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Ranch group opposes Burgum military facility expansion plan

December 9, 2018

In this July 12, 2018 photo provided by the U.S Air National Guard, Senior Airman Noelle Kurowski, of the 219th Security Forces Squadron takes aim with an M240B machine gun at the firing range at Camp Gilbert C. Grafton (South), in Eddy County, North Dakota. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum wants to use earnings from a voter-approved oil tax savings account to expand the National Guard training facility but some some farmers and ranchers worry about the safety of their families and livestock and the loss of private agriculture land to the government. (Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp U.S. Air National Guard via AP)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Gov. Doug Burgum wants to use earnings from a voter-approved oil tax savings account to expand a National Guard training facility in a sparsely populated northeastern county, a move the military says is needed in part to handle longer-range and deadlier ammunition.

But some farmers and ranchers worry about the safety of their families and livestock, increased noise and the loss of private agricultural land to the government, said Levi Rue, a district director for the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, which opposes the 6,000-acre expansion of Camp Grafton Training Center-South in Eddy County.

“People out here are very pro-military but they want to raise a family and don’t want to deal with that kind of stuff,” he said.

The first-term Republican governor on Wednesday unveiled a $14.3 billion state spending plan that includes using $300 million of the interest from the state’s Legacy Fund for what he called “Legacy projects.” The plan includes $15 million to purchase land for the military expansion in the county that has fewer than 2,500 residents.

The North Dakota-owned military complex already covers more than 9,000 acres, including more than 5,000 acres purchased by the state in 1985 for $1 million, records show.

Maj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann, the commander of the North Dakota National Guard, said the expansion is needed to meet new military spacing and safety requirements for more powerful weapons, from machine guns to grenade launchers.

“Over the years ballistics have changed and policies have changed,” he said.

The 6,000 acres to expand is the minimum needed, though the military ideally would want at least triple that at some point.

Dohrmann oversees more than 4,000 airmen and soldiers in North Dakota, who must requalify annually on weapons. At present, some Guard members must travel to military facilities in Minnesota and Wyoming for training on larger weaponry, though Dohrmann did not immediately know that cost.

Expanding the facility would save the state money in travel costs and save valuable training time. It also would generate revenue by other military and law enforcement units from other states that would train in North Dakota, he said.

Dohrmann said the $15 million in state money should be enough for the cost of purchasing 6,000 acres from private landowners. The federal government would spend another $15 million for infrastructure, he said.

The Guard has held four public hearings in the area about the plan. Dohrmann said landowners would be paid “fair market value” for their land.

He said the state could not use eminent domain to seize the land if there are no willing sellers.

Jeff Anderson, a rancher who lives 2 miles from the existing facility, said he’s been offered far less than what his pastureland is worth. He said pastureland has averaged about $800 an acre in the county, though he believes it would fetch at least $1,200 now.

Anderson said his ranch has been in his family for five generations and he’s not selling.

“But if guys start selling around you, what do you do?” he said.

“I have all the respect in the world for the military, and I have decorated family members,” he said. “But this will hurt good productive land.”

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman of New Rockford grew up on a farm near the National Guard facility and remembers when her father would move more than 300 cows near their home for a couple of weeks each summer so they would be out of harm’s way as military exercises were taking place nearby.

“There are many big holes out there” from exploding ordnance, she said.

Heckaman said many people have concerns about expanding the military facility, not the least of which is safety.

“We have people, children on school buses and livestock out there,” she said.

Heckaman, who represents the entire area in question, said an expansion wouldn’t help the local economy since there are few businesses in the county.

Camp Grafton-South is about 45 miles from Camp Grafton in Devils Lake, in neighboring Ramsey County. That facility has multiple training operations, including schools for military engineers and cooks. About 200 people work there. The military does not know how many employees would be added with the expansion of Camp Grafton-South.

The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, the state’s largest rancher organization, in September passed a resolution opposing the expansion, arguing private agriculture land should not be purchased by the government. The group represents more than 3,000 cattle-ranching families.

Dohrmann said almost all of the existing land at the military complex is leased to ranchers for grazing when there are no military exercises, which happen day and night for about 80 days each year. A similar agreement could be made with land acquired in an expansion, or the land could be acquired through long-term leases with landowners, and then made available for grazing at a cost, he said.

“They would want me to rent my land I already own,” Anderson said. “Just think how stupid that is.”

Anderson said windows have shattered at his home from concussions from military maneuvers near his home, and he’s found unexploded artillery shells on his property.

Though his family and cows haven’t been injured over the years, he still worries about stray ammunition.

“My cows were nervous for the first few years, but they’re used to it,” he said. “It isn’t any different than a bird flying over now.”

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