BILLINGS COUNTY, N.D. - A long-discussed proposal to build a new bridge across the Little Missouri River takes a step forward this week, with the preferred route bisecting a ranch that's been in one family for more than a century.
A draft environmental impact statement identifies the Short ranch north of Medora as the preferred location to construct a river crossing.
But the family questions the need for the bridge and plans to fight to preserve the beauty and remoteness of their Badlands ranch.
"This proposal comes right down through the Short family headquarters riverbottom," said Dave Short, son of the late Con and Sandy Short. "It will destroy our ranch."
Public hearings are scheduled this week to discuss the proposal.
Adding another bridge to cross the Little Missouri River has been part of the Billings County master plan since 1979, said County Commission Chairman Jim Arthaud.
Current bridges are at Medora on Interstate 94 and south of Watford City on Highway 85, or about 70 miles apart. In between, there are 18 unimproved private fords and one unimproved public ford that are used by some vehicles to cross the river, according to the environmental study.
Billings County wants to add another bridge to provide a reliable crossing for emergency services, commerce, recreation and public travel, Arthaud said. The county has spent 13 years and an estimated $3 million on environmental studies related to the bridge, Arthaud said.
"It's a good project for the state of North Dakota, and it's a great project for Billings County," Arthaud said.
The draft environmental impact statement, which involved Billings County, the Federal Highway Administration and the North Dakota Department of Transportation, identified a preferred route for the crossing that would connect Belle Lake Road with East River Road.
It would involve constructing about 2 miles of new roadways and a 600-foot-long, three-span bridge. The preferred alternative is estimated to cost $11.2 million, with variations estimated to cost up to $14.1 million. A funding source for the project has not been identified.
The proposal would involve acquiring 62 acres from private landowners, 15 acres from the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands and 88 acres from the U.S. Forest Service.
Short, who manages the family ranch, said Billings County would have to use eminent domain to acquire the family's land.
The family believes a bridge at that location would benefit few local residents but would make it more convenient for oil companies that have wells on both sides of the river.
"There's no one that can look at the bird's eye view of this map and think that it makes any sense for anyone except an oil truck jockeying back and forth right there," said Short, who grew up on the ranch.
Family members support oil development and have wells on the property, said Don Johnson, one of the owners of the ranch. But they fear a bridge would bring additional oil traffic, dust and other impacts to the remote area in the Badlands.
"We'd like to keep it as pristine as we possibly can," said Johnson, who is from Bismarck. "The oil development, to me it's kind of a scar on the ranch as it is right now. But it's not going to be there forever. You put a bridge in through there and it's going to be there forever."
Arthaud said it's "bogus" to claim that the bridge would only support the oil industry, which currently has two drilling rigs operating in Billings County.
"That bridge will be used by the general public more than the oil industry ever would use it," Arthaud said.
Arthaud is the former CEO of MBI Energy Services based in Belfield but no longer has a stake in the company, he said. He owns a service company, ND Energy Services, which does work in McKenzie and Dunn counties.
Arthaud said the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act was an extensive process that determined the best location for the bridge.
"We've been very patient with the process and that's what they've determined the best place for it," Arthaud said. "The county is in support of it."
Doug Mosser, who owns land on the opposite side of the river from the Short ranch that would also be affected by the project, said he thinks a bridge would be a good asset, but he doesn't think it would be useful at that location.
"Personally, they're thinking about putting it in the wrong place," Mosser said.
Several other alternative locations were considered, including routes that were eliminated due to their proximity to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
One other alternative is included in the draft environmental impact statement, which would connect Belle Lake Road with Magpie Creek Road on the north end of Billings County. That option is estimated to cost $18.7 million.
The public will be able to provide input on the alternatives and the draft environmental impact statement through Aug. 20.
Since 1987, the family has leased the land to Jay Obrigewitch, who has ranched in Billings County for several generations. Obrigewitch, who operates the ranch with his son, is also opposed to the crossing.
"It would just eliminate the remoteness and the solitude out here," he said.
While the family no longer lives at the ranch, members visit several times a year to hunt or hold family gatherings. In the past three years, the family has held three memorial services there for family members who wanted a piece of them left at the ranch, said Jeb Williams, of Bismarck.
"It means an awful lot to the family in lots of different ways," Williams said. "That's why the thought of a bridge running through it has us concerned."