JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Sometimes You Have To Go Camping To Get Good News

I haven’t written here lately because we went camping. For about three weeks. We went to the Pacific Northwest, seeking national parks and seafood. We found both. And we learned some things about camper trailers and “glamping.”

Most importantly, camper trailers should be towed to a destination and parked for a few days. We spent too much time moving from campground to campground, behind the wheel of the pickup. But that’s the kind of travelers we are. We like to SEE and DO things on our trips, not sit around on a beach or in an RV park. We’re gonna need to do some figuring on how to do this in the future. Because we liked the camper, but not the driving between campgrounds every day.

But the seafood. Oh, my. We’ll go back that way again. Yes, I know gluttony is still one of the seven deadly sins, but I think it is the least objectionable, and I think I can make the case to St. Peter that seafood is healthy …

We visited five new national parks: Mount Rainer, North Cascades, Olympic, Redwood and Lassen Volcanic, as part of our ongoing quest to visit ALL our country’s national parks. So far, our visits have been confined to national parks in the lower 48 states. There are 51 of those, and we’ve been to 44. We’re going to whack away at the other seven in the next couple of years. They are scattered around the country, from Minnesota to Maine to Florida to California, so it’s going to take a us a while.

But we also have a few more trips in the talking stage, to take us to Alaska’s eight parks, one in the Virgin Islands, two in Hawaii and then one halfway around the world in American Samoa. Lillian says we should go there from Hawaii, since we’ll already be halfway there. I said “Well, then we might as well just keep on going — do we have a national park in Paris?”

We’ll see.

One of the highlights of our recent trip was getting the news from multiple excited sources back home that our own national park, in the North Dakota Badlands, Theodore Roosevelt, had just dodged a bullet. You know I’ve been writing about the Billings County Commission’s attempts to build a truck freeway through the Little Missouri River Valley between the South Unit and the Elkhorn Unit of TR National Park. Well, while I was gone, they axed the proposed “Little Missouri Crossing,” at least for the time being. YAY!

I’ve written about this project many times, usually with trepidation as another funding deadline or government decision approached. I hope I do not ever have to write about it again.

What’s happened is that the project’s longtime champion, former Billings County Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud, was defeated in his race for re-election this past year by a bridge opponent, Dean Rodne, and Rodne apparently convinced a holdover commissioner, Mike Kasian, who had pretty much been under Arthaud’s thumb, to join him in voting to kill the project. They did that at their regular commission meeting July 6.

The thing is, the issue is bigger than just whether to put a bridge and truck freeway through the state’s only official scenic river valley. On the advice of the county’s engineering firm, KLJ of Bismarck, Arthaud proposed to use the county’s power of eminent domain to take land for the bridge and its accompanying roads from the historic Short Ranch through condemnation. That didn’t sit well with the residents of a conservative western North Dakota cattle-ranching county. They threw Arthaud out of office in November, and now the bridge has gone with him.

At a meeting of Kasian and two new commissioners earlier this spring (a bridge supporter, Lester Iverson, was also elected this past year, to replace a retiring commissioner) they made an offer to the Short family to buy the land from them for the bridge, prior to using eminent domain. The Short family refused the offer and immediately went to court to stop the eminent domain proceedings.

The family has been unbending in its opposition to the bridge, calling it the “Bridge to Nowhere.” They’ve spent quite a bit of their own money, and they deserve our thanks. So do their attorneys, JJ England and Derrick Braaten, partners in the state’s leading environmental law firm. They took on some big city lawyers hired by Arthaud, and they did their homework, including pointing out just before this past fall’s election that Arthaud owned mineral interests in 15 sections of land within 10 miles of the bridge, a pretty clear conflict of interest.

But before the case advanced through the court system, the July commission meeting came around. This was nut-cutting time for the commissioners. At that meeting, they had to decide whether to proceed with condemnation and slug it out in court, or drop the project until they could find a rancher willing to voluntarily sell them land for the bridge (an unlikely possibility).

I’m guessing there was lot of coffee table talk around Billings County prior to the meeting about condemnation. I’m guessing the commissioners heard it. They voted to not proceed with condemnation.

For now, at least, the project is dead. I’d guess the commissioners are going to make at least a half-hearted effort to find a place to put in a low-water crossing, a cement structure with culverts through it, where water can flow under the cement at normal stream flows and over the top of it at flood stage, which happens occasionally in the spring.

That option would seem to please county residents who might have supported the bridge as means to more easily to get back and forth between their ranch and town, or between parts of their ranch, but it’s not likely to please the energy industry and its big trucks. It’s the threat of those noisy trucks and the giant dust clouds that accompany them (Arthaud once projected a thousand a day) that sparked most opposition to the bridge.

A word about the Short Ranch and its owners, the family of the late Congressman Don L. Short. This isn’t the first time the family has been involved in protecting the integrity of the Little Missouri River Valley.

The scion of the family, Congressman Don L. Short, served three terms in Washington, D.C., during the 1960s. At the time, TRNP had not yet achieved full-fledged national park status. It was Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park. North Dakotans were eager to have a REAL national park, so to call more attention to it on a national level, the state’s chamber of commerce, the Greater North Dakota Association, hatched a scheme to build a “parkway” through the Badlands, a road connecting the North and South Units of the park, in fact, stretching all the way from Marmarth near the South Dakota border to Watford City, connecting there with U.S. Highway 85. A nice scenic highway alongside the river, through the heart of the Badlands. They enlisted the help of U.S. Sen. Milton Young to help them get federal funds to build it.

But Congressman Short, a fierce protector of the Badlands, emphatically said “No!” I suppose he was a bit selfish — the road would have run either through or up against his own ranch alongside the river — but more importantly, he saw the potential negative impact on the land and its critters.

In 1964, with the project gaining a lot of attention, Young refused to support Short in his bid for re-election and, in fact, some political observers at the time said Young was actually working against Short. Of course, 1964 was the Democratic landslide year, even in North Dakota, and Democrat Rollie Redlin was elected to fill Short’s seat, but for just one term. Still, a lot of folks thought Short might have been re-elected with Young’s help, had the two not been on the outs. The “parkway” idea never gained traction again. Short gets the credit. But lost his job.

I’m also hearing there’s a little intrigue in the courthouse in Medora. It appears that prior to the July meeting, County Auditor Marcia Lamb and the county’s engineering firm, KLJ, without the knowledge or approval of the county commissioners, had prepared an application for another round of federal grants to pay for the bridge.

You’ll recall that the county applied for about $12 million in 2020 and was turned down. If it had been successful, the county would have had to provide about a $3 million match. I haven’t seen the application for the 2021 funds, but I assume it was for about for the same amount.

Lamb apparently had the papers prepared for commissioners to approve and submit to the U.S. Transportation Secretary and to commit to provide the matching funds, but the matter never came up because the commissioners voted to kill the project.

Nevertheless, KLJ’s bills for work on the project keep rolling in, to the dismay of at least two of the commissioners. KLJ does all of the county’s engineering work, in lieu of a full-time county engineer, and it’s a pretty lucrative contract. The county has paid KLJ more than half a million dollars in the first seven months of 2021. That’s a pretty hefty sum for a county with fewer than a thousand residents. I don’t know how much of that is for work on the bridge project, but if someone one wanted to find out, I suppose they could go through all the monthly bills in the auditor’s office. I have better things to do with my time. But I bet it’s a lot.

Time will tell what happens next with this project. I’m hoping I don’t ever have to write about it again, but I doubt that will be the case. For now, the Little Missouri State Scenic River has dodged a bullet that has been chasing it around for more than a dozen years. The river wins! Hooray for the river!

Now, I think I’m going to go pull my camper up near its banks somewhere, sit with my feet in the water and relax for a couple days. That’s what campers are for, after all.

Footnote: Shortly after I wrote this, I received a copy of the draft minutes of the July 6 meeting, submitted to the commissioners by Auditor Lamb. Here’s what she wrote about the bridge issue:

“The Little Missouri River Crossing and the Raise Grant Resolution were next on the agenda. Attorney Tami Norgard was present over teleconference. Chairman Kasian stated his opinion that eminent domain was not an appropriate method for the county to proceed and Commissioner Rodne supported that view. Commissioner Iverson agreed that eminent domain was not the preferred method but is necessary as the landowners wouldn’t consider an offer to purchase. He stated that the offer was fair and the county has the support of the highest governmental authorities to proceed. Commissioner Rodne stated that he felt there should have been a public vote on the bridge and to have landowner agreement. Attorney Norgard stated that the Environmental Impact Statement needs to be upheld in litigation but that the decision to move forward on the bridge was solely that of the Commissioners. States Attorney Weir pointed out that it is important to document that all of the decisions of the previous commission were legal, that District Court Judge Greenwood fully upheld these decisions, and that the issue before the commission is whether to proceed with the project as no court would substitute its decisions for that of the commission. Chairman Kasian stated that in his view, there existed a conflict of interest concerning the authorizations by previous commissioners. He then read from his notes of conversations concerning the bridge with individuals who had contacted him. He wanted the commission to go on record as being against eminent domain. Attorney Norgard stated that the existing commission cannot forever bind future commissions. Rodne agreed with Kasian that the eminent domain process should end. Kasian moved to rescind all previous authorizations for a bridge over the Little Missouri River located at the Short Ranch. Chairman Rodne seconded. Kasian asked for all those in favor. Kasian and Rodne voted aye. Kasian did not ask for those opposed. Auditor Lamb requested a roll call vote. Kasian, Rodne and Iverson voted aye. [Shortly after the meeting, Auditor Lamb received an email from Commissioner Iverson who stated there was confusion over the vote and his intention was to vote no as he was for moving forward with the bridge project as is.] The board then discussed the continuing need for a water crossing. Rodne stated that two low-water crossings could be constructed for the cost of the present bridge project. He stated he would do research to see if there is another area for a low water crossing. There was discussion of using the existing EIS to gain support for another location between a willing landowner. Sheriff Pat Rummel stated that there is a need for a river crossing, that there are roads that should be used but that he is against the county using eminent domain. Chairman Kasian made a motion stating that the county recognizes a need for a crossing on the Little Missouri River, but not using eminent domain, and that the county negotiate with the US Forest Service or private property owners to accomplish this. Commissioner Iverson seconded the motion. After no further discussion, all voted aye.”

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