BISMARCK, N.D. -- The answer to the question of transferring any so-called excess lands on North Dakota's two Missouri River reservoirs now managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to new owners may lie in the term "excess."
On Wednesday, a sixth and final public meeting to take comments on the potential transfer of lands along Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe was held in Bismarck.
And, as at previous meetings in New Town, Garrison, Linton and Beulah, the consensus of those commenting was the land, if returned, should go back to the original owners.
The meetings are part of a $42,000 study approved during the last legislative session.
Eide Bailly, a Bismarck firm, was awarded the study bid. Jim Hauge of Eide Bailly said part of the study involved mailing 520 surveys to adjacent landowners along the lakes, cabin owners’ groups and others with an interest.
Hauge said only 210 of the surveys were returned. He said the vast majority of those returning the surveys said original landowners should get the land back if there is a transfer.
At issue is about 50,000 acres around Lake Sakakawea and about 38,000 along Lake Oahe. The lands in question are above an elevation of 1,854 feet on Lake Sakakawea and 1,620 on Lake Oahe.
Roger Bird Bear, representing a landowners group on the Fort Berthold Reservation, said his group’s position is land should go back to individuals.
“We are opposed to the tribes owning any interest,” Bird Bear said. “Indian or non-Indian ... it was our land. The tribe didn’t lose anything.”
Patty Kelly, who lives along the Missouri River near Cannon Ball on the Standing Rock Reservation, agreed with Bird Bear’s stance.
Kelly, who represents a group of landowners whose land was taken after the dams were built, said the land was taken without just compensation.
Kelly said money put into trust for the tribe has been mismanaged and not gone to those affected most, the individual landowners.
But the question of if the land is considered excess is a moot one, according to Mike McEnroe of the North Dakota Chapter of the Wildlife Society.
“There are no excess lands,” McEnroe said. He said under the the Flood Control Act of 1944, the federal law that still dictates management of the land, the eight authorized purposes set forth by Congress for the land use still stand.
He said a conservative estimate of the cost to re-survey the land should any transfer take place would be about $20 million.
Representatives from the corps were not at Wednesday’s meeting.
Hauge said a draft of the study will be sent to the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands in July before a final report is completed in August.