In the Badlands, a decades-old bridge proposal divides lawmakers, ranchers and conservationists
Plans to construct a bridge over the Little Missouri River in Billings County have been debated for decades. This week, an announcement on millions of dollars in federal grant funding could mark a breakthrough for the project.
BISMARCK — Eighteen miles north of Medora, on the western side of the Little Missouri River in Billings County, there’s a ranch. Its green buttes span some 6,500 acres at the end of a winding dirt road in the heart of the North Dakota Badlands. The onetime home of U.S. Congressman Don Short, the site is remote, reachable by an hour’s backcountry drive from Medora, in quiet seclusion from the region's distant highways.
For years, Billings County has aimed to build a bridge near this property, still owned by descendants of Short, to cross the Little Missouri and connect highways 16 and 85 with a paved, two-lane road across the Badlands.
Billings commissioners say they need the bridge to provide reliable emergency services to their county's scattered residents. Right now, ambulances and firefighters leaving from their Medora stations must drive 70 miles north before they reach the next public crossing.
But bridge opponents argue that the county's public safety justification is a thin cover for a more lucrative motive: oil traffic.
Until recently, Jim Arthaud, chairman of the Billings County Commission, was the CEO of MBI Energy Services, one of the largest oil servicing companies in North Dakota. In earlier days of the bridge campaign, Billings commissioners were quicker to tout the crossing's utility to the region's expanding oil industry.
Billings County's ambition to bridge the Little Missouri dates back many years, but in the latest chapters of the dispute, the Short property has become a focal point of a larger debate over the future of the Badlands.
"It makes it even more personal to me. It's my family's ranch," said Dave Short, Don Short's grandson.
Dave Short's great-great grandfather settled the land along the Little Missouri River at the beginning of the 20th Century and, while the Shorts no longer live at the site, they are fighting an infrastructure project they say would deal a disproportionate blow to the history and ecology of their family's land.
"This isn't necessarily just about our family's ranch," Dave Short said. "But will it be devastating to our family and to that area and to generations to come? Yeah. Because we have really allowed the Badlands to just be the Badlands."
After the Billings County Commission indicated their intent earlier this year to use eminent domain to take a portion of the Short property to push the project through, many conservationists fear that the county is closer to building its bridge than ever before.
On Tuesday, Sept. 15, the U.S. Department of Transportation will announce decisions in a round of grants that could award Billings County $12.3 million in federal funding for the bridge. The Billings County application is buttressed by letters of support from some North Dakota's most influential political figures, including all three members of the state's delegation in Washington.
And even if federal funding doesn't come through, Arthaud said, Billings County has the money to make it happen themselves.
"It's not 'if' — it's 'when,'" he said.
Decades of tension
The Little Missouri River Crossing project dates back to long before the bridge was ever sited for the Short family ranch. Arthaud said it has been a priority at least since he joined the commission nearly 20 years ago. Letters endorsing the project to the Department of Transportation date the idea back to the 1930s .
And for as long as there has been the idea of a bridge in Billings County, there have been opponents.
"This bridge is the project that just won’t happen and just won’t go away," observed Clay Jenkinson, a North Dakota historian and conservationist. Echoes of the bridge debate appeared even in Don Short's congressional days, when, in a 1960 letter to a constituent, he called the construction of a road along the Little Missouri River "the height of stupidity."
While North Dakota has relatively little public land compared to other western states, much of its publicly-owned patches are concentrated in Billings County, including the southern unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the sections of the Little Missouri National Grassland, and the Elkhorn Ranch, Theodore Roosevelt's historic Dakotas retreat.
And though Billings County is sparsely populated, it is rich in oil and tourism. In the last two decades, this overlap has made Billings a recurring battleground for oil companies and conservationists.
The Little Missouri River crossing has been an especially hot point of tension in that debate, even reaching the national spotlight in the late 2000s, when Billings County proposed a site for its bridge near the edge of the Elkhorn Ranch after it had been brought into the domain of the National Forest Service.
"Saving that precious ground became to me a matter of vital national importance," recalled Lowell Baier, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental lawyer who was tapped by the secretary of the interior in 2004 to shepherd the Elkhorn into federal protection.
While Baier and company succeeded in earning the Elkhorn Ranch national grassland protections, one industry project slipped by, resulting in a gravel mine in view of the historic Roosevelt ranch. It's an intrusion that Baier said still stings to this day.
"We lost that battle," he said, "and now the bridge is back in front of us and we’re now fighting that."
The legal battle over the Little Missouri crossing escalated in March of this year, when Billings commissioners passed a resolution authorizing use of eminent domain on the Short's ranch.
The family responded with two lawsuits contesting the county's justification for eminent domain and challenging the legitimacy of their environmental review of the proposed location on the family property. The Shorts also argue they were boxed out of the decision-making process and were never approached by Billings County about the decision to pursue eminent domain on their land.
Arthaud contested this characterization, noting that he has interacted with the Short family at hearings on the proposed bridge.
"There's nothing that's been hid from the Short family," he said.
Meanwhile, Billings County pursued millions in federal grant money to fund construction on the Short land.
Billings County's federal grant application has been endorsed by North Dakota's Washington delegation in a joint letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, signed by Sen. John Hoeven, Sen. Kevin Cramer and Rep. Kelly Armstrong.
Similar letters from the state department of transportation, Sen. Dale Patten, R-Watford City, and a roster of locally influential voices like Medora Mayor Todd Corneil, Billings County Sheriff Pat Rummel and the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation lend added weight to the county's proposal.
The Short family's opposition has been flanked by environmental groups who have long opposed a bridge project on the Little Missouri.
"Dust from vehicle traffic will adversely affect the grasslands and the Little Missouri River, impacting not just the plants, but all the animals that use them for nesting, food & cover," wrote Elizabeth Loos, executive director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance, in a statement calling on readers to send letters of opposition to the the Department of Transportation.
"We understand that issue," said former Gov. Ed Schafer, who serves as the chair of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, arguing that the foundation carefully considered environmental consequences in its choice to back the project.
"But necessity calls sometimes," Schafer added. "There's no place that's going to leave everybody untouched. There's no place that's going to make everybody whole."
While environmentalists have dismissed the legitimacy of Billings County's emergency services justification, Arthaud rebuffed that tactic as "phony" and "selfish," noting the rural safety issues are particular to the area.
"They don't live out here; they don't understand it," he said.
Throughout the years of debate over the Little Missouri River crossing, there has seemed little room for compromise between the two sides. However, Jenkinson, who has testified against the project, said he sees some validity to the Billings County arguments and thinks there may be a middle ground.
"I f there has to be a bridge, then I would like to insist that it not be anywhere near the Elkhorn Ranch," he said, while outlining potential benefits of a bridge further from the Elkhorn and the Short property, that would go beyond a utilitarian purpose to enhance "some of the romance" of the region.
"My fear is that it makes it easier to damage the Badlands in a bigger way," Jenkinson said. "It's not just a bridge. It will facilitate much greater traffic in the Badlands. It will facilitate a greater intensity and volume of oil development. So we are in danger of losing what I think is the most precious landscape in North Dakota."
Tuesday's announcement by the Department of Transportation could be a landmark in the years-old Little Missouri crossing saga.
Even if the federal money doesn't land, Arthaud said his county intends to push the project through on their own.
"Billings has the financial wherewithal to build the bridge without a grant," he said. "This has been something that the county residents have been overwhelmingly (supporting) for years. So they're willing and able."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.