For the Wilkinson family, a long fight for mineral rights beneath Lake Sakakawea is about their ancestors and what they had tried to leave behind for future generations.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Jon Patch, a Wilkinson family descendant. “We wanted to do the right thing for our grandparents, who left this legacy, and not just let it be gobbled up by the state.”
The Wilkinsons are in a dispute with the state over their portion of what could amount to $187 million in bonus, rent and royalty payments paid to the state but owed back to thousands of private mineral owners.
They thought the war had been won with legislation, but it turned out to be just another battle in their saga, which continues.
The Wilkinson family farmed in the Trenton area for three generations.
Jon Patch’s great-grandfather, Fred James Wilkinson, came north to North Dakota as a homesteader. Patch’s grandfather, JT Wilkinson, worked for the railroad before joining and adding to the family farming operation.
And Patch’s mother, Lois Jean Wilkinson Patch, one of six children, still shares stories about playing in Painted Woods Creek and taking baloney sandwiches to the men as they worked in the fields.
It’s this legacy they are trying to protect.
The 270 acres in question had been in the family since about the ‘30s, producing record wheat crops, before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed purchasing the land for the Garrison Diversion Project, which ultimately led to the construction of Garrison Dam and the formation of Lake Sakakawea. Faced with a choice to sell or face condemnation, the family sold the surface farmland but retained the mineral rights as a way to provide an inheritance and provide for descendants.
The Wilkinson clan members were excited when the oil boom hit and their spacing unit was announced to be getting a well pad in 2010. The well was drilled, it was fracked, the oil company invoked a 150-day waiver, allowing it to keep production activities to itself during that time frame.
But unbeknownst to the family, a 2010 survey had redrawn placement of historic high water marks for an upper portion of the lake and the state had laid claim to mineral rights beneath.
It wasn’t until family members saw the mineral royalty payments from their tract listed in the state mineral database in 2011 that they realized what had happened.
Patch said he appeared before the state land board three times over the course of about 10 months trying to assert what family members felt was rightly theirs. When that didn’t work, they turned to the courts in early 2012.
“It’s been frustrating,” he said of the legal battle that’s been ongoing for the better part of a decade.
Patch said there have been a lot of ups and downs, wins and losses, with each motion filed. There have been a lot of late night calls and texts with the family lawyer and, through it all, the clan banded together, he said.
A summary judgement, issued a week before the case was to be argued in May 2016 in district court, siding with the state was a big downer.
“We were so disappointed because we had so much information ready,” said Patch, adding it was difficult to have spent more than $300,000 in legal fees and never get a day in court.
“We felt we were in the right and wanted to get our information out there,” Patch said.
So the family appealed to the North Dakota Supreme Court. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for June 12.
This legislative session, family members also tried to address their problem legislatively through Senate Bill 2134, passed and signed by Gov. Doug Burgum.
“It was a blessing to see state officials look at our problem and try to do the right thing,” Patch said.
Wilkinson family attorney, Joshua Swanson, said the family has been a champion for mineral owners.
“Without them, the legislation probably doesn't happen,” he said.
And with the passage of SB 2134, the Wilkinsons and other mineral owners thought the battle had been won. But the state has yet to give in, with the attorney general making arguments in a brief filed earlier this week that the legislation does not apply to the case because the tract does not lie below the lake, but the river.
The Wilkinsons say they are hoping for finality soon, so Patch’s mother, 93, and the two other living siblings, can see their parent's legacy protected in their lifetime rather than leaving the fight for the next generation.