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New services, more services; Sanford talks plans for regional full service hospital
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Sanford Health’s Bismarck region President and CEO Dr. Michael LeBeau visited the future site of Sanford’s new clinic in Williston, and shared his thoughts on what the Sanford’s presence will do for health care in the region.

LeBeau met with Williston city leaders and Senator John Hoeven at the former Sloulin Field airport, future home to Williston Square. Sanford announced in March that they had signed a Letter of Intent with the city build a new hospital and clinic, with an aim to have an agreement completed by Aug. 31. Construction is anticipated to begin late this year or early next spring, concluding as soon as 2024.

“We really believe that with the growing community and the growing region, we think Williston really deserves a full service regional hospital,” LeBeau told the Williston Herald. “Our goal is to bring new services to the area, and more services to the area.”

Sanford’s new hospital and clinic could have many effects on health care in the region, including effects on other health care providers. One such effect is on CHI St. Alexius Health Williston, which has been designated as a Critical Access Hospital. The designation is given to eligible rural hospitals by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. One qualification is that there are no other hospitals within 35 miles. CHI St. Alexius Health Williston released the following statement regarding the designation.

“The Critical Access Hospital designation provided by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is very important to rural health care. With the opening of another hospital, CHI St. Alexius Health Williston will lose this designation. Unfortunately, that could mean new challenges for rural health care. One thing that will not change is our 100 year commitment to the patients and communities we serve. We continue to care for those who are sick, deliver the next generation in our Birthplace and expand services to meet the needs of our community.”

LeBeau said Sanford identified some of the needs in Williston, such as more trauma service, more in-patient hospital service and more specialty services, which he believes Sanford will be able to provide.

“As we look at what we envision our hospital to be, it really is to be a full service hospital.” he said. “It’s medical sub-specialties, surgical sub-specialties, and really having the ability to do outreach to service this region from Williston.”

The results of a comprehensive health care assessment by the City of Williston showed that many residents sought health care outside of Williston in order to get specialized care they required. LeBeau said with Sanford joining the community, those residents should be able to remain right here in town.

“Our expectation of our Williston project is that it delivers care here in Williston. So now when people talk about traveling for health care in this region, they would picture traveling to Williston.” He explained. “So instead of bypassing Williston and traveling to one of the bigger centers, we see Williston being the hub and people traveling here for care.”

How much of Williston Square will be dedicated to Sanford is yet to bee seen. LeBeau said those details are still being worked out, but that the facility will be one project with two distinct structures, a super clinic and a hospital.

Sanford announced its initial community board for the new hospital, which will provide planning and development oversight of Sanford’s Williston operations and become the first hospital board upon project completion.

LeBeau said he is excited for the project to begin, and looks forward to Sanford Health becoming a part of the community, and hopes that Sanford’s presence will give residents comfort that they will be able to receive the specialized care they need locally.

“We hope that people understand our commitment to delivering health care to Williston and the region,” He said. “It’s very important to us to live by the mantra ‘Care close to home.’ We see great opportunity for growth, we see great need and we’re excited to work with city leaders and see their vision of what they hope Williston becomes.”

Event honors Barb Cotton, who disappeared from Williston on April 11, 1981
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Sunday was a solemn anniversary and the weather turned suitably dour.

Cold wind blew as a few dozen people gathered in Recreation Park to celebrate the life of Barbara Louise Cotton, who was last seen 40 years ago on Sunday. Barb, then 15, vanished, and her family and friends never found out what happened to her.

One of those friends, Sandy Evanson, helped to organize the celebration. Despite the cold weather, she was pleased with how the day went. For the first time family and friends came together to share their memories of her in a public event.

One of the reason’s Cotton’s case has gotten attention recently is the Dakota Spotlight podcast, which has interviewed some of Barb Cotton’s family and friends, including her siblings Kent and Kathy Cotton and Evanson.

The podcast episodes, called “A Better Search For Barb,” led to a petition to have the Williston Police Department hire a private investigator to lead a new investigation into her disappearance.

Sgt. Luke Olson from the Williston police spoke briefly. He said though he isn’t investigating the case, he understood how much it mattered to the family and he asked for the public’s help with new leads.

Anyone with information about Barb Cotton should call the Williston police at 701-572-1212.

“We’re continuing to work as diligently as we can,” Olson said.

Rain puts a damper on fire at TRNP, but not necessarily for coal seams in the Badlands
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Rain and snow have put a real damper on fires that were burning in Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Little Missouri National Grasslands, but the rain has done something else, as well.

Steam is rising from certain areas of the park and the grasslands. That steam could be highlighting areas where coal seams have been lit by the recent 5000-acre blaze.

“Those really run the gamut. Some can burn for a long time, years,” McKenzie County District Ranger Lucas Graf told the Williston Herald. “Others are really small and shallow and kind of burn out quickly.”

Anything that seems like it could be a burning coal seam will be mapped and monitored, Graf said.

In some cases, if necessary, controlled burning could be used to get rid of nearby fuel, to ensure fires don’t get started by any other coal seams. If the terrain is accessible, they may also be excavated either by hand or with heavy machinery.

Most of the coal seams that become an issue are in the Badlands, where they are more exposed than they are in the grasslands.

“Steam doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a burning coal seam,” Graf said. “So it’s just you know check them out and, if they are, map them, and then come up with either a monitoring or an action plan to address them.”

The fires in the park and grasslands have now reached 95 percent containment, according to a media release from the entities. Firefighters had reached 90 percent containment ahead of the precipitation and colder temperatures, which Graf said was due to the hard work and dedication of many firefighting units, including volunteer firefighters and fire departments.

“They did an amazing job of holding the fire, particularly the finger on the northwest side, until air support and additional ground resources could arrive,” he said, adding, “We are also grateful for all the food and medical supply donations that we received from the community. That support really went a long way with everyone working the fire.”

How long this reprieve in wildfire weather last, of course, will depend on what the weather does in the coming weeks.

“This isn’t going to take us out of the drought,” Graf said. “And if we don’t have additional precipitation, then depending on the weather, I mean depending on wind and temperatures and humidity levels, in a week or weeks we could be looking at similar conditions to what we had.”

The National Weather Service said the Williston area and most of the region in general received about a quarter of an inch of precipitation, and could get up to three-quarters of an inch through the better part of Wednesday.

Temperatures, meanwhile, are supposed to warm up gradually through the week, getting to normal by the weekend.

The slow warmup could help facilitate more of the moisture getting into the ground than evaporating away, which will be help both for wildfire season and for farmers hoping for timely rain to get crops going and growing.

There will also be more chances of rain later in the week, but more likely for southwestern North Dakota than northwestern. After that, the long-range outlook calls for slightly better chances of less precipitation than usual. For temperature, there’s an equal chance of above or below average temperatures.

If that model holds true, the reprieve granted by this week’s rain could prove short-lived, and it won’t take long for drought to kick back into high gear.

Nonetheless, the outlook for the wildfires at the park and the grassland is good for the moment.

“This cold and wet weather is increasing our confidence in the containment lines established over the past week,” Graf said in a media release.

The fire, which started April 3 on the Little Missouri National Grassland near the Horse Pasture Dams, was downgraded from Type 3 to Type 4 Sunday, April 11. The downgrade releases equipment and personnel back to their home states, so that they will be available for new assignments.

The units still assigned to the Horse Pasture Fire will continue to monitor the situation.

“Smoke and flames in the interior of the fire may be visible, especially as vegetation begins to dry out after this recent precipitation,” Theodore Roosevelt Park Superintendent Wendy Ross said. “The grassy areas near the fire perimeter are not showing signs of residual heat, however the badlands areas, especially within [Theodore Roosevelt National Park] may continue to smoke for the foreseeable future.“

Portions are being re-opened to allow visitors to see first-hand how nature recovers from fire.

“As new grass begins to emerge, the bison will be seen feasting on the new growth,” Ross added.

Areas being re-opened in the park and the Grasslands include the CCC Campground, the Maah Daah Hey Trail from the CCC Campground South to NFSR 823, the Long X and Sunset Trails, Summit Campground, and the Summit Overlook and Viewpoint Trails. In cooperation with the Forest Service, McKenzie County also reopened Long X Road west of Highway 85 leading to the CCC Campground.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park – North Unit will open the 14-mile scenic drive, including pullouts, to vehicles beginning Tuesday, April 13, 2021 at 8:00 a.m. Areas south of the Scenic Drive, including the Juniper Campground and the Group Campground, are also open, as is the Achenbach trail, and the southern section of the Buckhorn trail.

Areas that will remain closed include all areas north of the scenic drive from the park entrance to the Caprock Coulee Nature Trailhead, as well as the Buckhorn Trail (north of the Scenic Drive) and the spur to the Caprock Trail. The Caprock Coulee Nature Trail itself is open.

Backcountry access is prohibited in the closure area and backcountry camping permits for the closed areas are rescinded until further notice.

AARP signs off on a settlement agreement that allocates $1 million less than previous settlement agreement
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AARP is signing off on a settlement in the MDU rate case, one that will see residential customers paying about $1 million less than they would have paid under a previous settlement agreement between MDU and the Public Service Commission’s advocacy staff.

AARP had objected to the previous settlement agreement, arguing that the increase to the residential class of customers was too steep, and would be a hardship for income families, and others who have lost jobs during the pandemic.

Montana Dakota Utilities meanwhile, had requested a rate increase of $8.973 million last year in August, a 7.8 percent increase over current rates. Concurrent with that, they had also requested an interim rate increase of $6.893 million, which the Public Service Commission approved last year, effective Jan. 1.

The terms of the new settlement agreement are nearly identical to the old terms, but the allocation of costs to residential customers is $4.9 million, which is almost $1 million less than the previous $5.84 million.

The rate increases percentages by customer class would be as follows under the new settlement agreement:

• 8.4 percent to residential

• 3.7 percent to firm general service

• 2.7 percent to Air Force delivery

• 2.9 percent to small interruptible

• .9 percent to large interruptible

The residential rate increase will still be aded to the fixed fee portion of the bill, which AARP has argued against, because of how it erodes the ability of fixed-income families to control their utility costs by turning down the temperature dial.

“In any agreement there are things that you don’t love,” AARP North Dakota’s State Director Josh Askvig said. “But overall, I think a million dollars saved is a million dollars saved, so we’re happy that we were able to stand up and ensure that we save that money for customers, assuming the PSC approves it.”

Askvig said he hopes the company and other stakeholders will consider the effect of increasing the flat fee on fixed-income and low-income families going forward with future rate adjustments.

“We’ll certainly do our due diligence to see if and where and when we need to weigh in,” Askvig said.

The overall rate increase under the new settlement agreement will still be restricted to $6.886 million — very close to the interim rate — for an average overall rate increase of 6 percent.

The difference between the interim rate and the settlement rate is also still around $7,000. Just $2,500 of that has been collected, which per customer, is a 2-cent refund. Since the costs of returning that exceed the value of the refund, MDU will still get to keep it under the terms of the agreement.

The agreement also allows the utility a return on equity of up to 9.3 percent, which works out to an overall rate of return of 6.851 percent.

The settlement will be effective upon approval by the Public Service Commission, which meets Wednesday to consider the new deal.

NWND Community Foundation announces grants
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The Northwest North Dakota Community Foundation announced grants to support the communities of northwest North Dakota to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, individuals, businesses and others donated thousands of dollars to the NWNDCF’s Relief Fund, and through nearly $90,000 of grants, the foundation supported communities, nonprofit organizations, hospitals, day cares, and food efforts within the region. The remaining money in the Relief Fund will be used to support community recovery efforts.

“As a regional Community Foundation, we work to serve and strengthen communities across Williams, Divide, McKenzie, and Mountrail Counties every day,” Ward Koeser, President of the NWNDCF Board of Directors, said. “Our Community Recovery Mini-Grants are directed specifically toward small, quick-action projects that will enhance or help communities as they move toward recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

The maximum grant award is $2,500 for specific projects, and eligible recipients of grant funds are nonprofits; governmental agencies; and unincorporated community groups with an appropriate fiscal sponsor. The mini-grants might provide project support for shopping local initiatives, outdoor enhancements like seating or other amenities, artistic enhancement of community spaces, a specific community event, and more. The application deadline is May 14, and projects need to be completed before the end of the year.

“Through this funding allocation, we are hoping to invest in physical reminders of the strength and resilience of northwest North Dakota through the creative efforts of the region’s residents,” said Koeser.

More information about the Northwest North Dakota Community Foundation, including the Community Recovery Mini-Grant application, can be found at www.NWNDCommunity Foundation.org.