Some mixed opinions

NEW TOWN It was standing room only for a meeting in New Town’s City Hall Tuesday morning. The meeting was the first in a series of six to receive public input on the proposed transfer of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ land along the shores of Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe.

In a series of letters from Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Tex Hall to the state and the state’s congressional delegation, TAT has requested that “excess lands” above the elevation of 1,854 feet and within the boundaries of the Fort Berthold Reservation be returned to the tribes.

While that request is under review by the U.S. Army, the North Dakota Legislature has authorized Gov. Jack Dalrymple to negotiate with the Corps for the return of excess lands. Tuesday’s meeting was a result of that authorization. Neither the Corps nor TAT was represented.

Chairing the meeting was Jim Hauge, an Eide Bailly agribusiness consultant from Bismarck. Hauge was appointed to the task by the Governor’s Office.

“I’m not here to answer questions,” Hauge told the gathering. “We know there’s a lot of acres for which there is no agreement on.”

Hauge explained that the reason for the meeting, and others to follow, was to receive input for the purpose of formulating a possible amicable conclusion to the proposed transfer of land. However, even the definition of “excess lands” came up for dispute during Tuesday’s meeting. The Corps has described excess lands as those lands above the 1,854 elevation along Lake Sakakawea.

Since much of that land is utilized in various ways today, such as for lake access or hunting, some consider the designation of excess to be wrong because the use falls within the prescribed purpose at the time the land was acquired for the Garrison Dam project. The elevation of 1,854 is equal to the overflow level of Garrison Dam.

Roger Bird Bear, a resident of Fort Berthold Reservation, said he was speaking on behalf of a landowner association when he told the group, “We don’t believe the tribe operates in our best interests. We want the land returned to the individual owners, not the tribe.”

Others at the meeting rose to speak in agreement of Bird Bear’s assessment, including State Rep. Mike Brandenburg of Edgeley, a primary author of House Bill 1338.

“Everybody wants the land back, one way or another,” Brandenburg told the gathering. “When the Corps took this land, they took too much land. I’m trying to understand both sides of the issue.”

Marilyn Hudson, a well-known tribal member from Parshall, said, “The land should be returned to the original owners. That has always been part of our tribal heritage.”

Mike Cross, New Town, asked why only one meeting was scheduled at Fort Berthold. Cross urged meetings to be held at White Shield, Twin Buttes, Mandaree and Parshall, “where landowners live and reside today.”

“I thought that was unusual and don’t understand why,” added Cross. “The most important people are the flood victims today.”

Some in the audience said the transfer of lands was not needed, that the system currently in place was probably as good a system as any change would produce. A straw poll was conducted to determine an alternative that was most favorable to meeting attendees. From a show of hands, it appeared returning land to original landowners was the overwhelming favorite.

“I want the land and the minerals returned to the original landowners,” said Theodora Bird Bear, Mandaree.

“Mineral rights. That’s what most of this thing is about, money. The land should go back to the original owners, not the tribe,” said Glenn Amiot, of Van Hook.

A second meeting was scheduled to be held in Garrison Tuesday afternoon. Other meetings are set for March 6 in Linton, March 7 in Beulah, March 10 in Fort Yates and June 11 in Bismarck.