A North Dakota Supreme Court decision in a riverbed mineral case rights a wrong by the state.
In a unanimous ruling, the court said the Wilkinson family’s property falls above the ordinary high water mark of the historical Missouri riverbed channel and isn’t state land. The decision opens the door for other landowners to file claims against the state.
The justices ruled that a study prompted by 2017 legislation proved that the property falls above the mark which is where the Missouri River channel existed before the Garrison Dam was built in the last century.
Damages in the case could reach into the millions. Also at stake are royalties that have accumulated over the last decade since the state claimed ownership of the minerals. The money was set aside in an account as the lawsuit played out. The family can now collect it.
The state’s attempt to claim the riverbed minerals was the latest injustice surrounding the Garrison Dam. The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation saw prime farmland, homes and even a town flooded for the dam. Landowners outside the reservation also lost land to the project. Property owners argued that the federal government underpaid them for the land.
Bitterness still lingers in western North Dakota over how the project that started in 1947 was handled. For years after the dam was completed, the state battled with the federal government over funding for the irrigation network promised with the project. It was another broken promise added to the history of the dam.
The dam has been a huge recreational and economic boon to the state. However, we shouldn’t forget that many people suffered losses when the dam was built.
When the state claimed the riverbed minerals, it forced the Wilkinson family to sue for what belonged to them. It’s a case the state should have settled some years ago. The family has offered to negotiate a settlement on damages with the state and oil companies. It’s an offer that should be accepted in good faith.
The state also needs to fairly treat other landowners who come forward with mineral claims.
North Dakota was flush with revenue from the oil boom for a number of years. It didn’t need to fight for more mineral rights. Fortunately, the Supreme Court corrected the situation.
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