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Congress passes land sale provision for Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library

Congress passes land sale provision for Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library

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Siting for the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library planned near Medora cleared a major hurdle when Congress approved a massive spending bill with a provision allowing for the sale of federal land for the project.

Congress on Monday passed a $2.3 trillion spending package, including new federal coronavirus aid, that outlined terms of a land sale for the library planned in honor of the 26th U.S. president. Roosevelt ranched and hunted in what is now western North Dakota in the 1880s as a young man. The bill awaits President Donald Trump's signature.

Library CEO Ed O'Keefe said the legislation essentially gives the U.S. agriculture secretary the power to direct the U.S. Forest Service to sell the 93 acres of land eyed for the library, and includes a survey and appraisal of the land.

The deal would have a one-year window to happen. The Roosevelt family, through the library foundation, would buy the land, to be appraised at market value, which could be $150,000 to around $200,000, O'Keefe said.

Library organizers had submitted a special use permit application to the U.S. Forest Service for the library's preferred site. A special use permit would make the library's site subject to federal regulation. O'Keefe said the transfer outlined in the legislation is "the strong preference," given the local control that would come with it.

"The TR Library cannot exist without local control and approval, and that's one big thing we were hoping to achieve here, is to put the power of zoning and regulation at the local level with Medora and Billings County and the state," O'Keefe said.

The 2019 Legislature approved a $50 million operations endowment for the library, should supporters raise $100 million for construction. Gov. Doug Burgum championed the project as a "front door" for North Dakota tourism. Burgum, a wealthy former Microsoft executive, and first lady Kathryn Burgum gave $1 million or more to the fundraising, according to a donor list.

The library's foundation in October announced supporters had raised the money. Plans in the next year for the library include its design concept and programming. Construction could begin in late 2021 or early 2022.

The acreage is near the Old West tourist town of Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Norway- and New York-based architectural firm Snohetta was chosen this fall to design the library. 

Retired Dakota Prairie Grasslands supervisor Dave Pieper told the Tribune that the land deal in the legislation makes sense as the mechanism for siting the library. A special use permit would bring "another management burden," he said.

"As a former supervisor, you never want to give up an acre," he said. "But, again, I think this is such a unique and special circumstance. If it were something else, I'd look at it really, really closely."

Within 90 days of the land sale, library organizers will have a public meeting in Medora to present the land development plan and take public comments, O'Keefe said.

An environmental assessment of the land is already underway, including soil testing and heritage and cultural aspects, he said. 

Terms and conditions proposed to the secretary for the sale would preserve grazing, O'Keefe said. A separate memorandum of understanding with Billings County would do the same, he added.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the governor approached him about legislation for a land transfer. The longtime senator said he wanted to ensure locals were involved, including preserving grazing agreements and the county's access to roads. 

He noted agreements between the library foundation and Billings County for consultation to ensure zoning and other land use requirements are met, and with no loss of grazing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to a 10-year extension of ranchers' current grazing agreement, he said.

Billings County State's Attorney H. Patrick Weir said he worked with Hoeven to make sure the land transfer for the library protected Billings County's zoning authority and the interests of the Medora Grazing Association.

Hoeven said "That's what we tried to do, was make sure everybody was involved and included."

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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