North Dakota ranchers meet with Senator, Congressman, to discuss management of U.S. Corps of Engineers land
September 8, 2016
Plans are now dead in the water for legislation that would have put some federal land surrounding Lake Oahe under state control. But landowners next to the North Dakota U.S. Corps of Engineer land say they've worked on the issue for years and have made more progress this year than ever before.
Even though he decided not to introduce legislation in the near future, Senator Hoeven (R-N.D.), along with Congressman Cramer (R-N.D.), visited the area Sept. 2, to get a better understanding of local ranchers' frustrations with the corps' land management policies.
Glenn McCrory, a Linton, North Dakota, rancher is hopeful that the approximately 100 acres of corps land that borders his private property will eventually be put under the management of the state or better yet, the county.
The lake, which straddles North and South Dakota, borders 14 counties with four of those being in North Dakota.
“Rep. Cramer rode in my pickup (to see the land on Sept. 2). I went away feeling like Cramer really understood the issue.” Glenn McCrory, Linton, N.D., rancher
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The excess land around the lake in South Dakota was transferred to the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks in 1999.
Of around 85,000 acres of land the corps purchased using eminent domain, about 12,500 acres are higher than 1,620 feet, and are considered "excess" land – not covered by the lake, even in a flood year. Herb Grenz, who is one of the few remaining landowners who personally dealt with the corps in the 1960s when the lake was built, said, after eight years of negotiating, the corps condemned the land and used eminent domain to compel him to sell.
Since then, he said the land was put up for bid, but when the winning bidder realized a fence had to be built, the lease didn't go through. Now Grenz leases the land on a yearly contract.
Like Grenz, McCrory remembers the area pre-lake. The house where he grew up — the one his folks were still living in, had to be moved, along with their barns and other outbuildings to make way for the lake which flooded their ranch headquarters.
The corps' management of the excess land is considered "interim," said Grenz, which means he never knows, from year to year, whether they will renew the lease. "That is the crux of the matter. I could build a fence but I don't know if they'll offer me the lease next year."
Ralph Gabrysh, Natural Resource Specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said some adjoining landowners with ag leases have been allowed to put their lease payment toward fencing materials.
"We'll let the lessor build the fence in lieu of some of their lease payment, if it works out and is agreeable with both parties."
Grenz and other adjoining landowners believe local control would better serve their operations and hope to have the land put under the state land department or the county commissions.
The North Dakota legislature has addressed the issue several times, McCrory said, and last session, HB 1456, a bill to encourage congress to transfer ownership of the land and mineral rights to the state, was approved with votes of 91-1 in the House and 40-7 in the Senate.
Hoeven then considered introducing federal legislation to do just that, but has put his plans on hold after some wildlife spokesmen expressed concern over potential lost access to the land.
The Republican senator has spoken with area landowners, as well as representatives of hunting, fishing and recreation interests on the proposed transfer, said his communications coordinator Don Canton. "He (Senator Hoeven) told them that a consensus must be reached before he would look at introducing legislation."
The former wildlife chief for the State Game and Fish Department Randy Kreil is quoted in the Bismarck and Dickinson newspapers regarding his concern that public access to the land would diminish if the state were to take over management, or if the adjacent landowners were given the opportunity to purchase it back.
McCrory and Grenz are disappointed that Hoeven won't introduce legislation soon but haven't lost hope and appreciate the interest of their congressmen.
"Rep. Cramer rode in my pickup (to see the land on Sept. 2). I went away feeling like Cramer really understood the issue," McCrory said, adding that Hoeven traveled to the site with Grenz, where the elected officials saw the adverse affects of noxious weeds as well as other management challenges.
The issue, McCrory said, is about common sense. Or maybe a lack thereof.
Like other adjoining landowners, McCrory leases this narrow strip of "excess" land that lies between his private property and the lake for around $14 per acre. It isn't feasible to fence the land, he said, because of the steep terrain and erosion issues that would occur from cattle walking the fenceline. Plus the property border isn't a straight line, but more of a "stair-step," that would require at least 15 corner braces for about a mile of fence.
Noxious weeds and a July 15 turnout date for grazing are two of the main management issues with the "excess" land, he said.
McCrory's private land that lies next to the corps land is some of the closest grazing land to his home headquarters, and offers some of the best protection, with deep draws leading toward the river. Plus Canada thistle, which grows in abundance on the corps land, can be grazed early in the spring, but by July 15 is tall and coarse and too prickly to be palatable to his cattle.
For these reasons, it makes more sense for McCrory to graze the pastures in May and June rather than late July, but because the corps land can't be grazed until July 15, neither can his adjoining private land.
"I don't really want it fenced off. That wouldn't be good for the land or the wildlife or for my ranch management. The only thing I would like to do is not have to deal with the corps anymore," said McCrory.
Gabrysh said ranchers who join corps land can get around the July 15 turnout date if they work up a rotational grazing plan with the Natural Resource Conservation Service and implement a plan approved by that agency. Two ranchers have done that, he said.
The same turnout date has been in place for 25 years or so, and was chosen in order to protect upland birds like grouse and pheasant. Grazing would disturb the birds' habitat, he said.
Whether or not the corps land is turned over to the state is "out of our hands," said Gabrysh, who has worked in the Bismarck, North Dakota, corps office for about 20 years.
The issue is up to the constituents and Congress, and his agency won't lobby, said Gabrysh. "We don't influence legislation."