JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Does The Governor’s Office Have A “Slush Fund?” Well, Not Really …

When residents of Billings County in western North Dakota, home to the Bad Lands and Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Medora, head to their mailboxes sometime this week or next, they’re going to find a letter from their county commissioners.

That’s unusual. About the only time county government sends you a letter is with your property tax bill. But this one has some news.

Ostensibly, the letter is to bring county residents up to date on the status of the Little Missouri River Crossing, the proposed new “Bridge to Nowhere” across the state’s only official State Scenic River. Early on in the letter, commissioners say, “Obviously, the bridge is contentious.”

Ya think?

What follows in the letter is pretty much a sales pitch to county residents seeking support for the bridge, which is now mired in a serious of court fights at both the state and federal level. The letter contains a history of recent County Commission action on the bridge and a summary of the court cases. It was written by a lawyer and has a bit of legal vernacular in it, which will be unfamiliar to a lot of ranchers out in the Bad Lands (and most of us nonlawyers).

But the big news comes at the end, with this paragraph:

“The Governor’s Office has informed Billings County that money is available for ‘off road system’ bridges that was not available before now. The North Dakota Department of Transportation has funding set aside to pay for construction of the bridge. (Jayce Biehler, Governor’s Office).”


That piece of news is worth somewhere between $15 million and $20 million (projected costs for the bridge have varied over the years) to the taxpayers of Billings County, who have been wondering all these years about who was going to pay for it.

Paying for it hasn’t always been the biggest topic of discussion — it’s been overshadowed by the use of eminent domain to take land from the Short family and their neighbors, the Simons family, for the bridge and the roads leading to it. The Short family is fighting it in courts, and they are supported by conservation-minded folks, including this writer, who are concerned about the environmental impacts on the Bad Lands of a truck freeway through the river valley and the clouds of dust that will accompany it. And the impacts on the area’s wildlife. And a scenic backcountry recreational experience. And the disruption of the ranchers’ way of life.

But the fact that the state’s DOT “has funding set aside” was news to me. I’ve been following this story since about 2006, when the bridge over the river was first proposed to go through the Eberts Ranch and beside the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, half a dozen miles north of the current proposed location.

That plan was thwarted by a group of conservation organizations that bought the Eberts Ranch and donated it to the U.S. Forest Service to become part of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, putting an end to that scheme.

What followed was a series of attempts to find federal funding for the bridge by conducting an Environmental Impact Statement. The federal funding efforts were unsuccessful, but the EIS suggested the current proposed location, and the matter has raged in courts ever since, despite the unanswered question of who was going to pay for it.

I asked around Billings County about the state funding news the past couple of weeks — Billings County Auditor Marcia Kessel was kind enough to share a copy of the letter with me before it was mailed — and heard the term “blowing smoke” used to describe the language used by the two county commissioners who approved sending the letter, Steve Klym and Lester Iverson. A third Commissioner, Dean Rodne, who’s been opposed to the use of eminent domain for the project, voted against sending the letter at the most recent commission meeting.

So I decided to do a little checking. I looked through the State Transportation Improvement Program, where every road and bridge project in the state for the next four years is listed, and didn’t find the Little Missouri River Crossing.

So I called the DOT and asked for someone I thought might know about it, but my voicemail got no response. Then I sent an e-mail to someone else, and I did get a response that said, “We have not seen the letter that you are referring to, but I appreciate you bringing it to our attention. If you are willing to share, I would appreciate a copy. As it refers to the statement in the letter you reference, we continue to work with Billings County to advance projects that are important to them.”

Well, that was a pretty diplomatic response, but it didn’t tell me much. I did send the county commissioners’ letter to them. I waited a few days and then sent another e-mail that asked, “I’m wondering if you’ve got any news on how that bridge is going to be paid for.”

Still no response. So I decided to ask the person mentioned in the letter, Jayce Biehler — actually the correct spelling of his name is Jace Beehler, and he’s Governor Burgum’s Chief of Staff — about it. My e-mail to him got some action within just a few hours. Here was the explanation sent by the DOT guy, after he got a phone call from the governor’s office:

“Although funding has not been specifically set aside at this time, we have identified a program that is available in IIJA/BIL (current federal transportation bill) to fund the bridge construction only. The funding may be made available provided the county has secured environmental clearance and the ROW is acquired, making the area available for the bridge construction. We continue to be in contact with Billings County on that progress. If we get to the point of funding being made available, the STIP would be amended at that time.”


That’s not exactly what the letter says.

Commissioners: The ND Department of Transportation has funding set aside to pay for construction of the bridge.

DOT: “… funding has not been specifically set aside at this time … “

And the DOT guy said the money was for “bridge construction only,” so I’m guessing the county would still be on the hook for right of way and road construction costs.

But the DOT response does offer the commissioners some hope, once “the ROW (Right Of Way) is Acquired.”

And that’s what’s all tied up in court.

We’ll have to wait and see, if the “ROW is acquired,” whether the county residents are off the hook for the cost of the bridge. They’ve spent a pretty penny already, getting to this point. In the letter the commissioners sent, they said, “Billings County has spent approximately $4,500,000 dollars from our Road & Bridge Fund for the bridge project over the last 20 years.”

Wow. I’m guessing most of that went to the engineering firm KLJ, which conducted the EIS and has done all the design work on the project to date. The project has been a real cash cow for KLJ. I’m wondering what other road projects that $4.5 million spent from the County’s Road and Bridge Fund could have been used for.

There could be costs associated with legal expenses in that $4.5 milion because the lawsuits and eminent domain proceedings have also been expensive, but in the letter to county residents, the commissioners say, “The North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund is paying the legal expenses associated with the Short Family’s lawsuit against the County and the appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.”

So that helps. The state is paying the legal bills. But frankly, the commissioners aren’t really worried about the costs of stuff. Billings County is one of the richest counties in the state, thanks to the oil boom, and folks out there have said they could even afford to build the bridge themselves if they wanted to. Heck, when they tried to buy the land from the Short and Simons families, they offered $20,000 an acre, the highest price ever offered, by far, for land in the Bad Lands.

Oh, by the way, that reference to the “Eighth Circuit of Appeals” the letter mentions, well that’s underway right now. As I wrote a few weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Dan Traynor has given the Short family a preliminary injunction against the county to stop work on the bridge until all the court cases are settled. At its meeting a couple of weeks ago, on advice of their state’s attorney, Pat Weir, the commissioners voted to appeal Traynor’s injunction. No word yet on when the appeals court will decide that.

I guess the bottom line here is, construction season has arrived, but there won’t be any construction of roads and bridges in the Little Missouri State Scenic River valley for a while. Appeals take a long time.

Meanwhile, it’s spring, and a good time to go to the Bad Lands. Here’s one suggestion, if you want to while way an afternoon. You can drive to the top of the bluff looking down at the river valley and the Short and Simons ranches. It’s a pretty spectacular view. It’s in section 27, Township 143 North, Range 103 West. You’ll probably need a Little Missouri National Grasslands map to find it. If you don’t have one, you can get one at the Visitor Center at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, or at Doug and Mary Ellison’s Western Edge bookstore just down the street from the Park entrance.

But if you go, just stop at the top of the hill and look. You’ll see why most of us are against that spot for the location of the bridge. But don’t go down the hill and bother them. Just take a deep breath and look from the top.

2 thoughts on “JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Does The Governor’s Office Have A “Slush Fund?” Well, Not Really …”

  • Dina Butcher April 12, 2024 at 11:39 am

    You need a new slingshot, “David”?? Keep up the good fight! Keep aiming for their nuts.

  • Sandy short April 12, 2024 at 12:58 pm

    Jim, thanks again for supporting our cause. We really appreciate it! The Short family


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