JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — A Tale Of Two Bridges (Continued)

I wrote in a recent edition of Dakota Country magazine about the continuing saga of a pair of bridges — one built, the other proposed — over the Little Missouri State Scenic River, part of the ongoing effort of politicians and captains of industry to industrialize the state’s only officially designated scenic river.

It seems like there’s no end to the threats to the Little Missouri and North Dakota’s most scenic area, the Bad Lands. I’ve been writing about these two bridges over the Little Missouri for a couple of years now. Here’s an update, from my magazine article.

The Dunn County Bridge

Let’s talk first about the bridge that’s already there, built by a rich Bad Lands rancher named Wylie Bice. Yeah, that’s his real name, and if there’s a better name for a Bad Lands cowboy, I’ll eat my 10X Beaver Stetson. If I had one — they’re pretty pricey for an old retired town boy like me, with no cattle.

Wylie sold his big oilfield trucking company during the Bakken Boom for about $80 million and bought a couple of adjoining Bad Lands ranches beside the Little Missouri but with the river between them. He needed to connect them, so he spent a few million on a fancy bridge to get back and forth.

He also put in a couple of water depots — big pits the size of a couple of football fields — and started selling water that he pulled out of the river to the oil industry for fracking. That bridge made it pretty convenient to move that water around the oil fields.

Only one problem: He built the bridge with one end of it on public land and didn’t get permission. Turns out about 60 acres or so of his ranch on the west side of the river is federal land, which he doesn’t own but on which he has a grazing permit, and that’s where he chose to put his bridge. Bad idea.

About three years ago, he got caught by the Bureau of Land Management — the BLM manages the 60 acres and about 60,000 other acres out in western North Dakota — after I published a couple of articles about it, here and in Dakota Country, complete with pictures of the bridge and the water pit on government land. Turns out the BLM had been pretty busy during the boom and hadn’t been out checking on its landholdings for a few years.

So once the BLM found out, it began figuring out what to do about it. It took a couple of years, but about a year ago, the BLM came to a decision. The bridge can stay, but the water pit has to go, and Wylie will pay a fine for breaking the law. That’s all I know. When I asked the Dickinson BLM office manager to send me a copy of the papers with the decision on them, he told me I would have to submit a Freedom Of Information Act request to get them.

I did that on March 30 of this year. More than half a year ago now. I have not yet received them. So I can’t tell you exactly what is going to happen. I know it’s been a busy time at the BLM office. When I called the North Dakota BLM manager, Loren Wickstrom, a couple of months ago, I got his voice mail, which said that he was down in Colorado fighting wildfires. He’s back now and has promised to try to get me the documents, but nothing yet.

Unofficially, I know that Wylie’s been assessed at least a $30,000 fine and was told to put $100,000 in a bond bank. And he had to remove the water pit. I was there in September, and the water pit is gone, just a big patch of bare Bad Lands dirt remaining.

But the bridge is still there, and his water pit on his own side of the bridge, on his private land, is still there, and it appears he’s still selling water to every fracking company that wants to drive their trucks across that bridge to pick it up. That hasn’t been happening lately because the oil industry has gone bust, at least temporarily, and there’s a serious drought out west, so there’s no water in the Little Missouri for Wylie to pull out and sell.

In case you had forgotten what Wylie Bice’s bridge looks like.
In case you had forgotten what Wylie Bice’s bridge looks like.

I’ll be keeping an eye on him in the spring. There’s a sign on the road leading up to the bridge that says “No semis,” so maybe the BLM has told him that he can’t allow water trucks on the bridge, but I haven’t seen that officially yet. And I doubt the BLM will  post a guard out there to monitor him. But I might drive by once in a while when I’m out exploring the Bad Lands, and if I spot anything, or If I ever get those documents, I’ll let you know.

Oh, one more thing. I called the Dunn County Courthouse this fall and asked if the bridge made his ranches more valuable for property tax purposes. It’s property taxes that pay to maintain county roads and keep them open in the winter so those oil trucks and the oilfield crews can get around the county. So I asked if Wylie was paying property taxes on that bridge.

“Hmmm, that’s an interesting question,” was the response I got. “No, he’s not paying property taxes because it’s part of the road system. He’s agreed to let the county’s emergency vehicles use the bridge.”

But I could tell the county official was thinking about it, even as she answered. I asked her if she would let me know if anything changed. She said she would. I’ll report if I hear anything. Seems to me a private bridge worth a couple of million dollars ought to be generating some property tax revenue for the county.

The Billings County Bridge

Meanwhile, about 50 miles upriver, over in Billings County, there’s a proposed bridge over the Little Missouri that’s not getting built any time soon. I told you back in September that the Billings County commissioners out in Medora had applied for a federal grant of $12.3 million to build their “Bridge to Nowhere” across the river north of Medora. This wouldn’t be a one-lane bridge like Wylie’s. This would be a big wide multilane bridge to accommodate the biggest oilfield rigs in the state.

The bridge has the possibility of being the worst-ever environmental disaster for the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley — a dirty, dusty freeway for oil trucks through the heart of the valley. At one time, county commissioners were saying it could be used by a thousand trucks a day.

They didn’t get the money. Members of the Badlands Conservation Alliance, a public lands advocacy group headquartered in Bismarck, among others, flooded the office of U. S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao with letters opposing the grant and the construction of the bridge. Secretary Chao listened. On Sept. 16, she announced the recipients of the grants from her billion-dollar discretionary “slush” fund, and Billings County wasn’t among them.

North Dakota did OK though. The state had applied for $25 million to use to raise roads in Prairie Pothole Country that are going underwater during this amazing wet cycle the central and eastern parts of our state are going through. Secretary Chao gave them $22 million, and that money is going to make it a lot easier for those of us who use our state’s “blue highways” in other parts of the state to get to and from our favorite hunting and fishing spots. Work on those projects will start next spring.

Those Billings County commissioners are tenacious, though, so the Little Missouri bridge, while it may be in its death throes (the state of North Dakota has no intention of using its state funds to build it — at least so far), it hasn’t quite breathed its last. Billings County Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud, for whom the bridge has become a vanity project, has threatened to build it using county funds. Instead of the feds paying 80 percent of the cost — $12 million — and Billings County picking up the other 20 percent — about $3 million —Arthaud told a newspaper reporter in September the county would just pay the whole $15 million themselves.

That’s a lot of money for a bridge of questionable value to the 900 or so Billings County residents (about $19,000 per resident). Oh, the county could afford the $15 million — the county is oil rich, the richest county per capita in North Dakota.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank to get the money. On Election Day last month, Billings County voters threw Arthaud out of office. After a 20-year career as a Billings County commissioner, Arthaud will be a private citizen again Jan. 1. And another of the three county commissioners decided not to seek re-election this year, so there will be two new county commissioners in office in January.

I don’t know if the bridge was the determining factor in the Billings County voters’ minds on Election Day, but I suspect it had something to do with their decision. The county commissioners, led by Arthaud, had begun the process of using eminent domain — condemnation — to take the land they needed for the bridge and the road to it.

Arthaud and his fellow commissioners were threatening to use the forces of government to take over a private ranch. Billings County ranchers (about three-fourths of the population of the county) don’t cotton to the government doing things like that.

Another factor that played into this is that the land they are proposing to take is part of the historic Short Ranch, which is owned by the descendants of the late U. S. Congressman Don Short, and it has been in their family for more than 100 years. They’re not taking this lying down. They’ve filed two federal lawsuits, one challenging the county’s right to use eminent domain on their historic ranch and the other challenging an Environmental Impact Statement done for the project as inadequate.

There’s not much going on in the federal courthouses right now because of the pandemic, so it could be a year or more before we learn the outcome of those. The bridge project can’t proceed until they are settled.

If the new county commissioners decide to continue to pursue the project — we’ll probably learn more about that when they take office at their January Commission meeting, or shortly thereafter — and if county prevails in court, and if Billings County residents agree to put up the $15 million, the bridge can go ahead.

We’ll keep our fingers crossed that the new county commissioners have more sense than the outgoing ones, or that a wise judge will decide the Short Ranch and the Little Missouri State Scenic River valley are worth saving. Stay tuned.

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