JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — The Little Missouri State Scenic River Commission Is Back In Business

When the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission meets Wednesday in Dickinson, N.D., it could have a cake with 10 candles on it to celebrate. It will have been just 20 days shy of 10 years since the Commission last met — Aug. 29, 2007.

The newly formed commission, put together hastily this summer to comply with strict orders from Gov. Doug Burgum, will meet at the Grand Dakota Lodge just off state Highway 22 in North Dickinson at 7 p.m. MDT. Its last meeting was held just across the highway in the Dickinson AmericInn 10 years ago. Likely the only person at Wednesday’s meeting who was also at the last meeting will be Jennifer Turnbow from the Bismarck Engineering firm KLJ.

At that meeting, Turnbow was the only person on the commission’s agenda. She was there to outline plans for a new crossing over the Little Missouri River in Billings County, N.D. More about that in a minute. She’s on Wednesday’s agenda for a much bigger project — a four-lane, multimillion dollar bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River to replace the Long-X Bridge on U.S. Highway 85 on the east edge of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation is turning Highway 85 into a four-lane highway from Williston to Bowman and is either going to have to widen or replace the existing bridge. It’s a contentious issue because the highway actually runs through the east end of the national park, and there’s great concern about the impact of four lanes of 70 mph traffic zipping through the park.

A decision is going to have to be made pretty soon about how to get those cars and trucks across the Little Missouri State Scenic River with the least possible impact on the park. That’s what Turnbow will discuss Wednesday. We’ll have to wait and see if she has a formal recommendation.

Kudos to Gov. Burgum, and whoever put together the agenda, for putting the bridge project up for discussion at this historic first meeting of the commission in 10 years. Actually, credit really goes to Jan Swenson, executive director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance. Last year, in submitting comments on the draft of the Environmental Impact Statement on the Highway 85 project, Jan suggested that the North Dakota DOT consult the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission.

Well, Jan’s comments set us all to scrambling to find out what the hell that commission was all about. So we all refreshed our memories (here’s an article I wrote about it last year) and reminded ourselves that it was created by the 1975 Legislature 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.”

That’s quoted from the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act of 1975, now Chapter 61-29 of the North Dakota Century Code. A little-remembered but significant state law. So, some of us began lobbying newly elected Gov. Burgum last winter to revive the commission, and sure enough, he did, and now we’re going to a meeting.

Thank you Jan, and thank you Gov. Burgum. This is important because Chapter 61-29 also says, “The commission shall also have the power and duties of promulgating management policies to coordinate all activities within the confines of the Little Missouri River when such action is deemed necessary.”

And if there was ever a time when activities in the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley need some oversight, it’s now. Because in the absence of the commission during the Hoeven and Dalrymple years, there’s been a lot of bad shit going on in the Little Missouri River Valley.

And so last week, Jessie Wald, public information officer for the State Water Commission, sent out a press release announcing:

“Gov. Burgum has requested that the Little Missouri River Commission reconvene to discuss water management and development issues in the Little Missouri River Basin. The meeting is scheduled to be held on Wednesday, Aug. 9. It will take place at the Ramada Grand Dakota Lodge in the Freedom Hall at 532 15th Street West in Dickinson, N.D., from 7 to 9 p.m. MDT.”

Jessie went on to say:

“The Little Missouri River State Scenic River Act (Act) was created and passed in 1975 by the North Dakota Legislature. That same legislation also established the Little Missouri River Commission to administer the Act — though as an advisory commission only (emphasis added).

“LMRC membership, by statute, includes the Director of the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, the State Health Officer, the Chief Engineer of the State Water Commission, or their designated representatives; and one member each from McKenzie, Billings, Slope, Golden Valley, Dunn, and Bowman counties.

“The Aug. 9 meeting will provide background of the LRMC, include an election of officers, and there will be various presentations and discussions pertaining to current natural resource management issues along the Little Missouri River. The last LRMC meeting convened in 2007.”

I underlined the language above because it kind of pissed me off that Jessie’s superiors found it necessary to say that it only has “advisory” responsibilities. These are the same fellows over at the State Water Commission, also known as the State Engineer’s Office, who flouted this same state law for years by issuing more than 600 illegal industrial water permits to let the oil industry use Little Missouri River water to frack their oil wells, despite the law’s language that said (at the time — it’s been updated by the 2017 Legislature to allow industrial uses of Little Missouri River water)  “Channelization, reservoir construction, or diversion other than for agricultural or recreational, purposes … are expressly prohibited. I wrote about that back in April.

And so, when this body of six ranchers, one from each of the Bad Lands counties, and three state officials, get together Wednesday night, the first item Jessie’s bosses put on the agenda is a review of an old attorney general’s opinion issued by Nick Spaeth back in the 1980s.

In that opinion, Spaeth said he felt the law 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.”

So, we and commission members, are being told, at the commission’s first meeting in 10 years, that they really don’t have any authority over what goes on in the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley.

Except that 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. Therefore, regulating bodies should carefully consider the Commission’s recommendations.” (emphasis added)

And that’s why Jennifer Turnbow, representing KLJ, which is engineering the Highway 85 project, will be at Wednesday’s meeting. When she completes her EIS, she wants to be sure she acknowledges the feelings of the Little Missouri River Commission.

And it is likely she will be back in front of the commission again pretty soon because as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, she’s also drafting the EIS for the Billings County bridge project. And she wrote in a newsletter for the project back in April 2008 (who’d have ever guessed a project could drag on this long?),  “Coordination with the (Little Missouri State Scenic River) 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.” Here’s some more background.

Well, we’re about at that stage now. We expect to see that EIS in the next few months. And sure enough, after all these years, the commission is back in business. So, true to her word, as she always is, Turnbow will come back sometime this fall or winter, after she releases the EIS on the Billings County bridge project, and seek the commission’s blessing for that bridge. I’ll write more about that on another day.

For now, I’m going to brush up on the Highway 85 project by reading this old blog post, and put some gas in the car for the trip to Dickinson, to be part of this historic first meeting of the “new” Little Missouri State Scenic River Commission.