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County officials nix plans to build Little Missouri River bridge on family's ranchland

The Short family has often characterized the proposal as a "bridge to nowhere" and argued that the project's support is with oil-aligned interests in western North Dakota, not with county residents.

Dave Short.jpg
Dave Short surveys his family's ranch in western North Dakota in August 2020. The Billings County Commission voted Tuesday, July 6, 2021, to abandon plans to build a bridge at the site that would have crossed the Little Missouri River. J.J. England of Braaten Law Firm / Special to The Forum

BISMARCK — A years-long effort to build a bridge across the Little Missouri River over the objections of a western North Dakota ranch family came to an end this week.

Plans to bridge the Little Missouri River in the heart of the rustic North Dakota Badlands date back decades, but the proposal has grown heated in recent years as leadership in Billings County looked to claim the onetime homestead of a former U.S. congressman as the site of the project.

But on Tuesday, July 6, the Billings County Commission voted 2-1 to abandon that route. Members of the Short family, who no longer live in North Dakota but have owned the ranch for over a century, have fought the county's attempts to deploy eminent domain on their property for years, and Chairman Mike Kasian said the commission no longer wanted to take the private land or pursue the "high dollar" project at that site.

"I can't even tell you, my family is ecstatic," said Dave Short, a grandson of the late Congressman Don Short, who represented North Dakota in Washington in the 1960s. The Short family has often characterized the proposal as a "bridge to nowhere" and argued that the project's support is with oil-aligned interests in western North Dakota, not with county residents.

Kasian and new commission member Dean Rodne voted against proceeding with eminent domain, while Lester Iverson voted in favor.

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With Tuesday's decision, the Short family agreed to drop all pending lawsuits over the eminent domain proceedings, Short said.

For years, Billings County commissioners have pushed for the bridge to provide more direct access to emergency services in the sparsely populated and remote Badlands region of the state. Right now, firefighters and medics leaving from Medora have to drive 70 miles north to Watford City before the next public river crossing.

Former Billings County commissioner Jim Arthaud, a longtime champion of the bridge, told The Forum last year that the project has been a priority of the county at least since he joined the commission close to 20 years ago. Arthaud was defeated in a reelection campaign last November.

In the early 2000s, an attempt to build the bridge near the edge of Theodore Roosevelt's historic Elkhorn Ranch led to clashes between the county and conservationists, ending after the Elkhorn was brought under the protection of the National Forest Service.

The project has proved expensive for Billings County over the years, and Kasian said the county has spent several million dollars on the environmental review process. Last year the county sought a $12 million grant from the federal government to help cover the costs of the bridge.

Kasian said the county is still hopeful that it can find a site for the bridge, but he said the commission doesn't have specific locations in mind at this time.

Short said the ranch has been in his family for nearly 120 years, since his great grandfather arrived at the site as a homesteader in 1902. The family is currently seeking to have it named to the National Register of Historic Places, Short said.

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the vote count of the Billings County Commission on the decision not to pursue eminent domain on the Short property. It was 2-1, with Commissioner Lester Iverson in favor of eminent domain.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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