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Jacobson tells state it no longer has any legal basis to claim minerals under Lake Sakakawea

A Williams County judge has ruled that the state no longer has any legal basis to continue claiming it owns the Wilkinson or any other family’s minerals underneath a disputed area of Lake Sakakawea.

The ruling could herald the release of hundreds of millions of dollars to families who have been fighting for about a decade to regain royalties for minerals in their families for 60 or more years.

Northwest District Judge Paul W. Jacobson had initially sided with the state Board of University and School Lands in the case, but the North Dakota Supreme Court disagreed with his ruling. The higher court also instructed him to reconsider the case in light of 2017 state legislation clarifying which mineral rights the state owns.

In its legislation, lawmakers directed the state to determine the historical ordinary high-water mark for the Missouri riverbed channel when Lake Sakakawea was created in the 1950s. The state would own only what was below that line.

The Wilkinson family’s minerals lie in Farm Unit No. 312 in the Buford-Trenton Project, and were found by the state’s study to be entirely above that line, Jacobson wrote. That means the state no longer has any legal basis for further claims to minerals owned by the Wilkinsons — or those of any other family whose properties lie above that line.

The Wilkinsons do not have to pursue a separate lawsuit as argued by the state and Statoil and Gas LP (now known as Equinor), the judge added.

“Contrary to Statoil Oil and Gas LP’s position, the question of the Wilkinson’s mineral ownership as alleged in the amended complaint, and as remanded by the Supreme Court, has been answered as a matter of law by the Industrial Commission,” Jacobson wrote. “The statutory language in Chpt. 61-33.1, NDCC, does not require or otherwise contemplate the Wilkinsons having to file yet another lawsuit to resolve the questions remanded on appeal.”

The Wilkinsons are one of several families living alongside an approximately 11-mile length of Lake Sakakawea who have been fighting to reclaim royalties they and their families had been collecting for decades.

Among these individuals is Edward Lynch, who inherited 267-plus mineral acres from his godparents and great aunt and uncle, the late Henry and Esther Vohs.

Lynch told the Williston Herald he is pleased with the judge’s ruling, but said the state has been delaying and dragging its feet.

“The state has deep pockets,” Lynch said. “They can wait it out. The plaintiffs, meanwhile, have had to pay thousands in attorney fees, even though the state knew they were going to lose (on the remanded case).”

Josh Swanson, the attorney representing the Wilkinsons, told the Williston Herald his clients, which include Lynch and the Wilkinsons, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending mineral rights in their families for 60 or more years.

“With the decision on Friday, I would hope that there is finally some finality to this litigation and that my clients and all the other impacted mineral owners can move on with their lives,” Swanson said. “If the state appeals it, we will respond accordingly, and we feel good about our decision.”

Swanson said hundreds of millions of royalties are owed to the historical mineral owners of the disputed rights.

“You’re talking 10 years of production, with no payments made,” Swanson said.

Some of his clients have also died before the litigation has been settled.

“This should have been the golden years of their lives to enjoy owning this property that was passed down to them,” Swanson said. “They didn’t get to enjoy it because of what the state did to them, and that is fundamentally unjust and unfair.”

Freedom Monument to be dedicated by Military Affairs Committee on Sept. 11

A comment made in 2006 led to an idea. Six years later that idea began to take seed, and finally, on Sept. 11, 2019, that idea will finally come to fruition, showcasing the hard work of some dedicated veterans and honoring the brave men and women who have served our Country.

This year marks the 18th anniversary of one of the worst tragedies in American history, a tragedy that would bring together Americans from every walk of life to unite under the banner of freedom.

On this Sept. 11, the men and women who fought to protect that freedom will be honored as the Williston Area Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee dedicates their 13-year labor of love, the Freedom Monument at Riverview Cemetery.

At 7:10 p.m. on Sept. 11, a ceremony will be held at the cemetery to dedicate the monument. The ceremony will include live patriotic music until 7:30 p.m., followed by speakers from the Military Affairs Committee, Command Master Chief Tim Preabt and Williston Mayor Howard Klug. After the ceremony, the public will be given the chance to take a closer look at the monument, including the recently installed electronic kiosk, which the committee says will help educate visitors on the monument. For those who stick around until the sun goes down, they’ll hear “Find the Cost of Freedom” by Styx playing from the kiosk, which will play a portion of the song every day when the sun goes down.

Seating will be available at the ceremony, but will be limited. Organizers encourage attendees to bring their own chairs or blankets, as well as prepare for possible inclement weather.

Designed by David Njos, the monument stands as a living memorial to those who served in combat and peacekeeping missions after the Vietnam War. Njos is also the designer behind the cemetery’s Korean/Vietnam Monument in Veterans Plaza.

The Military Affairs Committee as been raising funds for the monument’s construction since 2012, but did not begin construction until May 2019. Work moved at a fevered pace in preparation for the Monument’s big day, with the final pieces coming together over the last few weeks to complete the Monument’s facade. Chair of the Military Affairs Committee Grant Carns said the monument is meant to be “liquid,” so that service members involved in any future conflicts will be honored as well.

Judge declines to move trial of Williston Catholic school teacher accused of sexual abuse

A judge ruled Monday, Sept. 9, that the attorneys for a former Williston Catholic school teacher accused of sexual abuse hadn’t proved that it would be impossible to find a fair jury in Williams County.

Lawyers for Everest Moore, who is accused of inappropriately touching eight students at St. Joseph Catholic School, had asked for a change of venue, claiming many jurors either had personal connections to the case or had written in a jury questionnaire that they believed Moore was guilty. Moore has been charged with eight class A felony counts of gross sexual imposition.

At a short hearing Monday, Jim Martens, one of Moore’s attorneys, argued that if those potential jurors were to be questioned in open court, they could taint the rest of the jury pool.

Robert Bolinske Jr., another lawyer for Moore, said the defense was considering asking to have as many as 30 of the 67 potential jurors excused for cause. Questioning them during the jury selection process could cause problems, he also argued.

“That in and of itself would lead to a process where Mr. Moore wouldn’t be able to get a fair trial,” he said.

Britta Demello Rice, an assistant attorney general prosecuting the case, said the concerns the defense raised about juror prejudice weren’t specific to Williston.

And, she said, the defense’s arguments about many jurors either having some relationship to St. Joseph or one of the parties in the case, as well as the fact many had read news coverage of the case also didn’t rise to the level where a change in venue would be required.

“We’re not going to find people who don’t know the case, and that’s not the standard,” she said.

Demello Rice argued that if there were questions that might reveal a potential juror’s bias, those could be handled in the judge’s chambers instead of in front of the entire panel.

“There are certainly ways to avoid that risk without a change of venue,” she said.

Northwest District Judge Josh Rustad said he didn’t think the defense had proved it would be impossible to find a fair jury in Williams County. None of the pretrial publicity had been highly damaging to Moore, he ruled.

He said lawyers for both sides would have the chance to ask for potential jurors to be dismissed for cause in advance of the trial’s start date, which is Monday, Sept. 23.

Moore was originally arrested in March 2018 and accused of sexually assaulting three students. Five further charges were added later on — two in April and three more in June.

Heading into semi-annual job fair, it's still a job seeker's market in the Oil Patch

Job ServicesND has seen a 57 percent jump in production occupations from July to August, but that figure doesn’t necessarily represent new positions.

Instead, it reflects efforts by area companies to connect with a few hundred highly experienced employees who were among recent layoffs by Whiting Oil and Gas, and a week later, Oasis Petroleum.

Williston’s Job ServicesND office manager Paula Hickel said she had several calls in the wake of those layoffs, from companies wanting to know if there is any way to connect with the Whiting and Oasis employees who were laid off.

Of course, there is, Hickel told them. And it’s 100 percent free. They just need to list their positions with Job ServicesND.

“It was a springboard that led these companies to say, Oh, man, these are really qualified candidates in the production side of things,” she said. “We’d better get our positions advertised.”

Hickel said that gives her confidence that an upcoming job fair Wednesday, Sept. 11, is set to be large and busy for both job seekers and job creators.

While overall job listings are down 16 percent as compared to this time last year, available jobs still outnumber job seekers by healthy margins. It’s still a job seekers market in the Oil Patch.

“We still have plenty of jobs for the people here,” she said.

Hickel suggested the reduction could reflect successful recruiting efforts. To the extent that is true, it is a success factor for all the recruiting efforts going on in the Bakken.

The top jobs continue to be those that require a CDL, especially if that CDL comes with endorsements like hazardous materials.

“It is the Ph.D of the Bakken,” Hickel said. “That is not going out of style any time soon.”

It takes a little bit of experience, however, for the perfect blend.

“If you are young or new to CDL, you basically will be able to get some experience while getting paid,” Hickel said. “Some will even provide some training, and now is the best time for that.”

Laws are going into effect next year that will require drivers not to just pass a test, but attend school to get licensed.

“We are fortunate to have a great CDL training program at TrainND,” Hickel said. “And (Job Services) has a federal program that we manage for folks who are eligible for the program, to get CDL training for free.”

Another high-demand area is health care, although salaries are not necessarily much higher here than other parts of the nation.

“There are training opportunities for CNAs through our program,” Hickel added. “But all the medical positions are high-demand jobs.”

There’s also been a recent spike in community and social service positions, Hickel said. “Those continue to be difficult to fill to meet the needs of a growing community.”

One area that is not a high-demand area from employer perspectives are office and administrative positions. These are in a 1 to 1 ratio, generally, Hickel said.

“I think if we had more employers posting the part-time opportunities they have, especially if it can be partially or completely done from home, we’d see a surge in that, because a lot of women are looking for that.”

Some examples might be data entry or book keeping.

“The benefit of that is we are in a few crunches for families here that if we can think creatively as a community and employers to meet some of the needs — such as we don’t have the childcare resources needed for women who want to go to work,” Hickel said. “And we have the bussing issues, as well. A lot of parents, again primarily mothers, would have time on their hands, but maybe they have to run the kids around to two or three schools, so a part-time home-based operation would be capitalized by many.”

breaking alert
Bus carrying Grenora junior high volleyball team crashes

A school bus carrying nearly two dozen people crashed shortly after 9 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, near the intersection of County Road 5 and 66th Street NW in rural Williams County.

The bus was carrying the Grenora junior high volleyball team and had a total of 23 passengers, according to a news release from the Williston Fire Department.

The North Dakota Highway Patrol said Saturday that the driver and one passenger were taken to CHI St. Alexius in Williston with minor injuries.

All of the passengers were taken to local hospitals for examination, according to the Williston Fire Department.

The bus was heading south on County Road 5, heading from Grenora to Lambert, Montana, according to the Highway Patrol.

Driver Amanda Myers, 53, of Grenora, was driving between 40 and 45 mph when the vehicle went onto the edge of the road.

Myers steered left and the bus went into the left roadside ditch, police said.

A joint statement from Aaron Rudningen, the superintendent of Grenora Public Schools and Tony Holecek, the superintendent of the Westby, Montana, school district, thanked those who helped.

”We would like to thank the following agencies for their quick response and excellent medical care,” the pair wrote. “Grenora Ambulance, Grenora Rural Fire Department, Williston Ambulance, Williston Fire Department, William County Emergency Management, CHI St. Alexius Hospital, medical professionals that were called in to assist CHI St. Alexius Hospital, parents, relatives, and other good Samaritans that helped. Your hard work and dedication is so greatly appreciated.”

Counselors were set to be available at both schools on Monday.

The crash remains under investigation by the Highway Patrol.