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Unlawful taking of mineral rights goes on

Bill Thomas, Williston

In the 1950s the federal government, anticipating Lake Sakakawea and the flooding of private lands in western North Dakota, conducted extensive surveys and appraisals along the Missouri River to base the purchase of millions of dollars worth of land to be flooded.

They issued strict guidelines which utilized every available characteristic to identify these lands.

The underlying oil and gas minerals were reserved to the affected landowners. (In a March 23, 2016 letter to the North Dakota State Commissioner of University and School Lands and the State Engineer of the North Dakota State Water Commission, the US Bureau of Land Management acting State Director Aden I. Seidlitz defended the federal government’s findings.)

Some fifty years later, anticipating development of oil and gas under Lake Sakakawea, the State Land Department informed the interested oil companies that the state was claiming an additional 25,000 mineral acres that had been deeded to landowners along the Missouri River. Realizing this amounted to an unlawful taking of private property, in 2017 the Republican controlled Senate drafted and passed Senate Bill 2134, which redefined identifying the riverbank and made it retroactive to the time of the federal government’s surveys of the 1950s.

Senate Bill 2134 also directed the SLD to hire a qualified engineering and surveying firm to initiate a study to determine what the state owned. The SLD hired Wenck Associates of Mandan which is not a qualified surveying firm. Wenck concluded the state should claim some 10,000 additional mineral acres, not the 25,000 the SLD had claimed. Later, after mineral owner feedback, Wenck again reduced this unlawfully taken mineral acreage to something less than 10,000 acres.

Wenck looked at data that was available and utilized by the government in the 1950s. Wenck could not possibly do as thorough a job of determining ownership of these lands and minerals because the land has been flooded for 50 years and area old-timers first hand knowledge, used in the 1950s surveys, is no longer available for review.

The State Land Department was aware of the federal acquisition process in the 1950s and had ample opportunity to question their results. In fact the SLD did question some of the federal findings and adjustments were made. Coming along 50-60 years later and expecting to re-hash these findings in a fair manner is absurd.

In my opinion the state does not seek fairness. They intend to litigate their findings in court as long as necessary, knowing they have unlimited funds to hire attorneys, at taxpayers’ expense, far beyond the means of ordinary taxpaying private citizens. This is apparent in the state’s treatment of the Wilkinson vs. State Land Department case, which has cost the Wilkinson family hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Our state is run almost entirely by Republicans. Aren’t you in the party that favors private property over public property? Have you abandoned conservatism and the rights of the individual, including property rights? It’s long past time to give up the unlawful taking of mineral rights, go back to the original federal determination of ownership, and stop this nonsense being conducted by the state.

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