A thousand trucks a day. That’s what Billings County Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud bragged to the Dickinson Press one day, a number of years ago, when he was asked how many vehicles would use a new bridge over the Little Missouri River north of Medora.
A lot of water has flowed beneath that proposed bridge since 2012, the last time the public was invited to consider a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project. He might lower that estimate by a few hundred today.
As I wrote here a few days ago, a new draft of that EIS is ready to go and we’ll get a look at it in the next couple of months. KLJ Engineering has caught everyone by surprise, including, I think, the Billings County Commission, by its proposed suggested location of the new river crossing on the Short Ranch, just 15 miles or so north of Medora.
Everyone’s asking, “Why there?”
We’ll find out when we actually read the document, but it’s important to remember that what is driving the suggested location is an Environmental Impact Statement. And that means just what it says. What will be the impact on the environment of a new bridge across the Little Missouri River desired by the Billings County Commission? (You can see a map of the proposed location here. The Preferred Alternative at the Short Ranch is Alternative K, Option 1)
The Environmental Impact Statement is required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) because Billings County is requesting the federal government pay a significant portion of the cost of the project, and because the construction of the bridge may impact a federal waterway, the Little Missouri River.
The NEPA was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1970. It also created one of the biggest bogeymen in federal government, the Environmental Protection Agency, a much despised agency in western North Dakota. I’m going to share a story in the next few days about how valuable the EPA has been for western North Dakota. Search back in your memory and see if you remember the name Halek. I’ll get to that in a day or two.
But back to NEPA. My friend Dave Pieper, retired Dakota Prairie Grassland supervisor, points out that it was oil that brought this law into existence. Congress and President Nixon acted to begin protecting our environment in part in response to the public outcry after the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.
In a letter to the editor a few years ago, Dave summed it up nicely: “NEPA has two primary goals: 1) It obligates federal agencies to consider every significant aspect of the environmental impact of an action before proceeding with it, and 2) It ensures that the agency responsible for the action will inform the public what the action is, and that it has considered environmental concerns in its decision-making process. It is a law of public disclosure.”
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which gets final sign-off on this project, is requiring Billings County to prove that there are sufficient environmental safeguards built into this project to satisfy the requirements of NEPA before it starts signing checks, which could run as high as $15 million. Higher if new roads have to be built to accommodate the traffic the bridge will enable to cross through the Badlands.
We’ll know more when we read the document, but it appears as if KLJ, hired by Billings County to clear the way for federal funds, is proposing what they believe is the least environmentally damaging location to put the bridge. I’m told the cost to the county, which must pay for the EIS, is now approaching $2 million, about double what I cited in my story the other day. Luckily, Billings County can afford it. Thanks to oil tax revenue over the past 40 years, it is perhaps the richest county, per capita, in the state. It’s a cash cow KLJ has found convenient and desirable to milk for all it is worth. By just doing the job they were hired to do.
There are no such things as federal “earmarks” for projects such as this anymore, so federal money for the project will have to come from North Dakota’s annual allocation of federal highway funds. So when, or if, the project gets the green light as a result of the EIS , the acceptance of the proposed location by Billings County, and approval by the FHWA, then officials at North Dakota’s DOT will have to decide if the money should be spent there, or on other more needed or worthy projects elsewhere in the state. Ultimately, I suppose, Governor Doug Burgum will have the final say in when, or if, the project gets built. His agency holds the purse strings.
From what I’ve been told, KLJ told the Commission at its January meeting that the Short Ranch is the preferred alternative, but there has been no discussion by the commissioners yet. So to speculate on what will happen next is probably fruitless.
What we know is, there will be a series of public meetings, testimony will be taken, both written and oral, and then the final EIS will be written and will need to be accepted by the County Commission, which will present it to the FHWA, along with the request for funding.
From what I can tell, if, in the end, a bridge is built at the Short Ranch, the biggest beneficiaries will be a few local ranchers. Because of its proximity to I-94, it’s not likely to become a big truck route. To get to the bridge from Highway 85 is a circuitous route, through some pretty rough Badlands terrain. We’ve been told that the anticipated speed limit on the roads approaching the bridge is 35 miles per hour. When those big old trucks, loaded with oil or water, start up some of those hills at 35 mph, they’re gonna be going backwards by the time they get halfway up. The next time they’ll take I-94.
But there will be some short cuts created for the locals. A few of the ranchers who live on the west side of the river will be able to get to Medora faster than by going down to the freeway as they do now. And they’ll be able to go see their friends across the river more easily at times of the year when they can’t use their own low-water crossings.
Speaking of low water crossings, I’m guessing the EIS will also recommend the type of crossing—a solid concrete bed with culverts through it, or a bridge. Each, I suppose, has its strong points. We’ll see what comes out of that. I can tell you which canoeists prefer.
The ability to get back and forth to Medora might have also played a key role in the rejection of the only other alternative still under consideration, at the Goldsberry Ranch, about 10 miles further north There’s no access to Medora on the east side of the river from the Goldsberry Crossing. The big Whitetail Creek drainage is so steep and rugged that it is unlikely a north-south road would ever be built through it to connect to a road south of it to Medora. So if someone were coming from the west and crossed the bridge, they’d have to go all the way to Highway 85, then south to Belfield, then back west 15 miles to get to Medora.
Most of the talk about the Short Ranch recommended location, I suspect, will be about the convoluted access to the bridge from both Highway 16 on the west and 85 on the east. While the Goldsberry ranch location offered pretty direct access to both highways, that’s not true of the southern crossing. There’s some speculation that the commission could decide to build a more direct route to Highway 85 by improving and extending Mike’s Creek Road. It runs pretty much straight east (well, as straight as Badlands roads can run) from near the Short place, but it’s a pretty small road and would require major improvements, and it dead-ends short of Highway 85. An extension would have to be built to get cars and trucks to the highway. An interesting and ironic aside is that I think the road dead-ends at the ranch of Commissioner Jim Arthaud. They’d have to go through his place to complete the road to the highway. I’m not sure how he’d feel about that. And, as I mentioned the other day, getting out to Highway 16 on the west site involves going south almost to I-94 before heading west to the highway. Makes no sense at all. I called if goofy, and since I wrote that, I’ve found several other people using the same word.
The stated goal for this project at the outset was to move traffic from Highway 85 to Highway 16 without going all the way to the Interstate. It’s my opinion that this proposal does not meet that goal. We need to remember that originally, the County Commissioners proposed to build the crossing right beside the Elkhorn Ranch, which was about halfway between the two existing bridges, and which, with good outlets to both highways, did accomplish the goal. But the firestorm of opposition to putting it beside the historic Roosevelt ranch stopped that idea dead in its tracks. That’s what sent KLJ and the county scrambling, and this new EIS is the result.
I hope this is a deal killer. We don’t need a thoroughfare for trucks through the Little Missouri River valley, and no one other than the oil industry, fronted by Arthaud, was asking for one. Until he sold his trucking business a few months ago, Arthaud would have been one of the major beneficiaries of the bridge. Of course, there was an oil boom going on then, and there were a lot more trucks on the road. With Arthaud out of the picture, and the oil boom gone bust, we’ll see how much enthusiasm there still is for this project. I, and many, many other people concerned about the Little Missouri River Valley, hope the enthusiasm is gone, and that this really bad idea gets thrown into the shitpile of equally bad busted dreams and scorched-earth plans somewhere in a pit beside a back road in oil country, never to be seen or heard from again.
Footnote: Let’s give credit, or put the blame, where it is due. From the beginning, when the proposal was to put the new bridge hard up against the Elkhorn Ranch, this was Jim Arthaud’s project. He owned the big trucking company MBI, what he bragged was the biggest oilfield service company in the state, and he wanted a shortcut through the Badlands. He had managed to get himself elected as chairman of the Billings County Commission, found a couple of old ranchers to serve as “yes men” for him, and has run roughshod over the Badlands environment ever since. His county’s road crew, for example, is the crew excavating gravel from a pit directly across from the Elkorn. He absolutely rejects giving any special significance to what its supporters call the “cradle of conservation.” Until public pressure forced him to back away from the crossing beside the Elkhorn, he had gotten his way whenever he wanted to. To show you his attitude, let me just share with you a quote from Arthaud in a radio interview with NPR’s John McChesney a few years ago. McChesney asked him about the impact on the Elkhorn, and Arthaud argued that the new bridge would be good for the Elkhorn. He said:
“The whole public would be able to use that place, not just the elitist environmentalists. That lousy 50, however many acres it is, 200 acres or whatever, where Teddy sat there and rested his head and found himself.”
And here’s one more look back at an earlier article I posted about this project and other threats to the Elkhorn Ranch.