Somebody’s Finally Looking Out for the Little Missouri State Scenic River

A short report on last night’s first meeting of the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission in ten years. If I don’t report, you’ll probably never hear or read about it.

Nothing happened.

The meeting was chaired by State Engineer Garland Erbele, and was engineered by two state employees, Jon Patch, an engineer from the State Water Commission, who reported on the possible new guidelines for issuing water permits for industrial use from the Little Missouri State Scenic River, and engineer Matt Linneman from the North Dakota DOT, who reported on the possible alternatives for building a new bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River as part of the 4-laning of U.S. Highway 85 between Watford City and Belfield.

Introduction time at the first meeting of the new Little Missouri Scenic River Commission.

With all those engineers doing all the talking, it is easy to see why nothing happened. Engineers love to talk about alternatives and possibilities.

Before anything else happened, State Engineer Erbele reviewed a 1989 Attorney General’s opinion which said that the Commission really didn’t have any authority except in an advisory capacity, which kind of sucked the oxygen out of the room five minutes into the meeting. The meeting was surprisingly well-attended, by the way, perhaps 40 people in the audience, about half of them conservationists concerned about the state’s only scenic river and half local ranchers and other interested southwest North Dakota residents.

First up after the introduction was the water permit issue. The State Water Commission a month ago approved a new policy for issuing industrial water permits from the Little Missouri, but Governor Doug Burgum, who is not an engineer, said he would like the members of the Little Missouri Scenic River Commission to weigh in on the policy before he makes it the official policy of the state of North Dakota (I guess he can do that. It’s not a formal rule, which would have to go before the state’s Administrative Rules Committee. But policies don’t carry the force of law and can be challenged . . . ). Last night was the first time members of the newly-appointed Commission had heard of it, at least formally, and after it was explained to them, they decided to consider it and talk about it at their next meeting.

The new policy, outlined by Water Commission engineer Patch, the fellow who issued more than 600 illegal industrial water permits in the last ten years, basically says the State Water Commission can now legally give any oil company or rancher permission to withdraw water for oil well use anywhere on the river. That’s a 180 degree shift from the previously policy, which forbid industrial use of Little Missouri State Scenic River water, although that was never enforced. I expect there to be a vote of approval or disapproval at the Commission’s next meeting, for what it’s worth.

The Highway 85 bridge project was the next item presented, and it is troublesome because it involves the east end of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. DOT Engineer Linneman showed three possible scenarios for the bridge:

  1. Leave the existing Long-X Bridge in place, although raising the crossbars over it so big trucks can get through—there have been a number of accidents involving trucks too tall for the bridge in recent years—and using it as the southbound lane of the new 4-lane highway, with a new two-lane bridge beside it for northbound traffic.
  2. Leave the existing Long-X Bridge in place and using it as some kind of tourist attraction, while building a new 4-lane bridge beside it.
  3. Demolish the existing Long-X Bridge and build a new 4-lane bridge in its place.

All involve using the same corridor on which the bridge now sits, so it means four lanes of traffic zipping through the national park at 70 miles per hour.

There will be time for public comments in the next few months when the draft EIS for the project is complete.

People concerned about the park have suggested that perhaps the 4-lane road from Watford City to Belfield could be narrowed to just the existing two lanes from the top of the hill as the road approaches the national park from the north, and the speed limit reduced as traffic passes through and alongside the boundary of the park until it exits the park as it crosses the river, a distance of about two miles. I’m pretty sure that will come up at the public meetings. I’m also pretty sure it is a better idea than the three alternatives we heard about last night.

The decision will be ultimately be made by the Federal Highway Administration, which is footing the bill for much of the project. I think the agency’s sister federal agency, the National Park Service, would prefer to have only two lanes there as it passes the park. Let’s see if two federal agencies can talk to each other and come up with a reasonable solution.

And so, with talk of getting back together in October, the six ranchers and three bureaucrats who make up the Commission adjourned and went home, after about two hours.

The next few meetings will be more interesting. They’ll actually be asked to vote on stuff, to provide advice to the state and federal agencies who have plans for the Little Missouri State Scenic River valley. The ranchers on the Commission have a real stake in the river valley. Five of them own ranches through which the Little Missouri River passes on its flow from Devils Tower in Wyoming to Lake Sakakawea in north central North Dakota.

It should also be noted that there was a torch-passing last night. From its inception in 1975 until it ceased to function in 2007, the leadership of the Commission came from the State Parks Director. Last night, the State Engineer ran things, even chairing the meeting in the absence of an election of officers. Under the direction of the State Parks Department, the Commission took an activist role. For example, in August of 1980, the Commission received a request from a pipeline company to run a pipeline under the river in McKenzie County. After consulting Commission members, State Parks Director Bob Horne wrote to the company:

“I learned from the State Land Department there are a considerable number of trees on either side of the river where you intend to cross. I also learned there is another pipeline crossing within one-half mile of your proposed crossing. If there is any way to cross near the existing crossing which has already impacted the river, this would be preferable. If you must cross where you originally planned, be careful to exert the utmost effort to protect and preserve as many of these scarce river bottom trees as possible.”

Just close your eyes and try to imagine a message like that from the people running North Dakota today.

Our new State Parks Director, Melissa Baker, was in her seat as a member of the Commission last night. I’m hopeful she will take an activist role on the Commission. I also hope she goes back and reads the minutes of all the meetings of the Commission between 1976 and 2007. She won’t find them in her agency’s files, though. I’ve already been there and looked. Where she’ll find them is in the archives at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, although I have copies I’d be glad to lend her if she wants to borrow them.

More in October.




2 thoughts on “Somebody’s Finally Looking Out for the Little Missouri State Scenic River

  1. Was the meeting held in Bismarck, Jim? Is there a policy for where the meetings are held? I would say a lot happened, although nothing was terribly overt.


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