BISMARCK -- North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven will not submit a bill that would have had the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers transfer land on Lake Oahe to the state and possibly to private landowners.
Hoeven’s chief of staff, Ryan Bernstein, said Thursday a bill draft will not be submitted because there’s no consensus among residents, local officials and outdoor recreationists on the issue.
At stake are about 9,000 acres in Emmons and Morton counties that are above the Oahe reservoir flood pool. Some legislators want the land returned to North Dakota and some of it restored to original owners or heirs on both sides of the Oahe complex south of Bismarck-Mandan.
Bernstein said Hoeven wants consensus from all sides before moving forward.
“It’s up to the Legislature on how that should be done,” he said.
The former wildlife chief for the State Game and Fish Department Randy Kreil said Hoeven deserves credit for recognizing that the transfer would have had a negative effect on thousands of outdoorsmen and women who use the area to the personal benefit of a select few.
“That’s good to hear,” said Kreil, describing the Oahe region south of Bismarck as one of the most heavily used recreation areas in the state because of the good habitat on corps land along the reservoir and the development of Wildlife Management Areas.
Rep. Jim Schmidt, R-Huff, was a sponsor of a bill in the 2015 Legislature that asked Gov. Jack Dalrymple to put the transfer in motion with the Washington delegation. Schmidt said earlier his family would benefit if about 300 acres that are part of the Oahe Wildlife Management Area were returned and that he’d met with all the family’s 13 heirs on that possibility.
Schmidt said Thursday sportsmen have the wrong idea and that access to ramps and other public facilities would not have been interrupted. Any land returned to his family would have gone into production of agriculture and hunters might have found themselves able to drive into good hunting spots, instead of hiking, he said.
Andrea Travnicek, the governor’s natural resource policy adviser, said the office received a number of calls and emails on the proposed transfer, which included the possible return of private land, and relayed those to Hoeven’s office.
“We had … questions on assurances of public access,” she said.
The State Game and Fish Department did not take an official position on the proposed transfer, but current wildlife chief Jeb Williams said traffic counters show that thousands of people are on the recreation areas along Oahe.
“It’s some of the best habitat in the state. From my standpoint, I’m always trying to grow the resource for the public. This (proposed transfer) doesn’t help it,” he said.
One Emmons County landowner says he and his neighbors want the excess corps' land returned so they can manage noxious weeds, be better stewards and increase the land’s property tax value.
“If it were returned to us, we will do a better job,” said Glenn McCrory, who farms and ranches on the east side of Oahe near Highway 1804.
While the Oahe transfer appears to be a dead issue for now, the 2015 bill was the third in a row and only successful attempt to get the Legislature to support the concept.
Kreil said people will need to remain vigilant because certain legislators might bring it back again.
“It baffles me why the governor’s office would even agree to be involved in this,” he said.
Schmidt said he isn't sure what will happen next and that he would pursue the transfer only if his constituents push for it.
"For me, though, probably not," he said.