Elections, as they say, have consequences. What’s been going on in Billings County, North Dakota, elections has been pretty consequential. Billings County is an important place. It’s home to the Bad Lands, Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. And the Little Missouri State Scenic River. More about elections in a minute.
You’ve been reading here for more than 10 years about the proposal to put a new bridge over North Dakota’s only official State Scenic River, essentially a truck freeway to accommodate the oil industry, but yes, a bit of a shortcut to Medora for the handful of ranchers who live along the western side of the Little Missouri north of town. They could get to town by crossing the river and following the East River Road through the national park.
I’ve been pretty critical of the bridge idea since I first attended a public meeting in Medora in 2012 and learned enough about it to know where it was probably going to go — on the Short Ranch, just 15 miles north of the existing Interstate 94 bridge — and that it was a reeeeaaallly bad idea. The history of it goes back a few years earlier, to 2004, when the Billings County Commission decided they wanted a new bridge about five miles farther north, where there was good access from U.S. Highway 85 via Blacktail road.
Up there, they had to do what they plan to do now on the Short ranch — use the county’s power of eminent domain to take land from an unwilling seller through a ranch yard for the bridge. The ranchers, the Eberts family, went to court to challenge the county. Judge Ron Hilden in Dickinson agreed with them and said “No” to the county. Keep off the Eberts place.
But the county persisted and went to the North Dakota Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court overruled Judge Hilden, giving the county the green light to condemn the Eberts’ land and build the bridge. Aside: The lawyer who successfully represented the county in that case was none other than Pat Weir, now the Billings County State’s Attorney, who’s also representing Billings County in this case, although he’s hiring outside counsel to help him. The Billings County State’s Attorney’s office is a pretty small place. Pat knows what’s he’s doing, and he’s good at it.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the river back there in 2004. A huge group of conservation organizations raised a huge amount of money and offered it to the Eberts family for the ranch. The Eberts family had been fighting the bridge, not only because it went through their ranch, which was part of Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch back in the 1880s, but also because on the other side of the river it ran right beside Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch headquarters site, now part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They thought the park should be protected from the kind of noise and traffic and dust storms that would be created by oilfield traffic.
So did most of America’s conservation organizations (there’s a list of them at the end of this story), and, led by Lowell Baier, president of the Boone and Crockett Club (ironically, founded by Theodore Roosevelt). They bought the Eberts Ranch and then gifted it to the U.S. Forest Service. The county couldn’t condemn federal land. No bridge was built. It’s now known as the Elkhorn Ranchlands.
Conservation organizations placed a marker honoring Boone and Crockett President Lowell Baier on the bluff overlooking the Little Missouri River on what is now the Elkhorn Ranchlands. It’s a bit weathered now. It reads:
IN RECOGNITION OF
LOWELL E. BAIER
FOR HIS PUBLIC SERVICE AND PARTNERSHIP WITH
THE USDA FOREST SERVICE IN THE ACQUISITION
OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT’S ELKHORN RANCH
THE CRADLE OF CONSERVATION
SEPTEMBER 15, 2007
So thank you to Lowell Baier, and to Ken, Allen and Dennis Eberts and their wives and families. Good citizens. Although I think they got a fair price for the ranch, and Ken and Norma, who had been living on the place, retired to Dickinson. So that story ended well because America’s conservation organizations put a stop to the bridge.
I’m not sure the next one is going to end as well because after a couple of ear’s hiatus, the commissioners came back with a new idea. They really wanted to build a bridge, and they had to find a place to put it, and they really wanted federal highway funds, funneled through the North Dakota Department of Transportation, to fund it. So they hired an engineering firm, KLJ, represented by a lady named Jen Turnbow, to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement, identifying possible locations for the bridge
Pretty quickly, the commissioners settled on the Short Ranch location. But the Shorts said they weren’t interested in having a truck freeway just a quarter mile from their ranch headquarters, so the commissioners said, “Fine. We’ll just do what we did up at the Eberts place. We’ll use our power of eminent domain to take the land from you. We know we can do that because the North Dakota Supreme Court said a few years ago we could do it. So there!”
Well, the grandchildren of Cowboy Congressman Don Livingston Short don’t roll over that easy. Knowing that the North Dakota Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the county a dozen or so years earlier, they hired an attorney and filed this time in federal court. The wheels of federal court turn slowly. Before any action could be taken, an election came along. And, as I said, elections have consequences.
In that November 2020 election, the bridge’s champion, Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud, was challenged by fellow Billings County rancher and businessman Dean Rodne. County residents expressed their displeasure over the commission using eminent domain to take land from one of their neighbors, and gave Rodne 349 votes to just 277 for Arthaud. For the first time in two decades, Arthaud was no longer a county commissioner.
Rodne didn’t like the idea of condemning the Short property to build a bridge. He and holdover Mike Kasian, who became the new commission chairman with Arthaud’s defeat, called the Shorts and said, “Never mind, we’re not going to condemn your land.” With that agreement in hand, the Shorts dropped their suit.
But the agreement didn’t last long because another election came along last fall, and Kasian’s seat was on the ballot. A young bronco-bustin’ cowboy named Steve Klym got 263 votes, just 15 more than the 248 for Kasian.
More consequences. At just his second meeting, on Feb. 7, 10 days ago, Klym teamed up with holdover commissioner Lester Iverson and voted to once again use the county’s power of eminent domain and condemn whatever land they need to build the bridge. Rodne voted against that idea.
So here we go again. Over the years, the county has invested about $5 million in engineering and attorneys’ fees. Iverson and Klym, and their mentor, State’s Attorney Weir, prodded from the sidelines by Arthaud, want something in return for that investment.
Another aside: Remember I mentioned earlier KLJ engineer Jen Turnbow? Well, she’s back in the picture. She left KLJ a couple years ago to go to work the the North Dakota Department of Transportation as one of the top deputies and was well-placed to help Billings County get its hands on federal highway dollars to build the bridge if it ever got close to that stage. But now, she’s left her state job and has turned up as an employee of Bismarck engineering firm Ulteig Engineers, and she’s been retained to go back to work as the consulting engineer on the bridge project.
There’s another player in this story we haven’t heard from yet. His name is Ben Simons, and he recently bought the ranch on the other side of the Little Missouri, across from the Shorts. The bridge and the road to it are going to have to go on his ranch as well. He’s not been very visible in this whole fracas, although I did see him at one county commission meeting sometime in the last couple of years.
I’m not sure how he feels about a new road through his place, but I know he’s a family man with a passel of kids running around the ranch, so he’s got to be a little nervous about it. I’ve tried calling him, but we haven’t connected yet. I’ll let you know when we do.
But battle lines are already being drawn. Family spokesman Dave Short told The Dickinson Press last week, “The Short family is going to fight with whatever we can, and however we can.”
And the family found a new ally in their battle, newly elected Billings County Sheriff Dean Wyckoff. Wyckoff, who grew up on a Bad Lands ranch, boldly told the Dickinson Press in an e-mail that he believes that a river crossing should only be put in if the county has a willing seller and said he “can’t support taking away private landowner rights.” Wyckoff agrees with his predecessor, Pat Rummel, who retired last year, that a bridge up north of Medora would be good for emergency response, but Wyckoff says it needs to be on land provided by a willing landowner or the federal government.
I’m guessing the next step is for the Shorts to go back to court, seeking an injunction, at least temporarily stopping the county from using “quick take” powers to carve out a corridor for the road and bridge. I’m not sure if Simons (who, by the way, has a famous brother — former State Representative Luke Simons, who was ousted from the Legislature by his fellow Legislators in 2021) will join the suit.
I don’t know how quickly a suit can move through the federal courts. I’m guessing (hoping?) a judge will grant at least a temporary injunction until the case can be tried. And there’ll be another election in November 2024. The seats of Rodne and Iverson, who are on opposite sides of the eminent domain issue, will be on the ballot. I’m guessing they will both have opposition. We’ll have to wait and see what the consequences of that election are. I’ll keep you posted.
CONSERVATION GROUPS FINANCIALLY SUPPORTING
THE ELKHORN RANCHLANDS ACQUISITION IN 2007
- Archery Trade Association
- Boone and Crockett Club
- Bear Trust International
- Bowhunting Preservation Alliance
- Campfire Club of America
- Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation
- Dallas Safari Club
- Ducks Unlimited
- Foundation for North American Wild Sheep
- Houston Safari Club
- International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies
- Izaak Walton League of America
- National Rifle Association
- National Shooting Sports Foundation
- National Trappers Association
- National Wild Turkey Federation
- North American Bear Foundation
- North American Grouse Partnership
- Orion, The Hunters Institute
- Pheasants Forever
- Pope and Young Club
- Quality Deer Management Association
- Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
- Ruffed Grouse Society
- Safari Club International
- Texas Wildlife Association
- The Wildlife Society
- Theodore Roosevelt Association
- Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
- Whitetails Unlimited
- Wildlife Forever
- Wildlife Management Institute
Lillian Bachmeier February 17, 2023 at 3:26 am
Great summary. I often wonder why the Bismarck Tribune gives this story such little coverage.Reply