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Planned Elkhorn Ranch gravel pit stirring emotional interest

A controversial gravel pit planned for the Elkhorn Ranch has stirred more interest than the average project on the National Grasslands, officials said. The comments are emotional, but law trumps comments, a Billings County commissioner said.

"There's oil and gas minerals under that whole ranch," Commissioner Jim Arthaud said Wednesday. "If they (the U.S. Forest Service) didn't want that to be developed, they should have bought them. They were told 50 times that this is going to happen."

The ranch belonged to Theodore Roosevelt and encompasses more than 23,000 acres on both sides of the Little Missouri River.

The U.S. Forest Service in Dickinson is analyzing more than 50 comments regarding the project, said Ranger Ronald Jablonski Jr., Medora Ranger District. This is more than normal feedback as the office is lucky to get three comments on some projects, he added.

"As you can imagine, the comments are all over the board," he said. "They're from good to bad. They're from lock it all up and don't do anything with it, to continue to use it in a multiple-use fashion."

Opponents argue that the gravel pit will destroy the integrity of the land. The Friends of the Elkhorn Ranch has nominated the ranch as a National Historic District.

"This was the birthplace of conservation," Friends Founder Lowell Baier said from Washington, D.C. "We call it the cradle of conservation."

Billings County officials are also pushing for a river crossing to improve travel times and provide better emergency access. The sites are not on the ranchlands, but opponents said the bridge would threaten it.

Tweed Roosevelt, a descendant of Theodore Roosevelt, also sent a letter to President Barack Obama on March 5, asking him to preserve it. His administration is reviewing the issue carefully, Baier said.

The ranch was also named to America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historical Preservation earlier this month.

The Theodore Roosevelt National Park Elkhorn Ranch Unit sits on 218 acres of land about 25 miles north of Medora. The gravel pit would include about 26 acres of Elkhorn Ranchland acquired by the Forest Service. The south unit is almost one mile southwest of the gravel pit, according to the report.

The Forest Service purchased the ranch in 2006 but failed to obtain all the mineral rights. Peggy Braunberger, who owns 27 percent of the mineral rights with Roger Lothspeich, both of Miles City, Mont., submitted an operating plan to the Forest Service in 2008.

Lothspeich declined comment.

The plan has gone through several revisions. The effects from the pit would be temporary and limited, according to the report.

"If you got a concern, we would love to hear it, but if you got an idea on how to fix it or mitigate the problem, we would really love to hear that too," Jablonski said.

Comments mean nothing because groups can get comments from anybody, Arthaud said.

"You can have manufactured comments," he said. "When they were first changing the grazing plans on the (National) Grasslands 10 years ago, we went out to every state fair. We even went to the Sturgis bike rally. We had 40,000 comments."

The gravel pit should be allowed, the commissioner said. He cited mineral rights and federal law, and the rights owners would win if they went to court, he said. But Baier disagrees.

"They only own a fractional share," he said. "Yes, their mineral rights need to be protected, but they can be exchanged for land elsewhere so that heritage site is not disturbed."

He said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that "natural and historical heritage sites" cannot be overturned by commercial interest. Those rulings would apply to this case, he added.

A comment report should come out by the end of July, Jablonski said. It is a challenge, but the Forest Service wants to listen to what the public has to say.

"It's a guy trying to exercise a legal right over about 26 acres of land on the National Grasslands that is managed for multiple uses," he said. "We're going to go through the comments and we are going to dig through those and see what else we can find."