JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Two Very Important Letters

A week or so ago, I wrote here about the Billings County Commission’s actions seeking federal funds to build their “Bridge to Nowhere” across the Little Missouri State Scenic River north of Medora, N.D., encouraging my readers to send letters in opposition to their scheme. My wife, Lillian, and I did so the very next day.  Shortly, I was pleased to find out that two of my friends, both way more articulate than I, also sent letters to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. They are worthy of sharing. Here are the letters sent by Tracy Potter and Clay Jenkinson.

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Hon. Elaine Chao, Secretary

U.S. Department of Transportation

1200 New Jersey Ave S.E.

Washington, D.C. 20590

RE: Billings County ND, BUILD Grant Application

Dear Ms. Chao,

I write in reference to the extraordinary maneuver being used to circumvent state procedures and court actions to allow seizure of part of an historic ranch in the North Dakota Bad Lands to the detriment of the rest of the ranch. This is the Short Ranch, which qualifies as a North Dakota Centennial property with one family ownership for more than a century. The ranch was home to Republican Congressman Don L. Short, his grandparents and great-grandchildren.

For several years, the chairman of the Billings County Commission has sought financial assistance to build a bridge across the scenic Little Missouri River in the heart of the Bad Lands. The project has been unable to attract support for good reason. It lacks justification.

Due to the lack of justification, the North Dakota Department of Transportation has never listed the project amongst its priorities. It is NOT in the department’s plans for 2021-2023 because the bridge idea, besides the environmental and cultural damage it will cause to an historic ranch, has no compelling purpose in the low population density county.

The chairman is attempting to get around the legal difficulties and state transportation procedures by using political connections bought and paid for to obtain a $12.5 million grant for inappropriate purposes. It is up to you, Ms. Chao, to tell him no. There are much better uses for these grant funds.

Thank you for considering these remarks.


Tracy Potter

Former N.D. state senator

1320 N. Second St.

Bismarck, N.D. 58501

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The Honorable Elaine Chao

Secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation

US DOT, 9th Floor, West Building

1200 New Jersey Ave SI

Washington, D.C. 20590

Dear Secretary Chao,

I am writing in firm and unyielding opposition to the proposed bridge across the Little Missouri River in Billings County, North Dakota. Here are my reasons.

1. The Bridge would compromise the Elkhorn Ranch Site, one of the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Dust, noise and disruption would impair the essence of the Elkhorn Site, where Roosevelt developed some of his conservation ethos and where he went to recover from the simultaneous deaths of his first wife Alice and his mother Mittie on February 14, 1884. I have taken 50 or more groups to the Elkhorn site, which some conservation historians consider a “cradle of American conservation.” It would be ironic and wrong, I believe, to degrade that nationally important site. I sometimes camp at Cottonwood Campground in the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and there is no time there when you do not hear traffic on Interstate 94. People go to the Elkhorn Ranch site to seek solitude, to reflect, to get away from the incessant noise and disruption of industrial civilization. It would be a terrible mistake to impair that experience for anything less than a deeply compelling reason. When I take groups there, I ask them to sit and drink in total silence for eight to 15 minutes. The only sounds we hear then are the morning doves, the meadowlarks, and the breeze in the cottonwoods, some of which were there when Roosevelt sojourned in the Dakota Badlands.

2. The Bridge is unnecessary. I know that one argument for it is that it would make things easier for emergency medical vehicles and law enforcement. But this is to throw many millions of dollars at a problem that does not really exist and for a tiny handful of the individuals who live in the region. The ranchers who have lived in the Little Missouri Valley for more than a century are extremely resourceful. They have learned how to get to Medora, Watford City, Dickinson, Beach, Glendive and Billings using the existing infrastructure. EMT and other official vehicles have ready access to every ranch, farm, cabin, hunting site or oil well using the existing infrastructure. The other argument is that the bridge would facilitate oil field access and activity. My reading of human history is that when there is gold to be had, including black gold, the developers find a way. It may require a couple of dozen extra road miles to reach oil field sites, but this is a price worth paying to preserve the sanctity and beauty of the badlands.

3. The plain truth is that some members of the Billings County Commission, the oil industry and other Bridge advocates now want the Bridge more to aggrieve and offend the conservation community than for whatever actual uses the Bridge might have. They resent the ways in which ranchers, citizens, conservationists, historians and others have opposed the Bridge, and they are bent on winning a victory against the exemplars of environmental restraint and authentic respect for the Little Missouri River Valley merely to seek retribution. You may doubt what I allege if you wish, but I have heard Bridge advocates, including some of the most powerful, make precisely this argument, explicitly, and without linguistic coding. This would seem to be a poor reason to build a Bridge across the Little Missouri.

4. Fully 95 percent of North Dakota’s land is open for oil development. Nobody can argue that the state of North Dakota has not been welcoming of carbon extraction. Just the opposite. And the fact is that a significant portion of western North Dakota has been impaired by hectic and unchecked development. It would be possible to argue without exaggeration that parts of North Dakota have become an “energy sacrifice zone” for our insatiable desire to extract and export carbon. The Little Missouri River Valley and the N.D. Badlands are our one true scenic treasure. We are fortunate to have a national park in a small part of that district and to have the restraint of the National Grasslands (U.S. Forest Service) for a very large portion of it. It is in the interest not only of North Dakotans but the people of the United States to do what can be done to mitigate the impact of energy development in this crescent of land, where Sitting Bull often wintered, where Custer reconnoitered in 1874 and again in 1876 before riding on to his fate at the Little Big Horn, and above all where young TR became Theodore Roosevelt between September 1883 and ca. 1890. I do not in any way seek to prevent the oil industry from drawing every barrel of oil it wishes out of the western portion of North Dakota, but I do very strongly believe that we should ask the industry to exhibit extraordinary respect and restraint as it approaches the most beautiful, the most historically significant and the most soul-refreshing landscapes of the state. The Bridge would seriously impair the Little Missouri Valley and the Badlands, North Dakota’s No. 1 tourist destination, the home of the now internationally acclaimed Maah Daah Hey Trail, plus Medora, the portal to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the home of the famous Medora Musical and soon the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library.

5. It is the measure of an enlightened civilization to make careful distinctions between things we can use in an instrumental way and a small number of places that deserve unusual reverence. I know of no individual who is not a developer in some sense of the term who does not realize that there is something very special, even magical, about the Little Missouri River corridor. We are a fabulously wealthy nation that can afford to treasure and protect at least part of western North Dakota.

6. The Bridge would make it possible for the oil industry to engage in a dangerously accelerated and more intense round of carbon extraction from the Little Missouri Valley. I conform entirely to former North Dakota Gov. Arthur A. Link’s insistence here on “slow, orderly development.” We have no need to magnify the ability of industry to perform its extractions, particularly at a time when there is a worldwide glut of oil and natural gas, thanks to the technological ingenuity of fracturing.

7. The argument is made by the pro-Bridge advocates that only a puny number of people in North Dakota and the region oppose the Bridge. That is simply not true. In fact, it is a deliberate falsification of the known facts. Before so grave a decision is made, the developers should be required to conduct a scientific poll of the North Dakota people, together with information meetings and public debates across the region. I think you would be very much surprised by the level of support for leaving this section of the badlands alone.

If a bridge across the Little Missouri River must be built, I believe it should not be constructed in any location where it would impair the aesthetics, historical importance, sanctity or recreational experience at Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch Site. Studies should be conducted about dust, noise, viewsheds, wildlife habitat and other impacts of this or any other bridge. There is nothing inevitable about the current siting of the proposed Bridge, and the fact that it offends one of the oldest and most respected ranch families in North Dakota should have appropriate weight in any decision you make.

Just to be clear, I am not opposed to energy development in North Dakota. I’m not an environmental activist. I don’t make it a habit to oppose development. I’m a Roosevelt historian and a humanities scholar who has written extensively on Roosevelt and the Little Missouri River Valley. My latest book, “Theodore Roosevelt: Naturalist in the Arena,” published by the University of Nebraska Press, is carefully neutral about resource development issues in the American West. I do not feel strongly about most resource issues because I accept the development protocols of U.S. agencies that answer to the intent of Congress and I believe development on private land is a contract between willing buyers and willing sellers. But I feel very strongly about this issue and about any significant impairment of the sanctity of the Little Missouri River Valley. I have friends among the engineers and developers who are in favor of the Bridge, and we have spirited conversations about carbon extraction. I listen respectfully to their views and I can honestly declare that I have never heard a sufficiently compelling argument for the Bridge that is even a partial counterweight to the loss that we would experience, in perpetuity, by constructing it.

In his book, “The Fatal Impact,” the historian Alan Morehead writes of “the fatal moment when a social capsule is broken open,” and things are never again the same in a pristine environment or culture. I believe that building this Bridge would indeed invite greater industrialization of the Little Missouri River Valley, including paved roads, oil storage facilities, field cracking stations, withdrawal of waters from the Little Missouri for industrial use, a new wave of hobby ranches in the area, and much more.

I’m a mild-mannered humanities scholar, but I can honestly declare that this is the moment when I feel I must get out of my chair and act. If the Bridge project moves forward, I will do something I have never done: expend all of my energy in opposing it — through shared legal action, intense use of my platforms of speaking, writing and commentary, street protests and perhaps even graver responses to what I consider an unnecessary, dangerous, self-serving, cynical and deliberately provocative assault on the North Dakota Badlands. My new book on the future of North Dakota will be out in late 2020. It includes a chapter, attached, on the sanctity of the Little Missouri River.

Thank you for taking the time to listen to my arguments. I trust that you will do the right thing and not be taken in by those who say there is no significant opposition to this project.


Clay S. Jenkinson

1324 Golden Eagle Lane

Bismarck, N.D. 58503

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Well. Those are two very important letters, by two very important people, both noted historians and published authors. There is still time for you to lend your voice to this effort to stop this awful project. Secretary Chao’s address is in their letters. If you want to send her your letter by e-mail, you can send it to  Howard.Hill@dot.gov. He will see to it that it is delivered to her. Once again, thanks for helping.

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