet.

The second one was even more interesting. On the 9th, he granted a fellow named Wylie Bice 700 acre feet. You might remember that name. I wrote about him last summer. He’s the guy who sold his trucking company for $80 million or so, bought the ranch next door on the other side of the Little Missouri Scenic River and then built a bridge over the river to get to it.

One side of his bridge is on federal land, owned by the Bureau of Land Management, as is a road he built on federal land to access it. And then he put in an illegal water depot on BLM land beside the Little Missouri River, a big plastic-lined pit to store the water he’s taking from the river to sell to oil companies.

Wylie Bice’s illegal water depot, on BLM land.
Wylie Bice’s illegal water depot, on BLM land.

The BLM has been up to see Bice, and it’s given him an application to apply for a bridge and a road, to “get things legal.” I don’t know about the water depot.

I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that the BLM might give him a permit for a bridge and a road after he’s already built them. I’m going to go out to Dickinson to the BLM office one of these days and take a look at that application.

What I’m not going to get a look at, my friends at the BLM tell me, is what is called a “trespass file.” I’m not sure exactly what’s in there because it’s confidential right now, but I have to guess they’re considering some kind of legal action against Bice for putting stuff on federal land without permission. I’ll find out more about that when I get to Dickinson, too.

Also troubling is the creep of fracking further south into the Little Missouri River Valley. A company called NP Resources is drilling two wells near the Little Missouri Scenic River between Medora and the Elkhorn Ranch. The wells are on land owned by two pretty wealthy friends of mine who have purchased ranches along the river to protect them from development. One is directly across the river from the Elkhorn, President Theodore Roosevelt’s historic home. In both cases, the minerals under their ranches are owned by someone else, so they were powerless to stop them. Mineral owners trump surface owners.

In both cases, NP resources applied for and was granted water permits for 58 acre feet of water from the Scenic River — bout half a million gallons each — to frack the wells. It’s troubling because the industry appears to now be making serious advances deep into the heart of the Bad Lands, in the Little Missouri Scenic River valley, not so far north of Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The rest of the permits are mostly for a couple of hundred acre feet, and ranchers are taking advantage of their location beside the river to make a little money. Maybe more than a little. Hard to begrudge them that.

But those activities are the very reason the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission exists: Our state law, Chapter 61-29 of the North Dakota Century Code, the Little Missouri Scenic River Act, says we need to “preserve the Little Missouri River as nearly as possible in its present state,” and “maintain the scenic, historic and recreational qualities of the Little Missouri River and its tributary streams.”

Let’s make sure we do that. It’s getting harder, though.

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Newest Bridge Across The Little Missouri State Scenic River. What The …?

For the past 50 years or so, there have been just five places where you can drive your car across a bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River: in Marmarth on U.S. Highway 12, on Pacific Avenue in the city of Medora, on Interstate 94 just north of Medora (two bridges, one going each way), on U.S. Highway 85 south of Watford City (the Long-X Bridge) and on state Highway 22 north of Killdeer (the Lost Bridge).

The Billings County Commissioners have made news for the past 10 years trying to build a new bridge over the Little Missouri north of Medora. Their initial idea to put it beside the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park got shot down, and they’ve been involved in a long and costly EIS process, which has settled on a spot about 12 miles north of Medora, on the Short Ranch. The draft EIS should be released shortly, and a public comment process will follow the release.

The county has spent millions of dollars, probably enough to actually build the bridge, on the EIS process. Its still going to have to get permission from the Short family to put the bridge on their ranch. That’s unlikely to happen, so more time and money will have to be spent in a condemnation proceeding. When —  or even if —  the new bridge will be built remains to be determined by a court, and by the Commission.

They should have talked to Wylie Bice.

A couple of years ago, Bad Lands rancher Wylie Bice needed a way to get across the Little Missouri on his ranch northwest of Killdeer, so he just went ahead and built a bridge. It’s 9½ miles straight east of the Long-X Bridge, which crosses the river right on the eastern edge of the North Unit of the national park.

Here’s Wylie Bice’s story.

Bice ran a small trucking company from his ranch in northwest Dunn County before the oil boom. When the boom came, Wylie took advantage of it, buying some trucks, hiring some drivers, contracting with a lot of truck owner-operators and making a lot of money hauling water to and from oil wells.

In 2012, he sold the company to a Florida trucking company named Quality Distribution for — you ready? — somewhere between $80 million and $100 million. By the time the dust settles, the final deal will likely be closer to the second number than the first.

The Commercial Carrier Journal, a trade publication, said at the time of the sale, Bice employed 500 drivers and trucks and was “one of the largest haulers of fresh and disposal water and oil in the Bakken shale. Bice is principally an asset light business, as the company primarily utilizes independent contractors who own their own equipment.”

Well, there’s a North Dakota success story. Kind of like that guy from Fargo who sold his software company to Microsoft.

Bice had maintained his ranching operation on the east side of the Little Missouri State Scenic River and flush with cash after selling the trucking company, he bought the adjoining Hellickson ranch on the west side of the river. Both pretty good-sized spreads.

And now he had a problem. With ranches on both sides of the river, he needed a way to get back and forth, to move cows, cut and haul hay and operate his irrigation systems.

So without really telling anyone, except the Corps of Engineers, from whom he needed a permit, he just went ahead and built himself a bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River.

The Corps made him jump through some hoops, but he hired an engineer familiar with the process, and by the spring of 2013 he received permission from the Corps to build the bridge and was able to start construction. He’s been driving on it for about three years now.

I drove across the bridge last month. It’s a pretty substantial bridge, 240 feet long, with two large stone/concrete abutments holding it up, much like those under the railroad bridge across the Missouri River in Bismarck-Mandan, although much smaller. It’s well-engineered, though, and when I first came over the hill on the east side of the river, my reaction was “Holy S**t, look at that.” Since then, everyone I’ve shown the photo to has said pretty much the same thing.

Not only does he have a bridge, but he has a water depot there for storing water he’s taken from the Little Missouri State Scenic River, ostensibly for irrigation. The depot consists of four large plastic-lined pits, two on each side of the river.

Setting up an irrigation operation on BLM land.
Setting up an irrigation operation on BLM land.

The day I was there in June, it appeared there were two hired men pumping water from the river to supply the irrigation system. At least that’s what they said they were doing when I stopped to visit with them.

He does have a couple of water permits, and I looked at them on the North Dakota Water Commission website. It shows that he hasn’t taken any water out of there in the past 20 years. The Water Commission’s website can be a little cumbersome, so maybe I’m not reading it right, or maybe the info is buried somewhere else on the website, or maybe someone hasn’t been reporting the water they have taken from the river. Someone named Wylie Bice. I think there are some guys over at the Water Commission who read my blog, so maybe they’ll do a little checking for me.

But what Bice doesn’t appear to have is permission from the Bureau of Land Management to put a bridge on their land, and a road to it, and two water storage pits.

See, Bice owns the land on the east side of the river, but the BLM owns the land on the west side of the river. Likely the grazing rights went along with the purchase of the Hellickson ranch, but the federal government — you and I — own the chunk of land there — about 100 acres — and likely Bice has been paying rent to run cows on it. There’s quite a bit of BLM land nearby, probably also part of Bice’s grazing permit.

The folks at the BLM office don’t seem to know anything about the bridge or the road or the water pits, but they should, since things like that would certainly need “permission slips,” and I’m guessing they’re checking on that right now as well.

The folks at the North Dakota Department of Transportation, which is responsible for inspecting bridges to make sure they are safe, doesn’t know anything about the bridge, and maybe they don’t have to, since it is a private bridge. Still, it’s on public land, and you’d like to think the DOT knows about all the bridges in the state, especially one of this size, crossing our state’s only designated State Scenic River.

The folks in the Dunn County Courthouse do know about the bridge, but weren’t involved in permitting it, since they don’t maintain the roads to it. None of them have been out to see the bridge, from what I can tell. In fact, I may be the only person other than Bice, his hired men, the engineers and the guys who built it who have actually seen the bridge. Too bad. It’s an engineering marvel out there, deep in the heart of the North Dakota Bad Lands.

The Little Missouri Scenic River Commission, had it been active when this was built, would surely have been involved in passing judgment on it, but the commission has been inactive for about 15 years under the Hoeven and Dalrymple administrations. Our new governor, Doug Burgum, has ordered it reactivated, though, and it might hold its first meeting as soon as this August. I’d hope there would be some discussion of this bridge at that meeting.

My friends and I, and my wife and I, canoe the Little Missouri State Scenic River pretty often, but since the boom we’ve avoided that stretch of the river. Too much noise, too much dust, too many flaring oil well pads. On our last trip, maybe10 years ago now, we stopped short of the bridge—  which wasn’t there yet —  at the ranch of my friend, Curly Haugland, which is about three miles west.

There might have been a canoer or two by there since it was built, but I sure hadn’t heard any reports from any of them about a new bridge. It’s not on the Forest Service map, which is the Bad Lands user’s bible, so I suspect it would be quite a shock to come around a bend in the river and see a brand-new bridge there. Maybe one of these days, if the river ever gets any water in it …

Well, that’s what I know for now. I can’t give you directions to the bridge, but I can tell you the legal address is the west half of Section 33, Township 148 North, Range 97 West. That’s it on the left, on the Forest Service map. White is private land, yellow is public land — owned by the BLM. You’ll have to get a Forest Service map and follow the winding gravel, and sometimes two-track, roads. The road from the east is a private road through private land, so you probably should go there from the west, across public land. And you probably shouldn’t cross the bridge, like I did, because you’ll be trespassing.

I’ll be checking back with state and local permitting agencies, and I’ll report back here if I learn anything new.

Y’know, with all the things I’ve learned, and all the stories I’ve heard, about the Bakken Oil Boom, this takes the cake.