North Dakota ranch owners sue over proposed Little Missouri River bridge
BISMARCK — A family that owns a Billings County ranch is suing over a proposed bridge across the Little Missouri River on its property.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Bismarck, challenges a key federal approval for the project on grounds that it violates the National Environmental Policy Act, among other laws. The Federal Highway Administration issued its decision in June, finalizing an environmental review that identifies property on the Short family’s ranch as its preferred location for the bridge and adjoining road.
“We don’t want a bridge across the Little Missouri that’s sole purpose is just for one or two owners of large oil trucking companies to move 1,000 trucks back and forth across,” said David Short, one of the plaintiffs. “If the bridge is of that much importance, then it should go on public land because it is for the public.”
Proponents of the bridge, including Billings County staff, have said it would benefit emergency vehicles responding to incidents in the remote Badlands, as well as industries such as oil, gas and tourism. The bridge would span 600 feet over the river and require 2 miles of new roadway, connecting Belle Lake Road with East River Road.
The nearest public bridges crossing the river are at Medora on Interstate 94 and south of Watford City on U.S. Highway 85, separated by 70 miles. Some vehicles use unimproved fords to cross in between the bridges, according to the project’s Environmental Impact Statement.
Plans for a new bridge crossing have been in the works for more than a decade. The Federal Highway Administration published a “notice of intent” to prepare an environmental review for such a project in 2006, according to the Shorts’ complaint.
The environmental review outlines a handful of other locations for the bridge and roadway that it says were “considered during the early stages of the EIS process.” The document explains that those options were nixed for various reasons, some for their physical characteristics and some for their proximity to the Elkhorn Ranch, which is a part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The preferred location is south of Elkhorn Ranch. The review does give further consideration to another option to the north but states it “has the most rugged terrain and would involve the most earthwork.”
Derrick Braaten, an attorney representing the Short family, said it appears the project was “predetermined” to go through the Short Ranch.
“They have not adequately considered the alternatives necessary to make this decision,” he said.
It would take eminent domain proceedings for the project to come to fruition, given that the family does not want to grant permission to build, he said.
The lawsuit names as defendants the Federal Highway Administration and North Dakota Division Administrator Lee Potter. It also lists the U.S. Forest Service, as well as employees William O’Donnell and Shannon Boehm of the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, a part of the Forest Service. None of the agencies has yet filed a formal response to the lawsuit.
The highway administration declined to comment Monday, Dec. 30. Grasslands spokeswoman Treva Slaughter also declined to comment on the lawsuit but said in a statement that the agency “appreciates the opportunity to provide input and comments to address potential impacts” to public lands within the bridge crossing area. Building the project would involve acquiring rights of way and easements from the Forest Service, as well as the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands and private landowners, as the project would cross more land than just the Short Ranch.
The suit seeks to rescind the highway administration’s decision and the environmental review, as well as declare that the agency violated the law.
The family’s complaint states that the land that makes up their ranch is “rugged, unblemished, majestic, and perhaps most importantly, isolated.” The ranch has been in continuous operation since 1902.
Building a paved bridge across the land “would significantly change the character and delicate landscape of the Short Ranch by allowing traffic made up largely of industrial trucks to traverse the Little Missouri River at will,” the lawsuit reads.
The complaint claims that the family was never formally consulted on the project and that the environmental review did not adequately consider the project’s impacts to the historic integrity and preservation of the ranch, as well as how dust would affect the land. It also says the review did not adequately consider how the project would affect wildlife and recreation on the Little Missouri River.
The project would cost $11.2 million to build at the preferred location. Billings County funded the environmental review process, and future funding could come from a combination of federal and county funds, according to a “frequently asked questions” page for the project on the county’s website.