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News From the Bad Lands: The Bridge Is Back

News | March 5th, 2023

By Jim Fuglie

jimfuglie920@gmail.com

It’s been a while since I brought HPR readers up to date on things going on out in the North Dakota Bad Lands. And trust me, there have been some things going on. And not all good things.

There have been a couple of elections out in Billings County, which is home to Medora, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and the Little Missouri State Scenic River. And elections, as they say, have consequences. What’s been going on in Billings County elections has been pretty consequential. There’s been a 100 percent turnover in the Billings County Commission since 2020.

I’ve written before about the proposal to build a new bridge over the Little Missouri, essentially a truck freeway to accommodate the oil industry. I’ve been pretty critical of that 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 ranch owned by the family of former North Dakota Congressman Don Short, just 15 miles north of the existing I-94 bridge at Medora--and that it was a really 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 5 miles further north, where there was good access from Highway 85 via Blacktail Road, a major (although gravel) east-west road through the Bad Lands.

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, right 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 appealed 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, representing Billings County in the new case.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the river. 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, but also because on the other side of the river it ran right beside Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch 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, 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.

So thank you to Lowell Baier, and 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.

That story ended well because American’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 year’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 a Bismarck 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. 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. That ranch has been in the family for 120 years, and they aren‘t ready to sell it. 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 the United States District Court. The wheels of federal courts turn slowly. Before any action could be taken, an election came along. And, as I said, elections have consequences.

In the 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. And the bridge lost its champion. Temporarily, at least.

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 to just 248 for Kasian.

More consequences. At just his second meeting, on February 7, he teamed up with commissioner Lester Iverson, also new to the commission since the 2020 election, and they voted to once again use the county’s power of eminent domain and condemn whatever land they needed to build the bridge. So here we go again. 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.

Oh, and remember that engineer Jen Turnbow I mentioned earlier? She’s back too. In the middle of all this, she left her firm in Bismarck and went to work for the North Dakota Department of Transportation as one of the top lieutenants in the agency, and she was well-placed to help Billings County grab some federal money (they’re seeking about $12 million) out of North Dakota’ allocation from the federal gas tax. But just a few months ago she left that job too, and went to work for another engineering firm, and the county commissioners, at their February meeting, hired her to move the bridge project forward again. She and attorney Weir make a formidable team. I wouldn’t bet against them. Not much, anyway.

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. Dave Short told The Dickinson Press, “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 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 Dean Rummel 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. And out west, folks generally don’t mess with the Sheriff. We’ll see what his entrance into the battle brings.

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 of 2024. Rodne and Iverson, who are on opposite sides of the eminent domain issue, will be on the ballot. We’ll have to wait and see what the consequences of that election are.

Well, that’s the news from the Bad Lands for now. Thanks for reading. I’ll try to keep you posted from time to time. I’m writing this in early March. There’s another county commission meeting coming up pretty soon. I think I’ll go. This is getting interesting.

I found the list of conservation organizations who raised the money to buy what is now the Elkhorn Ranchlands back in 2007. I bet you’ll recognize a lot of them. You might even be a member of some. If so, thanks for your support. Here’s the list.

A LIST OF 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. 

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