Elkhorn Ranchlands

A view of part of the Elkhorn Ranchlands in 2006.

BISMARCK, N.D. - A draft operating plan to mine gravel on a Badlands ranch purchased for historical preservation is open for 30 days of public comment.

The gravel is located on the former Eberts family ranch, which the U.S. Forest Service bought for $5.5 million in 2006 to protect land associated with the Theodore Roosevelt Elkhorn Ranch, less than a mile away.

Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch is part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The Forest Service renamed the 5,200-acre Eberts ranch the “Elkhorn Ranchlands” to forever link the two parcels in their across-the-river proximity.

However, the agency’s purchase did not include mineral rights and the owners of some of the gravel rights have been working for nearly four years to establish their right to go in and mine gravel.

On Monday, the Forest Service released a draft environmental assessment of Roger Lothspeich’s plan to open up a 24-acre gravel pit just above the Little Missouri River.

The agency will take comments for 30 days before making a final decision sometime later this summer.

The draft concludes that Lothspeich’s mineral ownership is valid (he has turned it over to partner Peggy Braunberger). It also says the agency can’t prevent valid owners from accessing their minerals, even though nominations are pending for the ranch to become a National Historic District and a National Monument.

Lothspeich and Braunberger own 27 percent of the gravel, while the Eberts family reserved a slightly smaller share when they sold the ranch to the government. A long list of people has split ownership in the remaining half.

The environmental document says the pair can either mine their share, or mine all the gravel and pay off the other gravel owners.

Lothspeich said he and Braunberger haven’t decided whether they’ll take their share, or mine it all.

He said the 30-acre pit likely represents just a small portion of all the gravel on the ranch and he and Braunberger would own some share of the rest of it.

He has offered to sell his gravel rights to the Forest Service, or some conservation group, to prevent mining from occurring at the ranchlands.

“I think that if I were out of the thing, it would be all over with,” he said.

The gravel pit is opposed by Theodore Roosevelt National Park officials because of the noise, dust and visual effect it would have on visitors to the park’s Elkhorn Ranch, which is fewer than 5,000 feet southwest of the pit location. The pit would be visible from most of the site. A small section of the pit also would be visible to anyone canoeing by on the Little Missouri River.

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“There’s nothing we can do about that. We have to have equipment in there, that’s just the way it is,” Lothspeich said.

He said an oil well was drilled within a half-mile of the National Park’s Elkhorn Ranch campground last fall.

“There were no issues with that. Why would this be different?” Lothspeich said.

There are seven oil wells on the Elkhorn Ranchlands and more are proposed. The property is criss-crossed by various pipeline easements and there is agriculture at the proposed pit, as well as remnants of an older gravel mine operation.

The Forest Service is using its overall management plan in the draft assessment, because no specific management plan for the former Eberts ranch yet exists.

The Forest Service says the gravel pit has to have a five-acre buffer around it. It also says the pit has to be opened in small sections, with each one reclaimed before a new one is opened. It also forbids any outdoor lights and thus any night-time operations.

The draft document says the operator would have to stop mining in late winter and early spring to survey for migrating golden eagles and sharp-tailed grouse.

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Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.