I’ve written about the proposed bridge across the Little Missouri State Scenic River north of Medora, N.D., enough times that I don’t need to go into a lot of background to bring you up to date on the project. I decided this past week that I needed a little Bad Lands time, and the Billings County Commission was going to have a meeting, and a “discussion of the Little Missouri Crossing” was on their agenda, so I headed west. Turns out it was an interesting discussion.
The three-member commission has a new chairman, Lester Iverson, who was elected to the commission just a year ago and who is the staunchest supporter of the bridge of the three commissioners. When the appointed hour came for the agenda item on the bridge, he made a little pep talk, then Dean Rodne, also elected at the same time as Iverson but who is a bit skeptical of the bridge, jumped in. He said he had visited with Pat Weir, the county’s state’s attorney and bridge proponent, and they had a plan.
They’d appoint a committee, Dean said, with one or two commissioners and some members of the public, to look for ways to go forward. Attorney Weir, who was on a speaker phone from Arizona, jumped in and said no, only one commissioner because if they put on two, they’d be subject to the open meetings law, and the committee’s meetings would have to be open to the public.
Billings County Pioneer editor Richard Volesky and I were sitting in the audience (in fact, we WERE the audience), and we both know something about the open meetings law — like the fact that it didn’t matter how many commissioners were on the committee, its meetings would still have to be open.
Turns out County Auditor Marcia Lamb, who coincidentally is Weir’s stepdaughter — he’s married to her mother (it’s a small county) — was prepared for that as well because she interrupted Attorney Weir and read from the open meetings law on her computer:
“As long as a governing body delegates any of its public business to two or more people, a ‘committee’ is formed that is subject to the same open meeting requirements as the original governing body.”
The lawyer said, “Oh.” Then was silent for a minute. Then he suggested a Plan B. He said if the commission still wanted a committee, even if it had to hold public meetings, it could appoint two people against the project and two for it, and those four could select a fifth member for the committee, and the committee would go to work to try to find a solution.
Well, by that time, the commissioners had lost their enthusiasm for a committee and were looking for Plan C. So they started talking about the possibility of reopening discussions with the Short family, to see if they could be convinced to change their mind and sell their land to the county.
As I reported some months ago, the Shorts had turned down an offer, and when the county threatened to use eminent domain to take their land, they hired a lawyer and took the county to court. Facing a lawsuit and adverse public opinion, the county backed away from the eminent domain strategy pretty quickly.
Rodne suggested that Weir contact the Shorts on behalf of the commission and see if they wanted to talk. Weir said he’d have to go through the Shorts’ lawyer and said he would do that and report back to the commissioners.
The meeting ended. I took a little Bad Lands drive, but the wind was kicking up the newly-fallen snow and I thought I better get home. When I got home, I thought I’d check with the Short family attorney to see if he was still representing them. I was surprised to find out that Attorney Weir didn’t waste any time — he had already called the Shorts’ lawyer, who happened to be out of the office. I’ve since learned the two lawyers plan to visit next week. I can’t imagine the Short family will want to talk — there’s not enough money in Billings County to get them to allow a truck freeway through their farmyard. But I’ll report back on that meeting after I hear what happened.
So the bridge project is stalled out again, although it will be back on the agenda at the commission’s February meeting, and probably for a lot more meetings after that. Dang. I’m going to have to make a few more trips to the Bad Lands.
The commissioners are operating in good faith, though. They know the county has already spent several million dollars in studies, engineering fees and legal fees, and if they could find a good place to put a bridge, they’d probably go looking for the money for it. They’re just not going to use eminent domain to get the land.
The thing is, the main argument for building the bridge is wearing thin. I’ve been following this issue since at least 2006, when they first attempted to put the bridge beside the National Park’s Elkhorn Ranch site. They lost that location when a group of national conservation organizations, led by the Boone and Crockett Club, pooled their money, bought the land and gave it to the Forest Service.
The county’s argument at the time was that it was needed to allow emergency services to get back and forth across the river. But 15 years have gone by and in all that time there haven’t been any serious emergencies or crises which would be solved by the bridge, that I know of. In fact, the county’s emergency service center is in Medora, where the bridge there makes it easy for fire trucks, ambulances and police vehicles to chase down problems on either side of the river.
Representatives for the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library have been publicly advocating for the bridge, saying it would make it easier for visitors to their library to get to the Elkhorn Ranch. The problem with their argument is that the major users of the bridge and the roads to it are going to be oil trucks, and if, as county commissioners claimed long ago, there could be as many as a thousand trucks a day on the road — a big, noisy, dusty truck every minute and a half, 24 hours a day — it’s not going to be a very attractive route for city slicker tourists. In fact, it could be one of the most dangerous roads in the state. No doubt it would CREATE the need for emergency services on a pretty regular basis.
While the bridge might be able to cut 10 or 15 minutes off the trip to the Elkhorn, there are good wide gravel roads to the site now on the west side of the river, and they are pretty safe, carrying very little traffic. I’ve made the trip the at least a dozen, maybe two dozen times and never encountered more than a handful of vehicles on the road. That’ll change in a hurry if trucks can get across the river out there instead of using the three bridges on paved roads at Medora.
By the way, my wife, Lillian Crook, who grew up on a Bad Lands ranch, has written a wonderful piece about the Little Missouri on her excellent blog. Check it out. It’ll make YOU want that bridge to go away, too.