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Little Missouri River bridge project still a possibility

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Little Missouri River at Wind Canyon

The Little Missouri River winds past Wind Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in July 2019.

The possibility of a bridge over the Little Missouri River north of Medora still exists three months after the Billings County Commission decided against using eminent domain to seize private ranchland for a water crossing in the Badlands.

No formal proposals or locations for a bridge appear to be on the table, but county commissioners are still talking about the idea, as is the North Dakota Department of Transportation. Their conversations have caught the attention of bridge opponents who have asked the state attorney general to review recent meetings to determine if they violated the law.

The latest developments concerning the bridge project stem from a visit Transportation Director Bill Panos made several weeks ago to Medora, where he met with each of the three Billings County commissioners separately. They discussed options for the bridge, including how the state could help the county.

“We certainly haven’t made any commitments one way or another,” Panos told the Tribune, adding that “We want to just explore this with the county in a way they see fit.”

The meetings left some county leaders skeptical. They expressed those views at the next commission meeting earlier this month.

Commission Chairman Mike Kasian reiterated that sentiment to the Tribune in an interview.

“It seemed to me like (the state) was going to pay the bill for that crossing, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said.

The bridge is expected to cost more than $10 million. How it would be paid for is unclear.

Kasian said he “was not elected to dig the county into debt,” adding that the county would likely need to borrow money to complete the project. Oil and gas revenue flowing into Billings County isn’t what it used to be, he said.

“I think we should put it on the ballot and let the residents of the county vote on it to see if they want it or not,” he said.

The commission decided in July to scrap a plan to pursue eminent domain to build the bridge. The county would have had to seize part of the Short Ranch along the river. The family opposed the project across their property and had taken the matter to court.

The area north of Medora is rural and scenic with gravel roads that wind through the Badlands, leading to ranches, trailheads and oil wells. The nearest public bridges crossing the river are separated by 70 miles, with one at Medora on Interstate 94 and the other on U.S. Highway 85 near the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Some vehicles use unimproved fords to cross when the water level is low enough.

Proponents of a new bridge say one is needed in part so emergency vehicles can better access the area.

Others see downsides.

“There’s no doubt there would be increased oil traffic in a very remote part of the Badlands if they put a bridge there,” said Elizabeth Loos, executive director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance. “That would impact many people’s experiences in terms of being in a wild place.”

The conservation group filed a complaint with the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office last week regarding the meetings between Panos and each of the commissioners.

“Their way of doing business is concerning to us,” Loos said.

The complaint followed another by Jim Fuglie, a Badlands enthusiast who blogs about issues concerning the region, including the bridge project. He first detailed the nature of the meetings between commissioners and Panos, raising the possibility that they were an effort to circumvent North Dakota’s open meetings law. If more than one had met with Panos at the same time, a quorum would have formed, constituting a public meeting.

Fuglie asked for the attorney general’s office to weigh in on the matter, as it frequently does when it receives such complaints.

Billings County State’s Attorney Pat Weir said he’s working on a response to an inquiry from the attorney general’s office. He noted that it would have been acceptable for an individual commissioner to seek out a meeting with the state transportation director.

“Any of the other commissioners could have done the same thing,” he said.

The meetings came about after Weir met Panos at an event with Gov. Doug Burgum in Medora earlier this year. The governor suggested Panos “might have information or be a resource for the county,” Weir said.

Weir said he and Panos spoke by phone after the event and decided to have the transportation director come out for the visit rather than arrange a call with the commissioners or have them drive to Bismarck. Panos said the format of the meetings was up to the county. 

Burgum has no plans for the bridge project, and the state would not be interested in pursuing it unless it had the county’s support, said Mike Nowatzki, the governor’s spokesperson.

Proponents of a bridge have talked about the idea for decades. Weir said that a new factor in the bridge project is the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library planned for the Medora area.

“The state is concerned as they should be about out-of-town people roaming around the Badlands,” he said. “You can anticipate, if people are coming to the library, many of them are going to want to go out and see where the Elkhorn cabin site is 35 miles north of Medora.”

The Elkhorn Ranch was one of two ranches Roosevelt owned in the Badlands before he moved on to the White House. It’s nestled along the Little Missouri River to the north of where Billings County sought to place the bridge across the Short Ranch.

Kasian, the commission chair, said the county could pursue an arrangement with willing landowners or look for a partner to place a bridge on public land.

He said the commission hasn’t found time yet to explore those options, but he’s hopeful one will emerge.

“There’s a lot of entities where we can probably find a crossing,” he said.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or


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