The heirs of North Dakota’s U.S. Congressman Donald Levingston Short are going to get their day in court. You can join them Jan. 22, 2024 if you sit quietly in Courtroom 1 of the U.S. Courthouse in Bismarck.
At precisely 9 a.m., U.S. District Judge Daniel Traynor will gavel the audience to quiet and begin hearing a request from attorneys for the Short family for a preliminary injunction against the Billings County Commission to stop the county from starting construction of a new road and bridge across the Little Missouri River on the Shorranch, about 15 miles north of Medora and just five miles south of Theodore Rosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch site, now a part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
You’ll also hear from Billings County’s attorneys why that injunction should not be granted and why construction of a new bridge should start as planned.
This is the first step in what could be a lengthy legal process that could play out over much of the year 2024. A little history.
You already know about the lengthy battle over whether there should be a new bridge across the Little Missouri to accommodate oilfield traffic. It’s been an on-again, off-again fight for nearly 20 years now, since the early days of the Bakken Oil Boom. I wrote about the latest developments in September, and you can read them here.
The Billings County Commission, whose membership changes from year to year (no county commissioner has been re-elected since 2018), mostly because the bridge issue has divided county voters, is the target of several court filings subsequent to its decision this past summer to use its power of eminent domain to take land from the Short family for the road and bridge.
In something called a “quick take,” part of the eminent domain process, the commissioners deposited checks totaling $55,000 for what they say is the value of about 30 acres of Short family land with the Billings County Clerk of Court. While the Short family has said, “No, thanks,” and refused to take the checks, the county technically now owns the land it says it needs to build the new bridge and provide access to it.
The Short family members, mostly grandchildren of the late congressman, quickly filed suit to stop the county, and the first hearing on that suit is in January. The fight carries on the tradition of Congressman Short, who successfully stopped a similar scheme, to build a paved “tourist road” through the Little Missouri River Valley, when he served in Congress from 1959-1965.
His opposition to the development cost him the support of many of his traditional election backers and the state Chamber of Commerce and ultimately cost him his seat in Congress in his last re-election effort.
According to his Wikipedia biography, “Short was an unsuccessful candidate for re-election in 1964 to Congress. His defeat was attributed to the efforts of Sen. Milton Young (a North Dakota Republican senator). Young actively and covertly worked to have Short defeated, even refusing to endorse Short as he had eagerly had given his support in previous elections. Two years later, Short was asked to run for Congress again but declined as he had moved back to tend to the ranch.
“The nature of Don Short’s and Milt Young’s dispute was money versus stewardship. Milt Young and Don Short disagreed about the need for a highway through an unspoiled piece of America’s scenic national treasure, the Badlands. Short voted against building a U.S. highway through the National Grasslands. Young disagreed with him. Short’s efforts won in the long run as no U.S. highway was ever built and the land remains unspoiled and pristine.”
Well, as unspoiled and pristine as an oil boom will allow, but the river valley itself remains pretty quiet and well-protected. The bridge, which is the second such proposal in this century, the first being stopped before it could be built beside the Elkhorn Ranch nearly 20 years ago, is the most serious threat so far to the river valley and has progressed much further than any previous effort. But following in the footsteps of their grandfather, the Short family steadfastly defends their ranch against the developers, spending tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees to keep the Little Missouri River valley free from development.
In January, Judge Traynor will decide what happens next. The thrust of the family’s legal challenge is that the county commissioners are breaching a contract they signed with the family a few years ago, when two of the three commissioners decided not to build the bridge and put their intentions on paper. But one of the two was defeated this past year by a bridge proponent, and the new majority decided to go ahead.
The decision came too late in the construction season to get moving this fall, so even though the county took the land, work is not scheduled to start until next spring. If Judge Traynor grants the preliminary injunction, it won’t start until the breach of contract lawsuit is decided. If he refuses to do that, construction can start even as the breach of contract lawsuit plays out in court, which could take a year or more.
Meanwhile, there’s another county commission election next November. The bridge issue is sure to be the topic most on the minds of Billings County voters. The results of that election will determine whether the project continues.
And as I mentioned, commissioners have been having a hard time getting re-elected in Billings County. So stay tuned.
Meanwhile, maybe I’ll see you at the courthouse Jan. 22. Judge Traynor has set aside a whole day for the hearing. It could get pretty interesting. Both sides have some pretty good lawyers.