There’s this fellow who works in the Montana office of the Bureau of Land Management named Seth Jackson who’s as good at his job as anyone I’ve ever known who works for the U.S. government. I haven’t met him, but I’ve e-mailed back and forth with him at least a dozen times, And I always get the information I need from him when I ask. He’s a good guy.
I used to have that kind of relationship with the North Dakota BLM manager, Loren Wickstrom out in Dickinson, but I kind of pissed him off one day when I threatened to call my U.S. senator if I didn’t get what I wanted, post haste. My mistake. He still gets me what I need if he has it, though.
Anyway, those two guys are on my mind today because I, and a bunch of other mostly good people, sent Loren comments on the Environmental Assessment being done by the BLM as it decides what to do about the illegal bridge built by the rogue rancher Wylie Bice out in Dunn County, on the Little Missouri State Scenic River. If you’re not familiar with this issue, you can get some background by clicking on an earlier blog, here.
Thursday I got an e-mail from Seth telling me they have released the comments they received, and you can read them all by going to their website, here. Make a pot of coffee, or grab a six-pack of beer. It takes a while to read them all. I’ll share some highlights. (You might want to grab a beer anyway— my highlights are pretty lengthy.)
Most of the commenters suggested taking down the bridge, restoring the land and slapping a substantial fine on Bice. You’ll notice when you read them that a lot of the names and addresses have been redacted (a la the Mueller Report). That’s because the BLM gave commenters the option of keeping their names and contact information confidential, and most people chose that option.
Some were pretty blunt:
- •Make him open it to the public. If not tear it down. I’ll help. Then charge him for tearing it down.
- You BLM folks know that Bice and guys Iike him are conniving skunks who know it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. Bice has already run to the politicians in Washington. Do the right thing … option 2 … the BCA position (the Badlands Conservation Alliance comments I referred to in my last blog about this). Let higher-ups reverse you and then watch the mud hit the national fan. Guys like Bice have scarred the public land for 150 years. I’m not suggesting hanging his ass from the bridge but it should be an option.
- Bice’s illegal bridge needs to be removed. He has no right to build a bridge, a water depot and plow and plant crop on federal property. Although he has done just that. He needs the full extent of the law applied to his flagrant abuse of our collective property. If his actions are allowed to stand, precedent will be set for all manner of abuse that will ultimately lead to a degradation of the natural environment on federal lands. What is the point of having protected federal lands if the protections have no enforcement? Mr. Bice needs to feel the weight of the maximum penalties of $100,000 fine and 12-months in prison. Anything less invites endless trouble with respect to how other scofflaws will act in the future relative to federal property. Do the right thing. Send Mr. Bice to jail … $100,000 poorer.
- Just because someone is a business owner and rich does not give them the right to defraud the Citizens of the United States. Everything should be removed.
- The landowner who put his bridge on my public land needs to remove it, and that section of BLM needs to be reclaimed. He was unauthorized, and knew it wasn’t his land. Have it removed, end of discussion.
- Wylie Bice is a thief. The only way this bridge should be allowed to remain is if permanent public access is granted between public roadways on both sides of the river. If road improvements are needed, those costs must be borne entirely by Wylie Bice. Furthermore, the alfalfa fields and water settlement ponds must be returned to their previous state unless BLM or the squatting occupant can enunciate a benefit to the general public. Public lands are not for private benefit. If BLM decides to sell the land, then it must be offered on sale in a public auction to the highest bidder. Anyone should have access to purchase public land if it is for sale. (That’s not a bad idea. Do you suppose we could raise enough money in a GoFundMe account to buy half a bridge?)
- This is the most shocking display of public bullying I have ever seen in North Dakota and it absolutely must be stopped and a clear message must be sent that this is not OK and it will stop. Remove the bridge, road, pond and alfalfa fields and rehabilitate the public land to a condition similar to that of the surrounding public land
Well. Give people a chance to speak their minds, and they’ll do just that.
A number of folks weren’t afraid to put their names where their words were, though. Here’s a creative suggestion from a fellow named Dr. Albert Henning, although he had his address redacted, so I don’t know where he’s from. He’s suggesting that the BLM land where the Bice bridge is be turned into a campground for canoers and kayakers. Great idea. With a bridge there, it is available from both east and west. Here’s Dr. Hennings idea:
- “NPS makes detailed reference to river travel by kayakers and canoers (see: https://www.nps.gov/thro/planyourvisit/canoeing-kayaking.htm). The description states that few camping areas are available between the U.S. 85 crossing of the Little Missouri, and the take-out on N.D. Route 22, near Lake Sakakawea. Having these BLM lands support a campground would promote public use and access (which as I’ve stated is important to me). I would also suggest that such a campground include an interpretative pavilion or permanent display, showing the history of grazing and other land-use in the region, as well as the economic impacts of such, and the ability of multiple land uses to be sustainable, and to co-exist comfortably. A potable water source for river travelers on the BLM land would be a nice-to-have addition, if BLM and Mr. Bice choose to pursue this option/suggestion. Little Missouri River State Park does not appear to support put-in/take-out for river travelers. I’m not sure Mr. Bice would approve access over his land, to the BLM land, for purposes of put-in/take-out of kayaks and canoes by river travelers, but perhaps it is worth discussion.”
Cool. Let’s talk to State Parks Director Melissa Baker and see if she’d like another state park on the Little Missouri. I bet Wylie Bice would love to have company all summer long and would welcome us with open arms.
Not everyone was opposed to the bridge. Bice had his supporters.
- Kelly Allmendinger, who runs a butcher shop in Dodge, ND, down a few gravel roads from the Bice ranch, wrote: “I believe this man was trying to conserve the land by taking the best planned route for a bridge that benefits his ranch. This country spoken of is very hard to determine boundaries and I do not believe he was attentionally (sic) doing this, therefore I would like to see minimal fines and a simple land buy out or swap. I wish government agencies wouldn’t try to make stuff so difficult. This is very rugged land. I am sure being the business man he was he would of not knowingly built a highly expensive bridge on someone else’s land. So instead of wasting money on research why don’t they direct the money on better existing land.”
- Keb Carbary, a businessman from eastern North Dakota, wrote: “It’s public land, he pays taxes and leases the ground for ranching. Let him be a caretaker of the land. There is no reason to remove it. Quit wasting money and just leave it.”
- Blaine Hoffman, an oil company executive from Dickinson, wrote: “Sell the property to Mr Bice. It is a small tract of land in the middle of private property and would be better managed by the private property owner than any government agency could hope to manage the land. Let Mr. Bice pay the fines and move on to more important, larger picture issues.”
A few North Dakota state agencies weighed in, but the only one even worth reading was from Greg Link at Game and Fish, who came at this from a completely different perspective: What would be best for the wildlife? Greg concluded that this land is already screwed up so bad it can hardly be reclaimed, so let’s get some land from Mr. Bice and create some new wildlife habitat open to the public. Link wrote:
- “The most valuable resources for our wildlife come from their native habitats (i.e. unaltered wetlands, woodlands, and prairies). Though this tract of land can be rehabilitated, it will likely take years to reach an acceptable standard, and, beyond that, will likely never match the quality of the unbroken lands of similar condition surrounding it. With this taken into consideration, the department believes the best option would be a land trade at a minimum of a 1:1 ratio for undisturbed land that has an equivalent amount (approximately 1,000 meters) of shoreline along the Little Missouri River. 5/13/2019 2/2 Furthermore, the department would also recommend consolidating the BLM patches surrounding the affected area. These small parcels are landlocked by private lands, making access by sportsmen/women, recreationalists, and the general public difficult, if not impossible. Protecting a larger piece of contiguous, undisturbed land, while maintaining access to the Little Missouri River would be of benefit to our wildlife and would provide better access opportunities for the public.”
A former head of a state agency, former North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Sarah Vogel, who has represented thousands of farmers and ranchers in her legal career, argued that allowing Bice to keep his bridge sets a terrible example and creates precedent for similar actions from other violators. She wrote:
- “If the BLM accepts Option 5, the small ranchers I have dealt with over the years will wonder why they shouldn’t (like Mr. Bice) simply open a gate and let their cattle graze on the federal grazing lands and, when they get caught, simply pay rent later. I would submit that, especially during the current farm crisis, they have stronger and more valid incentives to survive by unauthorized use of federal lands than does Mr. Bice, who enjoys wealth and privilege at a scale unimaginable for ranchers like those I worked with in the past.”
And she warns of other bad outcomes:
- “If the BLM accepts Option 5, how will it distinguish Mr. Bice’s behavior from the behavior of rabid, right-wing armed militants who occupied the headquarters of the Matheus National Wildlife Refuge in Harney County Oregon? Does Option 5 give license to nongovernmental militias, to “sovereign citizens” and others of that ilk such as the Bundy’s to declare that they too have the right to occupy and use federal lands without proper permissions/payments/procedures? There is an ugly and growing ‘movement’ of ill-informed and dangerous people that holds as a premise that they, not the federal officials, have a right to control this land. Option 5 creates an opening for their dangerous ideas. Mr. Bice must be made an example.”
Another attorney, Peter J. Breuer, who was writing on behalf of a client whose name was redacted, took another approach, arguing that the BLM did not do a sufficient job analyzing the impact of the Bice bridge as a commercial enterprise, not just a crossing for him to get between his two ranches. He wants further study. He nailed it:
- “When an environmental analysis, or an environmental impact statement, fails to analyze crucial information it must be supplemented in order to foster informed decision-making. Oil field traffic has increased due to the construction of the Bice Bridge. As the EA points out, the Bice Bridge greatly reduces the travel time necessary to reach locations on the opposite side of the Little Missouri. At a minimum the bridge reduces travel time by at least an hour. While the EA may address the reduction in emergency travel times the same is applicable to oil field traffic. The Bice Bridge is located in the heart of oil field country. In the township which the bridge is located 102 wells have been drilled. The Brice Bridge alleviates travel time across the Little Missouri not only for the previously mentioned 102 wells but for other wells located in abutting township and ranges. The Bice Bridge sees oil field traffic not only for its ability to reduce travel time but also due to Mr. Bice’s sale of frac water. Frac water, an important component in the oil production process, is sold from private land owned by Mr. Bice. It is understanding that the sale of said water requires water tankers and other oil field traffic to cross the Bice Bridge. The increase in oil field traffic could have a significant effect on the Little Missouri or surrounding environmental systems. The potential for an oil field traffic accident on or near the bridge is higher than that of normal traffic. An oil or water tanker accident on or near the bridge would contaminate or otherwise harm the Little Missouri. Oil field traffic accidents are common and occur at an abnormally high rate. In fact, the crash rate within the oil and gas industry is 8.5 times higher than that of all private wage and salary workers. The high potential for oil field accidents occurring on or near the bridge must be reviewed and analyzed by the Bice Bridge EA. The EA should analyze how much oil field traffic travels across the Bice Bridge, the potential for an accident to occur, and the potential for an accident to contaminate the Little Missouri or surrounding environmental systems. Potential environmental degradation exists beyond oil field traffic accidents. The EA must also consider whether the increase in oil field traffic will have other detrimental effects on the Little Missouri. Oil field traffic increases the presence of dust and other particulates. The EA does not analyze whether any dust control measures could have a detrimental effect on the environment and more specifically whether dust control could harm the Little Missouri. Furthermore, the EA should consider whether increased oil field traffic has increased the production or emission of carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and other emissions related to vehicular traffic to such a degree that it is harmful to the Little Missouri or the surrounding environment. CONCLUSION: The Bice Bridge EA is incomplete and must be supplemented.”
So what’s next? In an e-mail to me Thursday, Seth Jackson said:
“The BLM continues to prepare responses to substantive comments received on the EA. When completed, the final EA will be posted to the BLM’s online ePlanning portal, at the above link, and all interested parties will be notified.”
The BLM is moving pretty quickly on this, for a government agency. I think they want to decide on their preferred alternative, which is to let Bice keep his bridge, pay his fine and reclaim the land where he put his water depot and planted his alfalfa, and get it done this summer.
It will take them some time to write back to everyone who submitted “substantive comments.” (I’ll be eager to see if my comments were considered “substantive.”) But I’m not going to bother Seth asking when to expect their decision, I’ll just trust that he’ll notify me when it’s done.
But damn, like about half the people who took the time to write comments suggested, I really hope they send him to the pokey.