NEW TOWN - Every day about 2,500 trucks travel roads on the Fort Berthold Reservation, and that number is expected to triple in the next two years, said the chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes.
Tex Hall said until there's pipeline and infrastructure in place, the truck numbers will triple with the addition of 200 to 400 more oil wells predicted for the reservation in the next two years.
"Roads and our safety has become a priority for our tribal nation," Hall told Robert Esquerra, of Albuquerque, N.M., director of the Bureau of Indian Highway Safety Program.
From the left, Jennifer Mann, survivor of a serious traffic accident, and Clancie Sorenson and Marilyn Hudson, who lost family members in traffic accidents, were presented gifts of blankets after giving testimony at a Traffic Safety meeting at the Three Affiliated Tribes’ Administration Building Wednesday.
Robert Esquerra, front left, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Indian Highway Safety Program from Albuquerque, N.M., takes notes as he listens Wednesday to speakers talk about Fort Berthold Reservation’s roads impacted by heavy traffic.
Roads on the Fort Berthold Reservation are impacted by oil-field traffic and other traffic, like this area on N.D. Highway 23 west of New Town, shown in this photo taken Wednesday.
"We are concentrating on our safety for our tribal citizens and for the public. There are a number of issues that are impacting that safety," Hall said, naming issues including design of the roads, the signage, jurisdiction and the lack of having more police officers.
"The jurisdictional issues about tribal police not being able to arrest nonmembers for any criminal violations is a huge situation. We're going to need the cooperation of the other federal law enforcement officials to get this done," he said.
Esquerra visited the Fort Berthold Reservation on Feb. 16. He was invited to the reservation to determine whether the Three Affiliated Tribes will be eligible to receive $335,000 in grant money this year. The money has been on hold since October 2010.
In the past two years the Indian Highway Safety Program grant has paid for three law enforcement officer positions on the reservation and also overtime pay to all officers assigned to saturation patrols, checkpoints and traffic control, said Lisa Redford, director of Planning for the Three Affiliated Tribes.
"There's no question about it that Fort Berthold Indian Reservation has been impacted more than any other of the 656 federally recognized tribes in the United States. No tribe has this kind of an economic impact with about 2,500 trucks on our roadways today," Hall said.
He said cities like Williston, Dickinson and Stanley are going to the North Dakota Legislature to talk about energy impact on roadways and safety.
"We don't have the luxury to go to the state Legislature because we're not an incorporated town, we're a federally recognized tribe so our trustee, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is going to have to play a huge role here," Hall said. "This cannot wait until next year. This has to happen this year."
Hall, business council representatives Scott Eagle, Arnie Strahs, Mervin Packineau and Judy Brugh and tribal program/department representatives along with City of New Town representatives, New Town Ambulance, North Dakota Highway Patrol and others spoke Wednesday about the reservation roads' safety issue at a Traffic Safety meeting. The meeting was held in tribal council chambers west of New Town.
Two people who lost family members in traffic accidents, Marilyn Hudson of Parshall and Clancie Sorenson of New Town, and Jennifer Mann, also of New Town, a traffic accident survivor, also testified. All of the accidents were in the New Town area on N.D. Highway 23.
Hudson's granddaughter, Cassi Rensch, 23, of New Town, was killed when a truck sideswiped the pickup her granddaughter was driving east of New Town in July 2008. Both vehicles went into the ditch.
Hudson also related an incident she had with a truck driver who became angry because she was driving the speed limit in October 2010. She said he was exceeding the speed limit on Highway 23 between east of New Town and the junction of Highways 23 and 37 north of Parshall, an area with a reduced speed of 55 mph. But when she called 911 about the incident she said there was no N.D. Highway Patrol trooper available in the area.
"So as oil production and traffic increase on our highways, we can expect more accidents, more fatalities and more anger. It is time to take action," Hudson said.
"I would hope that by the end of this session that a plan of action will be in place that will make our highways safe. We know that we cannot get these semis off the highway, but they can be monitored and controlled. We can call on the oil industry to do a better job of policing themselves," Hudson said.
Clancie Sorenson said his sister, Kristie Sorenson, and her fiance lost their lives in a head-on collision.
"There was nothing to do to bring her back," he told the group. The accident happened a year ago this month west of New Town.
"The traffic hasn't stopped at all here. It's got nothing but worse," Sorenson said. "These trucks they're so congested on these highways. There's people trying to pass in between them."
"As I sat here I was thinking what can we do?" Sorenson related.
He said an idea that Hall had mentioned to install speed cameras on the roads would be a good way to slow down the traffic.
"Because then they would know they have to. There's no other way around it. I think that's a great idea," he said.
Jennifer Mann survived after being severely injured in a traffic accident west of New Town in 2009.
"Like Clancie, I drive that road numerous times every day. I work over the hill in the village, Dragswolf Village, in the Four Bears area which is just over the hill from my house, and the truck traffic and everything is numerous."
She said there is a "huge, huge" need for a turning lane into the village. The village has three apartment buildings and a large number of homes.
As a result of the accident, Mann was in the hospital intensive care unit for three days and in the hospital for a total of about a week.
"My whole life was thrown off for months because of the accident," she said. "Yes, we have rumble strips out there now, we have 55 (mph) now. Just like Clancie said, the traffic does not slow down," she said.
She said the fatalities are numerous in the area.
"Highway 23 has become probably one of the most dangerous roads in North Dakota if you ask me. Why don't we have a four-lane road here? How come we don't have more turning lanes?" she questioned "We have a bar here now that's also an issue."
She said the local ambulance is on the road every day, often more than once a day.
"So much needs to be done here," she said. "We need to start teaming up and working on some of that."
Redford said one of the tribal elders stopped her before the meeting that day and told her she (the tribal elder) has named the highway. "She calls it the Hail Mary Highway," said Redford, referring to Highway 23. "She said 'I pray every time I get on it that I'm safe when I come to town.' "
Redford, who drives daily between Mandaree and New Town, said it takes her from half an hour to an hour, more often an hour, to drive that distance because of the heavy traffic on N.D. Highways 23 and 22.
Esquerra said he had toured of the reservation with Jay Brugh, an officer with the Traffic Division. They toured roads in the Mandaree area which is heavily impacted by oil-field traffic.
He said he's visited the reservation on occasions, most recently about a year and a half ago.
"There's even more increase in traffic and growth on the oil since I was out here a year and a half ago," Esquerra said. "What I'm looking to do is take all this information back to my supervisors, present it to them and say to them, 'Hey, there's a need here' and see where we can go from there."