Well, after nearly a dozen years of delay, it looks like Billings County is finally going to build a bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River north of Medora. The county posted a notice in the Federal Register on October 12, 2006, that it was beginning an Environmental Impact Statement process “for a proposed roadway project and river crossing over the Little Missouri River.”
In late July of 2018, almost 12 years later, the county presented its Draft EIS to the public and took testimony for and against the project at a pair of public hearings in Medora and Bismarck. Now a mechanical process will lead to a final decision on the location of the bridge, involving mostly the North Dakota Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. More about that in a minute. First, a little history.
In the Dust Bowl days of the 1930’s, with an alarming number of farmers and ranchers facing foreclosure, especially on the barren prairies of North Dakota, President Franklin Roosevelt declared it was the policy of the United States Government to keep as many people on the land as possible in hopes of better times. Emergency plans were implemented.
In North Dakota, ranchers in the western part of the state were offered the opportunity to avoid foreclosure, by banks that did not want to become landowners, by selling their land to the government, which would then lease it back to them for pennies on the dollar. The money from the sale would settle their debts to the banks, and even though times were tough, they might be able to survive on the meager income from their ranching operations.
The ranchers were able to keep the home section, where their homesteads and ranch buildings were located. For ranchers along the Little Missouri River, that meant they could keep their river frontage—important because it provided water for their cattle. One look at a Little Missouri National Grasslands map today shows clearly the result of that. Nearly all the land directly beside the river is privately owned. The rest—a million acres of it—is owned by the federal government and leased to those ranchers alongside the river for their ranching operations.
Much of that private land along the river is owned by descendants of those who benefited from Roosevelt’s program, and much of the government land is leased by those same descendants. A typical Badlands rancher today owns just a section or two of land along the river and leases the rest of his acreage from the government. Roosevelt’s program continues to work today.
So when Billings County Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud said six years ago that he wanted to put the new bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River on public land, he knew that was likely not possible, because there are very few places between Medora and the northern border of Billings County where the government owns land on both sides of the river. “I mean, I can tell you where I think it needs to go. It needs to go on public land where it affects all the public, where it doesn't affect private people,” Arthaud said at a public meeting back in 2012.
One of those places where there is public land on both sides of the river, of course, is beside the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, about 25 miles north of Medora. That’s where Arthaud originally wanted to put the bridge, but a huge public outcry put an end to that idea.
”We know damn well where that bridge belongs," Arthaud told National Public Radio’s John McChesney in an interview in the late summer of 2012. "On federal ground, about three miles north (of the Elkhorn)."
McChesney also reported that, “Arthaud also owns a trucking company. He says the bridge will be out of earshot and eyesight of the ranch. But studies of those effects have not been completed. It is estimated that at least 1,000 trucks a day would cross the bridge. But Arthaud says tourists would use it, too.”
"The whole public would be able to use that place, not just the elitist environmentalists," he (Arthaid) says. "That lousy 50, however many acres it is, 200 acres or whatever, where Teddy sat there and rested his head and found himself."
Arthaud’s an interesting character. He’s one of North Dakota’s wealthiest men. He sold his trucking company, the largest oilfield service company in the state, once reportedly valued at more than half a billion dollars, to a private equity firm, but has other business interests. Still, he spends an inordinate amount of time in his capacity as a County Commissioner, treating Billings County as his own little kingdom.
He’s politically active—he chaired former Governor Jack Dalrymple’s re-election committee in 2012 and he and his wife Lynn have donated more than a quarter of a million dollars to Republicans and conservative causes since 2000, according to the watchdog website FollowTheMoney.org, giving him lots of good political connections, which he may need in the coming years. Because the request for federal funding to pay for the bridge project is going to go directly to the Governor of the State of North Dakota.
Arthaud knows something about dealing with politicians. Here’s a story from a friend of a friend of a friend. Someone was in Arthaud’s office and needed something from Sen. John Hoeven. Arthaud picked up the phone, dialed up Hoeven in Washington, DC, got what his friend needed, hung up, and said “That’s what $20,000 will get you.”
Here’s how the funding process works.
At the public hearing last month in Bismarck, Arthaud said the county is going to look at all possible funding sources for the bridge (and if they can’t get state or federal funding, by God, they’ll pay for it themselves!), which has a price tag that may exceed $20 million. The EIS prepared by the Bismarck Engineering Firm KLJ puts the actual cost of the bridge at $11.2 million, but says under a “worst case scenario” an equal amount may need to be spent relocating utility facilities. I expect that to be the case. So I’m just going to call it a $20 million project from now on.
In the olden days, it would be as easy as Arthaud having his friend Senator Hoeven earmark $20 million in the next federal highway appropriations bill, but earmarks are a thing of the past. Today, each state gets a share of the federal gas tax money, and they spend it as they see fit, with minimal oversight from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).
So now, when the Final EIS is approved and the county is ready to build, they will send a request for the money to the North Dakota Department of Transportation. In essence, Gov. Doug Burgum gets to decide if federal funds will build the bridge.
Dave Short, whose family land the bridge is slated to cross, calls this “The Bridge to Nowhere.” He’s mostly right. At the public hearings in both Medora and Bismarck, KLJ and Arthaud contended that the bridge is being built mostly for local use. But there are only a handful of ranchers along the river who will likely find any use for the bridge—mostly four or five who will have a shorter trip to Medora, although they will have to drive 25 miles an hour through the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park to get there.
Some years ago Arthaud bragged to The Dickinson Press that “a thousand trucks a day” would use the new bridge to get between U.S. Highway 85 and North Dakota Highway 16. That was the stated intention of the bridge—to connect the two paved highways, making a cut-across for oilfield trucks who then wouldn’t have to go down to I-94 to get across the river.
That talk has mostly disappeared, and now it’s local use, tourists and “some” truck traffic that will benefit from the bridge, the county says. Well, even if “some” is a hundred trucks a day, it’s a nightmare scenario for the affected ranchers.
Here’s the story now, the EIS says:
“Traffic generated within the study area consists primarily of oil and gas-related, recreational, agricultural and local traffic. Most of the existing roadways within the study area carry less than 100 vehicles per day (approximately 50 percent are heavy trucks). Travel patterns throughout the study area generally concentrated on Belle Lake road, Forest Highway 2, County Road 50, Magpie Creek Road, Blacktail Road, East River Road and Franks Creek road. Traffic on these roadways is expected to grow approximately 2.5 per cent each year.”
So the Governor is going to have to decide if there’s justification for a 20 million dollar bridge to accommodate that small amount of traffic. My friends and I have been worried about the “1,000 trucks a day” scenario, and the damage it could do to the Little Missouri State Scenic River valley. But last summer, a friend of mine did a driving tour to see how much time would be saved if an oil trucker wanted to take the cut-across from Highway 85 to Highway 16 instead of going down to the Interstate. Guess what? Because of the 35 mph winding gravel roads, it’ll take longer to take the cut-across (and be a much more miserable trip) than it would take by going down to the Interstate.
But there’s one thing no one is talking about that does bother me, if indeed it becomes a truck route. The traffic between Highways 85 and 16 will utilize Blacktail Road and East River road, and will come within a mile of the Elkhorn Ranch. That potential for noise and dust at Theodore Roosevelt’s “Cradle of Conservation”—one of the most peaceful places in all of North Dakota—troubles me.
Dave Short and the rest of his family, whose land is on the west side of the river and has been described as “one of the best bottoms on the Little Missouri,” as well as Doug Mosser, whose ranch the bridge will impact on the east side of the river, are both opposed to the bridge. To gain right-of-way from the ranchers, the county will likely have to condemn it, using the eminent domain process, a heavy-handed government tactic much disliked in conservative Billings County, and all of western North Dakota’s ranch country, for that matter.
So here’s the scenario ahead. A public comment period closes August 20. If you have strong feelings about wasting federal highway dollars which could be better used elsewhere then you should submit comments on the project. Republican Legislators recently announced they plan to spend more than $280 million from the state’s Legacy Fund in the next biennium to solve what Gov. Burgum called “critical infrastructure needs across our entire state.” If indeed we have “critical infrastructure needs across the entire state,” perhaps the federal gas tax dollars would be better spent on those, than on a “Bridge to Nowhere.”
Or if you don’t like the possibility of a hundred, or maybe even a thousand, trucks a day kicking up a dust storm through the Little Missouri State Scenic River valley, you should submit comments.
Or if you don’t like the idea of some renegade county commissioners destroying one of the state’s most historic ranches using eminent domain to take land and put in a bridge and a road through the ranch, you should comment.
After August 20, the county and KLJ will read your comments and respond to them. Then the Federal Highway Administration will read the EIS and the comments and make their suggestions about the project. Eventually, probably next year some time, the FHWA will sign what is called a “Record of Decision” giving the project the green light to proceed.
Then the county will ask North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum for funding from the state’s allocation of federal highway tax dollars. Generally, the state will grant funds for 80 per cent of the project and the county has to come up with the other 20 percent.
If Burgum says yes, it will be the biggest waste of tax money in his time as Governor and a total sellout of the Little Missouri State Scenic River valley. The Governor’s got a ranch on the Little Missouri about 30 miles south of where this bridge is proposed. I wonder how he’d like it if the county wanted to put a bridge and a road through HIS place for a thousand trucks a day to use?
If, however, the Governor says no, that’ll tighten up the shorts of the Billings County Commissioners a bit as they decide whether it’s really a good use of THEIR money. Stay tuned.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
To submit comments:
Jen Turnbow, Project Manager
P.O. Box 1157
Bismarck, ND 58502-1157
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