North Dakota Has Its Own Version of the Beverly Hillbillies

Here’s an update on the strangest, and most fascinating, story I’ve written in all the years I’ve been writing on this blog. This story appears in the current—January 2019—issue of Dakota Country magazine, where it reaches a hell of a lot more readers than I have on this blog. But for faithful Prairie Blog readers, welcome to 2019. There are a lot of threats facing our North Dakota Bad Lands. This is not going to be an easy year. We’re going to have some work to do to protect this special place on earth. Here’s a strange story to get your motor running for 2019. We’ll have updates on refineries and other bridges as they happen.

But first, here’s the story of Wiley Bice and his illegal bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River. A story almost as unlikely as the old TV series The Beverly Hillbillies. Remember them?

Come and listen to my story ‘bout a man named Jed
Poor Mountaineer, barely kept his family fed
Then one day he was shootin’ at some food
And up through the ground came a bubbling crude
(Oil, that is, black gold, Texas tea)

Well, then, here’s a 21st century North Dakota version:

Come and listen to my story about a rancher named Bice
Bakken boom came and treated him real nice
Friends said Wiley you should get yourself a truck
You could haul a bunch of water, and you could really make a buck.
(Fracking that is. Lots of trucks. Big ones.)

We all remember (well, people my age, at least) sitting around the TV every Wednesday night following the antics of Jed and Jethro and Granny, and (boys my age at least) staring at Elly Mae busting out of those tight blouses and swimsuits when she sat beside the “ce-ment pond” after they retired to California.

Well the first thing you know ol’ Jed’s a millionaire,
The kinfolk said “Jed move away from there”
Said “Californy is the place you ought to be”
So they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly
(Hills, that is. Swimmin’ pools, movie stars)

But not Wylie Bice. He’s not retiring to California. More importantly than getting an oil well like Jed (which I’m pretty sure he did), he got a truck. And then a couple more, and he got some contracts to haul water for fracking oil wells. And more contracts. So he needed more trucks. He hired independent truckers and other trucking companies to haul water to the wells he had contracted for. Pretty soon he had 500 trucks hauling water.

It takes a lot of trucks to haul the water to and from an oil well. It would not be unusual for a single oil well to require 1,000 big tanker truck trips to haul fresh water to a wellsite for fracking and haul toxic waste water away from the site during the life of a well. And there’s a lot of wells being drilled. So with 500 trucks running, Wylie’s trucking company was only limited by his ability to get contracts with oil companies to haul water to and from oil wells. And he was pretty good at that.

By 2012, when the Bakken Boom was really cranking up, Wylie’s company got noticed, and he got an offer. A Florida company, Quality Distribution, offered Wylie close to $80 million for his business, and said they would give him up to another $15 or $20 million if business continued to stay as good as it was when they did the deal. I don’t know how much, if any, of those additional millions he got, but I’d guess the first $80 million was enough to keep him going for a while.

So while the Clampetts were content to retire and move to California, Wylie was having none of that. He liked being a rancher. His Bad Lands ranch was along the east bank of the Little Missouri, west of the Killdeer Mountains. There was a pretty nice ranch across the river, and Wylie had kept an eye on it, and after he cashed his big check, he went over and bought it. And, as I have reported here before, he built a bridge to get back and forth across the river. A nice one. Probably cost him a couple million dollars.

Bice Bridge 1
Wylie Bice’s pretty nice–and illegal–bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River. Photo taken from the east side (yes, I might have been trespassing, but just for a couple minutes). That’s BLM land across the river.

So the next thing you know, ol’ Wylie’s getting’ rich
Had so many trucks he had to park ‘em in the ditch
Bought a ranch across the river, and he had to get across
So he built himself a bridge, didn’t matter what it cost
(Sold those trucks. Bought land. And cows)

The problem is, the bridge on the west side of the river is on federal land, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). So right now, the bridge is in place, and he doesn’t have permission to have it there. Or the road he built through the federal land to get to it.

He also got a water permit from the State Water Commission and built his own “ce-ment ponds” beside the river—a pair of football field-sized, plastic-lined pits to store water pumped from the Little Missouri State Scenic River until his trucks could slurp it up and take it to a fracking site.

Bice water depot
Wylie Bice’s illegal water depot beside the Little Missouri State Scenic River, on BLM land. There were no trucks loading water the day I was there.

The BLM didn’t know all that stuff was there until I told them about it in 2017. By then, it had been in place for almost five years. Which means the Bureau of Land Management had not been out to take a look at the land they “manage” in all that time. I understand, there’s been an oil boom going on and they’re short of staff, but still, it ought to be a policy of federal land managers to take quick drive around their land from time to time to see if it is being abused by anyone.

So the reason I am bringing this back to your attention is that about a month ago I received a copy of the application Wylie put in to build a bridge—a bridge he’s already built. It’s the application I asked to see a copy of last February, and was told to submit a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request to see it. Which was goofy, because there’s nothing in the 98 pages they sent me on a thumb drive which bears any resemblance to a confidential document which could not be shared with the world.

But I sent in my request last February, and nine months later, it arrived. Mostly what I learned and can share with you is that for the first time, Wylie is admitting he built a bridge on federal land without permission, and now, mea culpa, he’s asking permission. Earlier, he lied to the news media and said he thought he owned the land the bridge was on, even though two maps he submitted to the Corps of Engineers for a bridge permit clearly showed it was federal land. In case you read that somewhere, you should know he was not telling the truth.

To his credit, he did get a permit from the Corps of Engineers to build the bridge. The Corps just assumed, and did not check, that he had permission from the landowners—the BLM—to build the bridge there. That’s a failure in the system. These agencies ought to be talking to each other.

So now the BLM has his application. But before they can grant him right of way for the bridge and the road to it, they are conducting a federal Environmental Assessment (EA), which normally would have been done before the bridge was built, to see if this is a good place to put a bridge. The EA should be done pretty soon, maybe in the next few weeks, and we’ll get to look at it. Then they will decide what to do next—grant him permission for the bridge, make him take it down, or possibly sell him the land on which it sits to just get him out of their hair.

They’re also going to fine him for putting the bridge and the road and the water pit there without permission in the first place. The amount of the fine should be part of the EA when it is done. Then it’s off to court, I suppose.

And speaking of water pits, there’s been a spate of them built along the river since North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s State Water Commission put a new policy in place last year allowing industrial use of Little Missouri State Scenic River water to frack oil wells, something prohibited by law until 2017. Which has led to a substantial increase in truck traffic along the river, big old water tanker trucks which kick up huge clouds of dust.

In October, I took Tweed Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s great-grandson, on a daylong trip to the Bad Lands on a beautiful fall day, and we decided to go take a look at the bridge site, because it is near the place where TR captured the thieves who stole his boat in 1886, a great piece of Bad Lands and Theodore Roosevelt lore (see my notes at the end of this article). We were driving down a pretty good gravel road when a tanker truck pulled out in front of us, after just loading up at a new water pit beside the river.

The truck was kicking up huge clouds of dust, and we were forced to slow down to about ten miles per hour, and somehow in the dust storm we missed the turnoff to the bridge site, and before we realized it we were almost to Highway 85 and the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, our destination for the day. We didn’t go back, so Tweed ever got to see the bridge. Maybe next trip.

That dust, and what it is doing to the Little Missouri State Scenic River valley, is what is going to be the problem with the new Burgum policy. It darkens the sky, and settles on the grass, making the grass inedible for deer and other critters, including cattle. The oil industry is moving further and further south into the Bad Lands, closer and closer to the Little Missouri, and the availability of water nearby makes it even more attractive to the drillers. I’m very worried about the river valley, one of our state’s most valuable assets.

Well now it’s time to say good bye to Jed and all his kin.
And they would like to thank you folks fer kindly droppin’ in.
You’re all invited back next week to this locality
To have a heapin’ helpin’ of their hospitality
(Hillbilly that is. Set a spell, Take your shoes off.)
(Y’all come back now, y’hear?)

Yeah, there’s a lot of hospitality available to the oil industry in this part of the Bad Lands as a result of Wylie Bice’s bridge and Burgum’s policy. I’m going to keep writing about it, so you can keep reading about it. The area I’m writing about is between the Killdeer Mountains and the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It’s home to mule deer, elk, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, sharptail grouse, bald and golden eagles, and the ever-more-threatened North Dakota State Bird, the Western Meadowlark. It’s an area we all need to be concerned about.

Well, we’d just like to say good bye to the bridge and Wylie Bice
If he’d just get it out of there, it really would be nice
Combined with Burgum’s water policy, which really sucks
It’s messing up the Little Missouri with way too many trucks
(Dust clouds. Oil wells. Flares)
(Hope y’all come back some time.)

Notes: On our October trip, Tweed and I were going to try to figure out how close to the Bice Bridge site TR might have gotten when he was chasing the boat thieves. If you’re not familiar with the story of Roosevelt and the boat thieves, you should read about it, because it will tell you much about the character of the young man who would one day be President of the United States. North Dakota historian Doug Ellison places the spot where TR captured the boat thieves just a few miles upstream from the Bice Bridge. Here are some places you can go to look at the story:
• The National Park Service has a good account here.
• A fellow named Bill Markley retraced the trip in 2010 and wrote about it in True West magazine, and you can read his interesting account here.
• Or, best of all, TR actually wrote the story himself, and it was published in Century Magazine in its May, 1888 edition. The Archive of American Journalism has transcribed it in its entirety, and you can read TR’s account here.

Finally, getting back to our bridge story, if you want to follow the story of the Bice Bridge on the official BLM website, you can do that here. BLM’s North Dakota manager Loren Wikstrom has told me as soon as the Environmental Assessment is done he will post a notice of it on this site.

9 thoughts on “North Dakota Has Its Own Version of the Beverly Hillbillies

  1. At Van hook fishing area, slawson oil put in wells close to the marina and lake. Most summer campers don’t live at van hook area year round so no one seriously objected to the location of the oil wells. This inaction is a picture of how north dakotans deal with the oil boom and enviro impacts: let someone else worry about it …. The millionaire bridge you wrote about is a similar story – no one seems concerned a vast area is being
    changed forever and oil pollution is tolerated for the $$$$$.

    Like

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