JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Elkhorn Ranch Update No. 1

Over the past few years, I’ve written a number of stories about the threats to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s a pretty sacred site to a lot of North Dakotans and Americans, and it needs to be protected. Aside from the fact that the 218-acre site in northern Billings County, hard up against the Little Missouri River, is a  tiny protected island in a sea of ongoing oil development, the imminent threats have been three in number. One, a proposed oil well right at the gate of the historic home of our 26th president, has been negotiated to a site 2 miles away by public pressure and diligent work by the former park superintendent, Valerie Naylor.

Two others, both with what have become long histories now, remain. One is the proposed gravel mine directly across the Little Missouri River from the Elkhorn Ranch. That’s the most imminent — it could happen this spring. It’s a temporary, short-term problem, but pretty serious. I’m looking up some new information on that and will share it with you in a day or two.

However, the biggest long-term threat is a proposed bridge across the Little Missouri State Scenic River right beside Theodore Roosevelt’s historic home site. The bridge is the brainchild of the Billings County Commission and its chairman, a wealthy oilfield contractor named Jim Arthaud. Arthaud’s oilfield business, MBI, mostly involves trucks, and the bridge would accommodate those trucks.

I’ve written about it here before, but not for a good long while, and so I want to summarize and update you on what’s going on there. The project was initiated in the fall of 2006 when a notice was published in the Federal Register.  That notice began an Environmental Impact Statement process because Arthaud wants federal tax dollars to build the bridge and the roads leading to it.

The preferred location was right up against the Elkhorn Ranch site — I mean, within yards of it, not miles. Public workshops, a necessary first step in writing an Environmental Impact Statement, were first held in the spring of 2007, followed by a public comment period. According to a newsletter put out by Kadrmas, Lee and Jackson (KLJ) Engineering, which has had a longstanding contract with the county, 52 comments were received after the public meetings.  The newsletter said, “The majority of the comments stated a general opinion on the project, a preference for the no-build alternative, and expressed concern for potential impacts to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Elkhorn Ranchlands.”

The county and KLJ retrenched after those meetings, looking for alternatives somewhere other than the crossing beside the Elkhorn Ranch, and a second round of public meetings was held in the summer of 2008. Then the project went quiet, collapsing under the weight of negative public opinion and the inability to satisfy requirements of the EIS process.

But then came an oil boom. By 2012, Arthaud’s fleet of trucks had grown from a handful to many dozens, with more being added as he could hire drivers. He was joined by many more trucking companies, both from in-state and out-of-state. It takes a lot of trucks to frack a well. If you’ve been anywhere west of New Salem, you’ve seen the trucks. A new EIS process was initiated by the Billings County Commission. New alternatives were identified. A third round of public meetings was held in the summer of 2012, again with most participants expressing opposition to a bridge over the Little Missouri River anywhere in Billings County. Perhaps Arthaud’s mistake this time was that he bragged to the Dickinson Press that 1,000 trucks a day would use the bridge. No sane person could comprehend the impact of 1,000 trucks a day, running 24 hours a day, through the valley of the Little Missouri River on gravel roads, creating huge dust storms and a cacophonous racket, both of which would essentially steal the quiet, contemplative atmosphere that visitors find at the Elkhorn Ranch site. A good number of those trucks would be Arthaud’s, providing him substantial financial benefit, in addition to the slaps on the back he’d get from his oilfield buddies, who will also benefit from the taxpayer dollars — some say as much as $15 million—that will be used to build the bridge and roads.

The new EIS was scheduled to be completed in January 2013, but it’s dragged. Just recently, the page on the Billings County website maintained by KLJ changed to reflect a new timeline. It now says the draft EIS will be ready for public viewing in “late spring or early summer 2015” — two full years behind schedule. (Incidentally, the cash register keeps on ringing at  KLJ — they’ve now collected somewhere around a million dollars of Billings County Taxpayer money, with no end in sight.)

If they stay on the new schedule, sometime this summer there will be more public meetings, and a final EIS and Record of Decision will be issued by the federal agencies involved this fall. The federal agencies are the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service and, I think, the Environmental Protection Agency. Other agencies with something to say about it, perhaps during the public comment period, are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department and North Dakota’s State Historic Preservation Office.

The most important item in the EIS will be the Federal Highway Administration’s recommended location for the bridge, and the proposed routes of the roads leading to it — if, indeed, the Highway folks agree to authorize the project. There were a handful of possible locations, identified as “alternatives,” including the one beside the National Park site, presented at the public meetings in 2012.

It’s pretty easy to see why it has taken so long: None of the alternatives work. The engineers can’t find a good spot for the crossing. At the public meeting in Medora in 2012, in response to heated criticism, Arthaud said the crossing would not be next to the Elkhorn Ranch. I was at the meeting, and it was obvious he heard the passion of those trying to protect the Elkhorn. Backing that up, the Forest Service spokesman at the meeting said they would not allow it on their land across from the Elkhorn. And in response to a local rancher whose land was included in one of the crossing alternatives, Arthaud said it would be on public land, not private land.

The problem is, of the alternatives being considered by KLJ, none are completely on public land — except at the Elkhorn Ranch site. There is Forest Service land on the east side of the river at a couple of the crossing locations, but not on the west side. So that screws up Arthaud’s promise to keep it on public land. Unless new locations are found. The last time I was in communications with the engineers at KLJ, they told me there had been no new alternatives proposed. But that was a year ago. Maybe the reason for the new timeline, now proposing to “get it done” in 2015, is that they found a new alternative (I’m not sure where that would be — I’m pretty familiar with the crossings on the Little Missouri, and other than the one at the Elkhorn Ranch site, I don’t know of any that have public land on both sides of the river) or they have found a private landowner willing to have the bridge on their land. We’ll know that in “late spring or early summer.” I’ll keep you posted.

Footnote 1: The real need for this bridge anticipates the Bakken Boom moving full blast into the Bad Lands. There’s been some oil activity in the Badlands of Billings County, but nothing like what has been going on up north of Lake Sakakawea. Leases on federal lands are generally for ten years, as opposed to five-year leases on the private lands north of Lake Sakakawea, so there’s been no urgency to bring the rigs across the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea. But everyone expected that to start happening in the next year or two. The drop in oil prices might just give the Bad Lands a breather — there probably won’t be a lot of rigs moving south into the Bad Lands for a while, until prices stabilize. The EIS process will proceed, but there’s likely less urgency for construction. 

Footnote 2: A couple of years ago, I asked the Federal Highway guy how this bridge is going to get paid for. He said mostly with Federal Highway funds, with some small state and county match. The bridge was proposed back in the day when Congress earmarked funds for projects like this. But earmarks have disappeared. So, if it gets to that stage, the money for the bridge will have to come from the state’s regular allocation of federal highway funds. Which means money will have to be taken away from some other project somewhere else in the state. Jack Dalrymple can, and will, make that happen. Because Arthaud has taken out an insurance policy. He’s one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, contributors to Jack Dalrymple’s campaign and the state Republican Party. It’s hard to add up, but it’s safe to say that Arthaud and his family members and company executives have given at least $100,000 to North Dakota Republicans since 2010. And Dalrymple’s proven over and over that campaign contributions matter. Pretty good insurance.

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