Last summer I wrote an article about a North Dakota Bad Lands rancher who built himself a big bridge across the Little Missouri State Scenic River on federal land without getting permission. I wrote then, last July, “The folks at the BLM office don’t seem to know anything about the bridge or the road or the water pits, but they should, since things like that would certainly need ‘permission slips . . .’”
Well, I asked the federal land agent at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office in Dickinson about it. He promised to get back to me. When he did, it was with these succinct words: “We’ve got a situation here.”
Since then, Loren Wikstrom, the manager of the BLM’s North Dakota Field Office, and I have talked by phone, and e-mailed, and even snail-mailed a few times, and a couple weeks ago I spent some time with him in his office. He’s pretty close to getting to the bottom of this “situation.” Here’s an update.
The rancher’s name is Wylie Bice. His ranch is a few thousand acres beside the Little Missouri State Scenic River in Dunn County, just west of the Killdeer Mountains, in western North Dakota. Mr. Bice made a fortune—a hundred million dollars or so—selling his oilfield trucking company before the bust hit the oil patch. I guess he really wanted to be a rancher instead of a trucker, so he used some of the money to buy the ranch adjacent to his, which happened to be on the other side of the river.
That ranch had a federal grazing lease on some BLM land which just happened to be right up against the river, where Mr. Bice wanted to put his bridge. So he did.
And not only did he put a bridge there, but he built a road to get to it, and he built a couple large water ponds for storing water for sale to the oil industry for fracking, and he also spilled his farming operations over onto that BLM land. All of that without telling the BLM, or asking permission. Yep, I’d say that qualified as a “situation.”
So the BLM dispatched one of its employees up to see Mr. Bice. They went out and stood beside the bridge and talked about it. And then the employee came back to the office and wrote up a report for his superiors. And the BLM began taking action.
What they did is, they opened up what they call a “trespass file.” I don’t think it is a criminal file, just a civil matter, but the BLM considers it a serious violation, because they told me the trespass file is closed to public inspection until it is resolved. They did, however, tell me what is going on.
First, they told Mr. Bice he had a bridge and a road on BLM land without a permit, and they sent him an application for a right-of-way permit, which would essentially grant him permission to build a bridge and a road on their land (never mind that both of them are already there). They told him to fill out the application and to send it back, along with the engineering plan for the bridge and the road, so they could see if it meets their specifications.
Once he’d done that, if everything was in order, they would consider giving him the missing permit for the bridge and the access road. I thought that was a pretty nice reaction. It’s a pretty expensive bridge, probably a million dollars worth or more. I’m sure Mr. Bice would not want to have to tear it down.
The BLM gave him until January 15, 2018—a couple weeks ago now—to submit his paperwork. When I met with Loren Wikstrom a couple days after that deadline, he thought he might be able to give me the paperwork to look at in early February. I’m going to take him up on that.
If they do decide to issue a permit, Mr. Bice is going to have to pay rent on the land that the bridge and the road are on, and there’s going to be an administrative fine. They haven’t told me what the fine is going to be.
Along with the application, they are requiring him to send his plan to “reclaim” his water depot. That’s right. Mr. Bice built two big ponds—I mean really, really big—into which he pumps water from the Little Missouri, where it is stored until an oil company needs it for fracking. Then he sells it, and the oil company comes and hauls it away.
A number of Bad Lands ranchers are doing this right now, thanks to our North Dakota State Engineer’s office, which issued more than 600 illegal water permits in the last few years to help out the oil industry. I wrote about that here last year. Seems like North Dakota’s state government is a lot more willing to just look the other way to help the oil industry than the federal government is.
It turns out that part of Mr. Bice’s water depot is also on BLM land, and they aren’t going to allow that, so he has to remove the ponds and reclaim that land. They’re also going to charge him back rent on that land, and fine him for putting that water depot on their land.
Mr. Bice also started a farming operation on that side of the river, although I don’t know what he planted. But part of what he planted was on BLM land. The BLM didn’t like that at all. They’re probably going to fine him for that as well, and make him reclaim that land.
The BLM told me in a letter dated December 7, 2017, “BLM will oversee application of the National Environmental Protection Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, Endangered Species Act, and other applicable laws in considering the proposed right-of-way.”
The BLM guys went on to say that Mr. Bice “remains responsible for all applicable fines and back rent during the application processing period. In the event a right-of-way is granted, all fines and rent must be paid before issuance of right-of-way. Should the right-of-way be denied, the bridge, access road, and other developments must be removed and the sites fully reclaimed to their original state at the expense of the responsible party (Mr. Bice).”
Well. Sounds like the BLM means business.
Then there’s another consideration. When someone wants to build something on federal land, especially in areas near Indian reservations, that darned old Historic Preservation Act comes into play. The BLM guys told me they never did get archeologists out there to do a cultural survey. That will likely have to take place once they get a completed application from Mr. Bice. The worst case scenario, they told me, is “if they were to find artifacts or stone circles in the vicinity. That would be bad.”
I’m not sure exactly what “that would be bad” means, but I suppose it could mean denial of the right-of-way, and/or additional fines for violation of the Historic Preservation Act. The law is pretty clear on things like that, I suspect. I’m not going to look it up. I’ll let them tell me if that’s the case.
I don’t know if Mr. Bice is going to peaceably go in there and rip out the plastic liner in his pits, and bulldoze them back to level ground, and plant grass for the critters, and pay his fines for trespassing, and catch up on his back rent for the road and the pits and the bridge and the farming operation, or if he’s going to resist and set up another Cliven Bundy standoff situation. We’ll have to see how this plays out.
I did ask the BLM what happens if Mr. Bice doesn’t cooperate. Their response: “The BLM first tries to work with the responsible party in resolving trespasses amicably. However, if a trespasser is uncooperative, applicable civil or criminal measures may be pursued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
Uh-oh. As we saw in the case of Jason Halek, the fellow who violated the U. S. Safe Drinking Water Act by dumping 800,000 gallons of salt water down an abandoned oil well near Dickinson, which I wrote about here a few months ago, the U.S. Attorney in North Dakota doesn’t take these things lightly. So that’s when the lawyers get involved. Mr. Bice has plenty of money for lawyers. And things can drag on for years.
I also learned this week that Mr. Bice has obtained two new industrial water permits (one issued just last week) to pump water from the Little Missouri into his water pits. (You can look at them here and here if you want to.) Nothing surprising there. The water’s free, and the State Water Commission engineers love giving it away. They did place some restrictions on the permits, pretty standard stuff, such as taking precautions to minimize the visual and audible disruption to the scenic Little Missouri River valley, by keeping the shorelines in and around intake locations free of construction debris and litter, keeping pumps and motors sheltered from view of canoeists, setting pumps and motors away from the shoreline to make sure gas and oil leaks don’t get into the river, and putting mufflers on internal combustion motors “to maintain the tranquility and ambiance and minimize audible disruption of the scenic river experience.”
Uh huh. We’ll see how that’s going when I canoe through there this spring (which I am surely going to do). I’ll also see if his scrapers and bulldozers have completed the job of getting rid of those big water pits on land you and I and the rest of the people of the United States own, and if Mr. Bice has planted some grass and a few cottonwoods alongside the river. I get the feeling the bridge will still be there. For a long time. I’ll let you know what I find.
Meanwhile, if you want to have a look for yourself, I can tell you the legal address is the West half of Section 33, Township 148 North, Range 97 West.
That’s it on the left, on the Forest Service map. White is private land, yellow is public land–owned by the BLM. You’ll have to get a Forest Service map and follow the winding gravel, and sometimes two-track, roads. The road from the east is a private road through private land, so you probably should go there from the west, across public land. And you probably shouldn’t cross the bridge, like I did, because you’ll be trespassing once you get about halfway across the river.
As I wrote last summer: “Y’know, with all the things I’ve learned, and all the stories I’ve heard, about the Bakken Oil Boom, this takes the cake.”