JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Short Family To Government: We’ll See You In Court

Well, here’s some good news.

Six months ago, Billings County and the Federal Highway Administration signed a record of decision to proceed with a new bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River north of Medora, N.D. a bridge famously referred to as a “Bridge to Nowhere” because it has no apparent purpose other than to connect one isolated part of the Bad Lands to another.

The bridge location selected by the county and federal governments cuts through the heart of the historic Short Ranch, a Bad Lands ranch that has been in continual operation by the family of the late U.S. Congressman Don Short  since 1902.

  • Friday the Short family said “No.”
  • Friday the Short family said “You’re not putting that bridge on our ranch.”
  • Friday, the Short family filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Bismarck seeking a permanent injunction to stop any action to proceed with construction of the bridge.

The Short family went on the offense, instead of playing defense by waiting for Billings County to use the power of eminent domain to take their land for the bridge, and challenging that in court.

Good for the Short family.

In its lawsuit, the Short family says that the Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the Federal Highway Administration comes up short in a number of ways, mainly that it fails to consider a number of impacts the bridge will cause, including:

  • Impacts to the historic integrity and preservation of the Short Ranch.
  • Dust impacts to the Short Ranch..
  • Aesthetic impacts to the Short Ranch.
  • Wildlife impacts, including impacts to bighorn sheep.
  • Impacts to the Little Missouri River, including recreation uses of the Little Missouri River and impacts to aquatic species that would be caused by construction of the bridge.

In addition, the lawsuit says the chosen route for the bridge “cuts directly through the heart of the Short Ranch and will cause irreparable harm to the character, history and function of this property. This damage was not meaningfully considered in the Final Environmental Impact Statement. … The Short Ranch is characterized by land that is rugged, unblemished, majestic, and perhaps most importantly, isolated. The ranch itself is of substantial historic value. It has been in continuous operation since 1902 and is approximately four miles upriver from the Elkhorn Ranch. The Little Missouri River Crossing, which would drop a paved bridge on this isolated stretch of private land, would significantly change the character and delicate landscape of the Short Ranch.”

The lawsuit states that the Short family was never formally consulted about the project. Indeed, members of the family have told me that the Billings County commissioners, the driving force behind the bridge, have never sat down and visited with the Short family about the bridge. In a sparsely populated county, where everyone pretty much knows everyone else, that’s just not a very neighborly thing to do.

Friday’s actions set the stage for what could be a lengthy court battle. The Shorts have engaged two of the state’s top environmental attorneys, Derrick Braaten and JJ England of Bismarck’s Braaten Law firm. The government will have its own lawyers assigned to the case. I’m not sure if they will use lawyers from the North Dakota U. S. Attorney’s office, headed by Drew Wrigley, or bring in outside counsel.

It’s a gamble for the Short family. These kinds of lawsuits get expensive. But the Shorts understand this is about more than just their ranch. This is about the future of the Bad Lands and the Little Missouri State Scenic River.  It’s about stopping a thousand trucks a day from roaring through the most important and scenic river valley in our state.

There’ll be a big cheering section on the sidelines. We all owe them a huge debt of gratitude. Here’s the full press release the Braaten Law Firm issued Friday:

“December 27, 2019 — Members of the Short family filed a lawsuit in federal court in Bismarck, North Dakota today, challenging the attempts by the federal government and Billings County to locate and construct a road and bridge over the Little Missouri River on their property. While the Shorts have been largely ignored by the federal agencies and Billings County in the attempts to locate a bridge in an isolated area of the North Dakota badlands, as promised, the Short family will not accept such an open taking of private property for a bridge desired for the convenience of a few people.

“As explained by David Short, ‘if there really are any public benefits to this proposed bridge and road, then it should be a no brainer to put it on public lands.’ Some of the alternatives rejected by the federal agencies and Billings County would have placed the road and bridge on federal or state lands near the Teddy Roosevelt Elkhorn Ranch site. David Short also explained that ‘If the so-called public benefits are not enough to justify putting this road and bridge on the public property that is right there, there is no way that this project should be forced onto unwilling private landowners. It’s un-American.’

“The Short Family, made up of Sandra Short (widow of the late Con Short), and her children David Short, Sarah (Short) Sarbacker, and Donald Short, has filed a federal lawsuit alleging violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, National Historic Preservation Act, Department of Transportation Act of 1966, and Administrative Procedure Act. The Short family is represented by Braaten Law Firm out of Bismarck, North Dakota. The Complaint names as defendants the Federal Highway Administration, the United States Forest Service, and associated directing officials from those agencies. The Complaint asks the United States District Court to declare that the federal agencies violated federal law, and to vacate and set aside the Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision for the Little Missouri River Crossing proposed project.”

For more background information on this project, you can read a story I posted here this past June.

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