Corps considers possible transfer to Three Affiliated Tribes

An upcoming series of meetings has the potential to become highly emotional. A major topic of discussion will be the proposed transfer of 24,000 acres of U. S. Army Corps of Engineers land to the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation. The land stretches along a significant amount of Lake Sakakawea shoreline.

Eide Bailly of Bismarck is the firm designated by the state Legislature to study the issue, which appeared to be gaining momentum following a series of letters from Tex “Red Tipped Arrow” Hall, chairman of TAT-Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation.

On July 12, 2013, Hall wrote to the state’s congressional delegation and Gov. Jack Dalrymple, notifying them that “we are continuing to move forward working cooperatively with the Department of Interior and the Army Corps of Engineers to obtain the return of our lands under authority Congress provided in the 1984 Fort Berthold Mineral Restoration Act.”

In his letter, Hall stated he hoped the issue would be fully resolved in 2013. More than a month later, Dalrymple responded to Hall, saying, “The state had identified a variety of concerns that must be addressed by the Corps before any land is transferred.”

The number of acres listed by Dalrymple was 36,000. However, in later correspondence, Hall said the actual amount of land was 24,000 acres. The difference was mostly 12,000 acres of Game Management Area land leased by North Dakota Game and Fish from the Corps.

Dalrymple’s letter also expressed concern about access for water intakes across Corps land and public access to cabins and recreation areas. The tribe is asking for a return of “excess” lands above 1,854 feet to the current border of the Fort Berthold Reservation. Flood stage for Lake Sakakawea is 1,854 feet. That means, in many areas, access to Lake Sakakawea shoreline would mean traveling across tribal land. Dalrymple describes the situation as “a ring of trust land through which access must be negotiated.”

Hall’s response to Dalrymple came on Sept. 13, 2013, when he wrote, “I am disappointed that your letter rehashes comments made in 2004 when the MHA Nation last sought the return of our lands.” Furthermore, Hall requested the governor “get up to speed.” He also stated that the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation “will move forward whether the State is ready or not” and that “The MHA Nation does not agree with your attempts to rewrite or debate the terms of the law.”

Much of the discussion at the upcoming meetings will likely be over the existence of “excess” lands, which some public officials say ignores that wildlife and recreation remain an integral part of the original Garrison Dam/Lake Sakakawea project. Popular recreation areas such as Van Hook and Deep Water Bay are managed for wildlife production and contain boat ramp access to Lake Sakakawea. According to Hall, “the Army Corps will continue to manage the wildlife and recreation areas,” including the “Van Hook and Deep Water Bay Wildlife Management Areas” if the proposed land transfer occurs.

Jim Hauge, agribusiness consultant for Eide Bailly in Bismarck, will be the chairman for the upcoming series of six public meetings on the proposed land transfer. Hauge says the meetings present an opportunity to support or refute a survey that had been previously mailed to interested parties.

“We sent the survey to about 440 individuals, organizations and agencies that either border these lands, have testified to HB 1338, or have expressed an interest in the present situation.” said Hauge.

The state Legislature passed House Bill 1338 during the past session for the purpose of obtaining further input on the proposed land transfer. However, the Corps believes it has the authority to sign the proposed land transfer regardless of state Legislature action. Corps progress on the proposed transfer was stalled following inquiries by Dalrymple and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. Hoeven became familiar with the proposal during his time as governor. At the time, Dalrymple was Hoeven’s lieutenant governor.

When asked to further describe the purpose of the upcoming meetings, Hauge responded, “To take a straw poll on opinions and see if there is a consensus amongst each special interest group to start to build different options that supports the special interest group’s wishes. We expect a good turnout and open discussion, and to walk away with a feel of which options each group feels are viable.”

Hauge further explained that the study will provide the next session of the Legislature with various options regarding the proposed land transfer and expressed the hope that “different groups will come together with a unified approach.”

The proposed land transfer meetings will also consider acreage above 1,620 feet on land bordering Lake Oahe, which includes land within the boundaries of the Standing Rock Reservation.