An Offer From The State To Billings County: We Could Build Your Bridge.

In yet another bizarre twist to the long-running story of the controversial proposed bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River north of Medora to serve the oil industry, the state of North Dakota is now considering stepping in and taking over the whole project, including paying for the bridge and using eminent domain to condemn the land for the bridge and connecting roads on the historic Short Ranch.

At a meeting in Medora yesterday, Billings County Commissioners spent more than half an hour discussing the state’s offer before setting it aside without taking any action. It was obvious there was little taste in the room, from either the commissioners or the county’s department heads, for the state coming into their county and taking the Short family’s land.   

Commissioners outlined an almost comical series of events that took place a week or so ago, when they were summoned to a meeting with the state’s Department of Transportation Director Bill Panos to hear what the state had in mind.

When they arrived at the courthouse, they were ushered into a meeting with Panos, one at a time, by Billings County State’s Attorney Pat Weir, who said if they all three met with Panos at the same time, they’d be violating the state’s open meetings law, but he assured them that by meeting individually with Panos they were not breaking the law.

I’m trying to picture three dusty pickups idling outside the courthouse, and three county commissioners in boots and cowboy hats saying “Howdy!” as they met going in and out of the building. “Your turn.” I’m not sure that’s exactly how it happened—the commissioners didn’t go into great detail yesterday—but it must have been something like that. One thing’s for sure: they didn’t hold an illegal meeting.

(UPDATE FRIDAY AFTERNOON: A couple lawyers have told me that the meetings were indeed illegal. I’ve asked the Attorney General’s office to take a look. I’ll report back when I hear something. But don’t hold your breath. They’re pretty busy.)

At least two of the three commissioners didn’t like what they heard from Panos. All of them though, said they’re interested in listening to more options for some kind of a crossing somewhere else north of Medora. They’re just not interested in taking land from their fellow ranchers by force.

They kind of seemed to appreciate the state’s offer of money though. In the long history of the proposed project, there’s never been any state or federal money on the table to build the bridge.

A little history is in order here. The project has been on the drawing board for more than 15 years, championed by longtime Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud. In order to get federal funds to build it, the county had an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) done by KLJ Engineering of Bismarck. The EIS targeted the Short ranch, a dozen miles north of Medora, owned by the family of the late U.S. Congressman Don L. Short, as the best location.  

The Shorts said “No thanks,” not eager to have a bridge that might bring a thousand trucks a day (a figure once touted by Arthaud some years ago) through their yard. So last year the commissioners decided to just use their power of eminent domain to take the land. And also last year they had KLJ help them apply for a $15 million federal grant to build it, but they were turned down by U. S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. So the commissioners who were in office last year determined to use the county’s own funds to build it.

Those two things—the condemnation and the proposed use of the county’s funds—were championed by Arthaud. They cost him his seat on the commission in the November election last year. Billings County voters apparently didn’t think it was very neighborly to take land from one of their fellow ranchers, and didn’t like the idea of spending 15 million of their tax dollars for a bridge designed mainly to service the oil industry (which Arthaud was part of—he owned one of the biggest trucking companies in the Oil Patch and likely would have benefited greatly from the bridge). They threw him out of office.

So earlier this year, with Arthaud out, a reconstituted (and more compassionate) commission killed the project.

But there’s more pressure than ever on Billings County to build the bridge because of a massive new oil development project in the county. A company called NP Resources has leased the mineral rights on 70 sections of land (almost 45,000 acres) along the Little Missouri River Corridor north of Medora, and has announced plans to drill 180 oil wells along both sides of the river. The bridge could be critical to the company and the trucking companies who will serve it, hauling oil and fracking water back and forth across the river.

Here’s a portion of the Little Missouri National Grasslands map of the area north of Medora. The red “X’s” are the sections of land on which NP Resources has taken mineral leases and has plans to drill oil wells. The circle in the middle is the proposed location of the bridge over the Little Missouri State Scenic River at the Short Ranch.

So the state has stepped in. And the timing is pretty interesting.

The commission killed the project in July.

In early September, DOT Director Panos hired Jennifer Turnbow as his new Deputy Director. Turnbow has been the PR flack for KLJ and has worked (unsuccessfully, so far, as it turns out) with Arthaud since at least 2006 on the bridge project, spending several million Billings County dollars on studies, engineering, public meetings and grant applications. Turnbow is now in charge of all the DOT’s planning activities, including working with local governments and funding for the state’s transportation program.

Strangely, Turnbow is still listed on the Billings County website as the “Project Coordinator” for the Little Missouri Crossing project, and is listed in the Billings County Staff Directory as well. If you have any questions about the bridge project, you are directed to call Turnbow or send her an e-mail at jen.turnbow@kljeng.com. Hmmm. That would seem to be at least a small conflict of interest. Interesting, though, that the state stepped in to take over this project about the same time she went to work for the state.

At about the same time, Gov. Doug Burgum was announcing a $237 million “infrastructure program,” using the state’s budget surplus and federal coronavirus aid to shore up the state’s road and bridge system.

Well, how convenient. Almost a convergence. What better place to kick off that program than a new bridge out in the Bad Lands for the oil industry? Panos, Turnbow and Arthaud were quick to jump on that. At least that was the consensus of the Billings County Commissioners at their meeting yesterday. They weren’t shy about hinting at how the Panos meetings came about.

So I asked the governor, through his press aide Mike Nowatzki, if the governor intended to put the Billings County bridge project in his request to the Legislature for his infrastructure program. His response: “Not at this time.”

Okay.  But maybe later?

I also talked to Panos after yesterdays’ Billings County Commission meeting, and he was backtracking so fast I was afraid he was going to tip over. He was quick to point out that he has not decided to take over the project. He’s not committed to anything. He says he’s just looking at all the options for helping Billings County ranchers and tourists visiting Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park get back and forth across the river. If you’d like to talk with Panos about the state’s ideas for the Bad Lands, his cell phone number is 307-251-8380. Panos came here two years ago from Wyoming, but hasn’t gotten around to getting a North Dakota cell phone account yet. Maybe he’s not planning on staying all that long.

One of the commissioners, in their meeting with Panos, upon learning that the state might build its own bridge, asked, with a twinkle in his eye, I’m sure, if the state was going to put in a paved state highway to take traffic from the bridge out to U.S. Highway 85, too. Um, no. The state would just give the bridge to Billings County, and the county could figure all that out. And then the commissioner asked that, if the state was going to build a bridge north of Medora, how about building one south of Medora too? After all, there are way more ranchers down there than there are up north. Um, no to that, too.

So, as of the end of yesterday’s Billings County Commission meeting, the status of the “Little Missouri Crossing Project” on the historic Short Ranch north of Medora is . . . dead. All the commissioners expressed opposition to the use of eminent domain, and one of them said “I wasn’t elected to take the county into debt.” It looks like there won’t be a bridge unless the state of North Dakota comes back to the Commission with an offer to build them a crossing somewhere else.

Panos didn’t seem very eager on the phone with me to wade back into the whole condemnation process, but he did seem willing to explore other options for a crossing somewhere else. I’m guessing the Short family is pretty relieved about that. They’ve spent a lot of money on attorneys’ fees defending their ranch. They’re not eager to fight a battle with an entity as big as the state of North Dakota.

By the way, speaking of lawyers, Arthaud, one of the state’s wealthiest men, has hired Lawrence Bender, one of the state’s wealthiest Oil Patch lawyers, and this week they filed a defamation lawsuit against me for some things I wrote a few years ago about Arthaud and his bridge project. The lawsuit seeks “compensatory damages” and in all caps at the end it says “A JURY TRIAL IS DEMANDED.” Well, this ought to be interesting. I’ve never been the subject of a jury trial before, and the amount of “compensatory” money they could squeeze out of my measly bank account wouldn’t buy them a round of drinks for their Oil Patch buddies who are going to benefit if this bridge is ever built. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep on writing. And I’ll keep you posted.

SHORT FAMILY UPDATE

Oh, and speaking of the Short family. A couple of months ago I wrote an article about Congressman Don L. Short who, I noted, helped preserve the integrity of the North Dakota Bad Lands by opposing the construction of a tourist highway through the Little Missouri State Scenic River Valley back in the 1960s. Now, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum has appointed Congressman Short’s grandson, Jeb Williams, as the new Director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Jeb, a longtime Game and Fish Department employee and most recently head of the department’s Wildlife Division, is the son of Congressman Short’s daughter Susan. Suzi’s a proud mother these days, and Congressman Short would be a proud grandfather. Wildlife in the Bad Lands, and indeed in all of North Dakota, is in good hands today. The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.

14 thoughts on “An Offer From The State To Billings County: We Could Build Your Bridge.

  1. Sleazy is as sleazy does. Circumventing the state’s open meetings law is advertent political sleaze. That’s just a side note in this awful story, but it does provide guidance about the morals and honesty of the cast of characters, Thanks Jim, for staying on top of it.

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  2. Jim, since you asked me a series of questions via email and then decided not to use most of my responses (perhaps because they didn’t fit your narrative?), I’ll just leave them below.

    – – – – –

    Hi Jim,

    Thanks for contacting the Governor’s Office. The State of North Dakota was requested by Billings County commissioners to discuss transportation issues. The purpose of the meetings was to discuss preliminary ideas and transportation alternatives to better serve emergency responders and tourism growth in the area and meet the needs of Billings County, Medora and the National Park.

    According to Director Panos, at no point did he say that “the state would condemn the land and spend the $15 million it would cost to build the bridge from the state’s newfound wealth/stimulus money,” as stated in your email.

    Answers to your specific questions are below:

    Did the Governor authorize Panos to use eminent domain and offer state funds to build the bridge?
    – No, as there are no current state bridge projects in Billings County.

    Is the $15 million cost of the bridge included in the Governor’s $237 million list of infrastructure projects, or anywhere else in his spending plan?
    – No, as there are no current state bridge projects in Billings County.

    Does the Governor intend to ask the Legislature to approve the spending on the bridge, or does he have other funds available that would not need Legislative approval?
    – Not at this time. (This was a two-part question, and the answer was intended to address both parts; again, there are no current state bridge projects in Billings County, so why would the governor ask the Legislature to approve spending on one?)

    Does the Governor approve of the use of eminent domain to take land for the bridge from the historic Short Ranch when the county has said it does not want to do that and the owners of the ranch are opposed to the bridge?
    – No, as there are no current state bridge projects in Billings County.

    – – – – –

    Director Panos has been clear that the state isn’t interested in pursuing a project that’s not supported by the county. Trying to paint a picture that suggests otherwise is disingenuous.

    Thanks,

    Mike

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    1. See, the thing is, MIke, I got a whole different story from the commissioners at their meeting than I got from you and from Panos. I thought the article made that clear. Anyway, thanks for your comment.

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  3. And Mike wasn’t there, so he only has the tipping backtracking DOT Panos to rely on. I’ll trust what the commissioners told you. However he said it what they heard is what counts.

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  4. Jim,
    It just keeps getting curiouser and curiouser, doesn’t it?

    Please keep doing what you’re doing. I know, probably like you, that there are many layers of truth and that our older selves tend to see the truth in the deeper layers. Mike Nowatski’s response did indeed add another layer to the story. Thank you, Mike.

    As for trying to sue you, I am glad that you’re not intimidated. Can somebody start a Go Fund Me account for you? (That is supposed to be a droll Dakota sense of humor showing through.)

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  5. Thanks for staying strong on this story, Jim. Love to hear that ranchers are watching out for each other and that Jeb Williams is on the job!

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  6. Go Jim Go. Agree. Bridge at that spot…..no good. Great back story to bring g today’s importance of the chicken skinned Commissioners lack to do the right and obvious decision they cannot make.

    Questione to ask , “Who gets the bigger or best be benefit”?
    DEAL OR NO DEAL… I’ll take no deal.

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  7. Well now that the fox – Al Anderson, is guarding the hen house – supposedly Clean Sustainable Energy Authority – we may find out just what the motives of the State and Burgum truly are. There you go, Jim – that would make a great story! How does the guy who ran the refinery get the job for Clean Energy?

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      1. Yep, family of foxes guarding the hen house. How did North Dakota end up such a good ol’ boy state?! That’s a rhetorical question .. the answer is when greed and big money moved into the governor’s office. Profits over people every time. In this case, profits over land preservation every time.
        Very, very, very sad. I have chosen to stay in North Dakota throughout my life even though I have had opportunities to work elsewhere. I stayed because of the Bad Lands … it breaks my heart to see them dotted with wind towers and flaring oil rigs …

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  8. WHY do they even keep trying to push this? It is in no way in the good of the public so if the oil industry wants a bridge so bad they should have to figure it out privately.

    Not to mention that not only has NP Resources not drilled anything in years but they just got bought put by another oil company, Foundation Energy, who imho are even shadier and cheaper.

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  9. Jim,

    I’m getting ideas from “A Bridge Too Far”….We can’t accept your surrender.

    Operation Market Garden, September 1944: The Allies attempt to capture several strategically important bridges in the Netherlands in the hope of breaking the German lines.

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