The former wildlife chief for North Dakota’s Game and Fish Department says a possible transfer of excess land around Lake Oahe to private landowners lacks transparency and would be unfair to the thousands of outdoorsmen and women who use the lakeshore for hunting and fishing.
Randy Kreil said the transfer of more than 9,000 acres of land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Morton and Emmons counties not needed for flood control would have a tremendous impact on sportsmen, especially if the land is returned to private heirs instead of the state.
The transfer was directed by the 2015 Legislature, which passed a bill encouraging Gov. Jack Dalrymple to work with the state’s congressional delegation to get Congress to authorize the return of land and minerals above elevation 1,620 to the state.
Kreil said no one was aware that the governor’s-level discussion included the potential for reprivatizing some of the land until U.S. Sen. John Hoeven’s office started calling around last week, looking for public feedback.
“This is an important issue that was going on under the cover of darkness. Thankfully, Hoeven’s office started asking around. Without that, it would have progressed further,” Kreil said.
Andrea Travnicek, the governor’s policy adviser on natural resources, said the possible return of private lands, where practicable, is under discussion, but the main intent is to preserve public access.
“The intent is that public access would be the same in the future as it is today, no matter what happens,” she said.
Rep. Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall, House Minority leader, said he voted against the bill and is against any privatization.
“The governor’s office needs to get it out front and be transparent,” he said.
One of the bill sponsors is Rep. Jim Schmidt, R-Mandan, who said his family would benefit if some 300-plus acres that are part of a Game and Fish Wildlife Management Area would be returned.
“If that land was grabbed unnecessarily (for flood control), yes, I would be interesting in having it returned, but not for free,” said Schmidt, who met Wednesday with 13 heirs, all looking for a win-win outcome. “We would want to make sure that recreational values are met."
Schmidt said his uncle and aunts were paid $51 an acre for about 400 acres in Morton County, most of which was eventually subleased by the Game and Fish for a 2,000-acre wildlife management.
“None of that has ever been under water except in 2011, and that was from high ground water, not overland flooding,” he said.
Kreil said Schmidt contacted him at the department before he was a legislator to discuss reacquiring the land.
Schmidt said, if the corps doesn’t need the land for flood protection, it amounted to a federal land grab.
“If it’s not needed for flood protection, why was it taken?” he said.
Rep. Mike Brandenburg, R-Edgeley, said he’s been meeting with landowners on the Emmons County side and said the desire is to return excess land to the heirs.
“We’re working on it real hard, but we’re not hurting anybody. We want to take care of everybody’s needs first with hunting and fishing,” he said.
Hoeven’s chief of staff Ryan Bernstein said the plan is to get consensus with the recognition that everybody wants a guarantee of continued public access.
“We will not send up a bill that returns land to the heirs. There’s no consensus on that,” Bernstein said.
U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said she has prepared a bill to return land to the state as asked by the governor.
"But it's up to the governor and state leaders to work with interested parties on what the next step should be and if this legislation is wanted or needed," she said.
Travnicek said, if the transfer were to pass Congress, the land would go to the state land trust.
“From there, there’s no decision on what that would look like,” she said.