In yet another bizarre twist to the long-running story of the controversial proposed bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River north of Medora to serve the oil industry, the state of North Dakota is now considering stepping in and taking over the whole project, including paying for the bridge and using eminent domain to condemn the land for the bridge and connecting roads on the historic Short Ranch.
At a meeting in Medora on Thursday, Billings County Commissioners spent more than half an hour discussing the state’s offer before setting it aside without taking any action. It was obvious there was little taste in the room, from either the commissioners or the county’s department heads, for the state coming into their county and taking the Short family’s land.
Commissioners outlined an almost comical series of events that took place a week or so ago, when they were summoned to a meeting with the state’s Department of Transportation Director Bill Panos to hear what the state had in mind.
When they arrived at the courthouse, they were ushered into a meeting with Panos, one at a time, by Billings County State’s Attorney Pat Weir, who said if they all three met with Panos at the same time, they’d be violating the state’s open meetings law, but he assured them that by meeting individually with Panos they were not breaking the law.
I’m trying to picture three dusty pickups idling outside the courthouse, and three county commissioners in boots and cowboy hats saying “Howdy!” as they met going in and out of the building. “Your turn.” I’m not sure that’s exactly how it happened — the commissioners didn’t go into great detail Thursday — but it must have been something like that. One thing’s for sure: they didn’t hold an illegal meeting.
(UPDATE FRIDAY AFTERNOON: A couple of lawyers have told me that the meetings were indeed illegal. I’ve asked the attorney general’s office to take a look. I’ll report back when I hear something. But don’t hold your breath. They’re pretty busy.)
At least two of the three commissioners didn’t like what they heard from Panos. All of them though, said they’re interested in listening to more options for some kind of a crossing somewhere else north of Medora. They’re just not interested in taking land from their fellow ranchers by force.
They kind of seemed to appreciate the state’s offer of money though. In the long history of the proposed project, there’s never been any state or federal money on the table to build the bridge.
A little history is in order here. The project has been on the drawing board for more than 15 years, championed by longtime Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud. In order to get federal funds to build it, the county had an Environmental Impact Statement done by KLJ Engineering of Bismarck. The EIS targeted the Short ranch, a dozen miles north of Medora, owned by the family of the late U.S. Congressman Don L. Short, as the best location.
The Shorts said, “No thanks,” not eager to have a bridge that might bring a thousand trucks a day (a figure once touted by Arthaud some years ago) through their yard. So last year, the commissioners decided to just use their power of eminent domain to take the land. And also last year they had KLJ help them apply for a $15 million federal grant to build it, but they were turned down by U. S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. So the commissioners who were in office last year determined to use the county’s own funds to build it.
Those two things — the condemnation and the proposed use of the county’s funds — were championed by Arthaud. They cost him his seat on the commission in the November election last year. Billings County voters apparently didn’t think it was very neighborly to take land from one of their fellow ranchers and didn’t like the idea of spending $15 million of their tax dollars for a bridge designed mainly to service the oil industry (which Arthaud was part of — he owned one of the biggest trucking companies in the Oil Patch and likely would have benefited greatly from the bridge). They threw him out of office.
So earlier this year, with Arthaud out, a reconstituted (and more compassionate) commission killed the project.
But there’s more pressure than ever on Billings County to build the bridge because of a massive new oil development project in the county. A company called NP Resources has leased the mineral rights on 70 sections of land (almost 45,000 acres) along the Little Missouri River Corridor north of Medora and has announced plans to drill 180 oil wells along both sides of the river. The bridge could be critical to the company and the trucking companies who will serve it, hauling oil and fracking water back and forth across the river.
So the state has stepped in. And the timing is pretty interesting.
The commission killed the project in July.
In early September, DOT Director Panos hired Jennifer Turnbow as his new deputy director. Turnbow has been the PR flack for KLJ and has worked (unsuccessfully, so far, as it turns out) with Arthaud since at least 2006 on the bridge project, spending several million Billings County dollars on studies, engineering, public meetings and grant applications. Turnbow is now in charge of all the DOT’s planning activities, including working with local governments and funding for the state’s transportation program.
Strangely, Turnbow is still listed on the Billings County website as the “Project Coordinator” for the Little Missouri Crossing project and is listed in the Billings County Staff Directory as well. If you have any questions about the bridge project, you are directed to call Turnbow or send her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hmmm. That would seem to be at least a small conflict of interest. Interesting, though, that the state stepped in to take over this project about the same time she went to work for the state.
At about the same time, Gov. Doug Burgum was announcing a $237 million “infrastructure program,” using the state’s budget surplus and federal coronavirus aid to shore up the state’s road and bridge system.
Well, how convenient. Almost a convergence. What better place to kick off that program than a new bridge out in the Bad Lands for the oil industry? Panos, Turnbow and Arthaud were quick to jump on that. At least that was the consensus of the Billings County Commissioners at their meeting Thursday. They weren’t shy about hinting at how the Panos meetings came about.
So I asked the governor, through his press aide Mike Nowatzki, if the governor intended to put the Billings County bridge project in his request to the Legislature for his infrastructure program. His response: “Not at this time.”
OK. But maybe later?
I also talked to Panos after Thursday’s Billings County Commission meeting, and he was backtracking so fast I was afraid he was going to tip over. He was quick to point out that he has not decided to take over the project. He’s not committed to anything. He says he’s just looking at all the options for helping Billings County ranchers and tourists visiting Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park get back and forth across the river. If you’d like to talk with Panos about the state’s ideas for the Bad Lands, his cell phone number is (307) 251-8380. Panos came here two years ago from Wyoming but hasn’t gotten around to getting a North Dakota cell phone account yet. Maybe he’s not planning on staying all that long.
One of the commissioners, in their meeting with Panos, upon learning that the state might build its own bridge, asked, with a twinkle in his eye, I’m sure, if the state was going to put in a paved state highway to take traffic from the bridge out to U.S. Highway 85, too. Um, no. The state would just give the bridge to Billings County, and the county could figure all that out. And then the commissioner asked that, if the state was going to build a bridge north of Medora, how about building one south of Medora, too? After all, there are way more ranchers down there than there are up north. Um, no to that, too.
So, as of the end of Thursday’s Billings County Commission meeting, the status of the “Little Missouri Crossing Project” on the historic Short Ranch north of Medora is … dead. All the commissioners expressed opposition to the use of eminent domain, and one of them said, “I wasn’t elected to take the county into debt.” It looks like there won’t be a bridge unless the state of North Dakota comes back to the commission with an offer to build them a crossing somewhere else.
Panos didn’t seem very eager on the phone with me to wade back into the whole condemnation process, but he did seem willing to explore other options for a crossing somewhere else. I’m guessing the Short family is pretty relieved about that. They’ve spent a lot of money on attorneys’ fees defending their ranch. They’re not eager to fight a battle with an entity as big as the state of North Dakota.
By the way, speaking of lawyers, Arthaud, one of the state’s wealthiest men, has hired Lawrence Bender, one of the state’s wealthiest Oil Patch lawyers, and this week they filed a defamation lawsuit against me for some things I wrote a few years ago about Arthaud and his bridge project. The lawsuit seeks “compensatory damages” and in all caps at the end it says, “A JURY TRIAL IS DEMANDED.” Well, this ought to be interesting. I’ve never been the subject of a jury trial before, and the amount of “compensatory” money they could squeeze out of my measly bank account wouldn’t buy them a round of drinks for their Oil Patch buddies who are going to benefit if this bridge is ever built. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep on writing. And I’ll keep you posted.
SHORT FAMILY UPDATE
Oh, and speaking of the Short family. A couple of months ago I wrote an article about Congressman Don L. Short who, I noted, helped preserve the integrity of the North Dakota Bad Lands by opposing the construction of a tourist highway through the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley back in the 1960s. Now, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum has appointed Congressman Short’s grandson, Jeb Williams, as the new director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Jeb, a longtime Game and Fish Department employee and most recently head of the department’s Wildlife Division, is the son of Congressman Short’s daughter, Susan. Suzi’s a proud mother these days, and Congressman Short would be a proud grandfather. Wildlife in the Bad Lands, and indeed in all of North Dakota, is in good hands today. The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.