Taking back Lake Sakakawea land: Resolution would urge US Congress to help with issuesBISMARCK — Fed up with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, some North Dakota lawmakers and business owners want to take land-right issues to Congress.
By: TJ Jerke, Forum News Service
BISMARCK — Fed up with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, some North Dakota lawmakers and business owners want to take land-right issues to Congress.
Rep. Vicky Steiner, R-Dickinson, told the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee that residents along Lake Sakakawea are frustrated with the Corps, which has a “multitude of regulations” that make it difficult to develop needed amenities such as docks and irrigation lines around the lake.
Steiner introduced House Concurrent Resolution 3010 that would send a copy of the resolution, if it is passed, to ask North Dakota’s congressional delegation to hold at least six public hearings designated by Gov. Jack Dalrymple to negotiate for areas of the lake to go back to North Dakota. The land would be useable shoreline and dock access that is not currently needed for flood control.
North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican, said he would welcome the resolution.
“State resolutions at the expressed will of the state are very appropriate, I like it,” Cramer said. “To a great degree, it provides a political muscle for those that represent states at the federal level.”
Gary Bren and Gary Praus, owners of Blue Water Ridge Development, a property development site along the lake, testified Friday morning. The duo have 40 cabins and 29 sites for recreational vehicles that attract family and elderly couples.
They have asked the Corps multiple times for a 40- by 225-foot strip of Corps-owned land that is not being used, to build boat docks and a path that would give guests easy access to the lake and a boat.
Bren and Praus told the committee the property is assessed at more than $10,000 in property taxes alone and is a viable resource for tourism and economic development.
“We need access, docks and irrigation pumps to help grow North Dakota’s economy and keep people in the state,” they said.
Bren said the Corps and state Game and Fish Department have both visited the site. The Corps continues to say no, telling them the area is not properly zoned and is used only for wildlife purposes. Game and Fish said it would be willing to look into the issue, although the issue is out of its jurisdiction.
“We’d like to see the Corps work with us on this whole project,” Praus said.
Todd Lindquist, operations manager of the Corps’ Garrison Dam, which created Lake Sakakawea, said he had not read the resolution. The Corps developed a master plan five years ago and any changes would require federal action, he said.
“We would respond based on whatever action is taken federally,” Lindquist said. “We continue to work access issues with local entities, if they can’t get what they are requesting we have to go through a policy to change existing policy.”
Policies dictate the Corps would have to assess the area to ensure it is clear of cultural resources and not being used by endangered species, among other things, Lindquist said.
He guessed the Corps’s master plan should be up for a re-evaluation sometime in the next year.
The master plan goes through a public comment phase while it was being created, taking in public forums and submitted comments, he said.
But Rep. Mike Brandenburg, R-Edgeley, said he has seen little progress in negotiations with the Corps over the last 10 years as he lobbied the Corps to allow individuals or the state to buy back grazing land that the Corps controls.
“They are so unwilling to work with,” he said. “Their arrogance, they think they don’t have to work with anyone.”
Brandenburg said when the dams around the state were built, and land was purchased by the Corps, the local landowners were taken advantage of.
He has proposed House Bill 1338, which would return to state control excess land owned by the Corps around Lake Sakakawea that is 1,854 feet above sea level and land around Lake Oahe that is 1,617 feet above sea level.
Brandenburg said he plans to amend his bill to give the land to the state Land Department, which would sell it back to the original owners. Eleven other lawmakers have endorsed his bill.
“They need to draw a line in the sand and treat these people fair,” he said.
He said if the Corps were to sell its excess land, it could help with the country’s debt problems.
Cramer, who sits on the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, said frustration over the Corps management has been an ongoing discussion for years.
A former state tourism director, he said he he empathizes with the business owners and understands the uncertainty they have when it comes to the Corps and water issues.
“I would advocate on the state’s behalf,” he said. “Especially for those businesses that rely on certain management by the Corps.”
Praus and Bren said the resolution is a great start and they hope it creates more discussion, but it shouldn’t have escalated to the point to require a resolution.
“This isn’t a Washington issue, it should be done right here,” Praus said.