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U.S. Forest Service land eyed for Theodore Roosevelt presidential library

U.S. Forest Service land eyed for Theodore Roosevelt presidential library

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Building the proposed Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library could be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but a site near Medora has emerged as a proposed location for the library.

The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation Board voted unanimously on Thursday to endorse about 60 acres of U.S. Forest Service land, west of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation's Burning Hills Amphitheatre and intersecting the Maah Daah Hey Trail, as the recommended site. The amphitheatre is home to the annual Medora Musical, a popular North Dakota attraction.

The board evaluated 11 sites in and around Medora, according to a risk assessment report shared with the Tribune. The assessment measured criteria such as land acquisition, regulatory compliance and support infrastructure.

Library CEO Ed O'Keefe on Monday stressed the library's site selection is far from final and has a process to go through for land acquisition from the U.S. Forest Service.

"The immediate next steps are to work with them within their rules and regulation to acquire the land," O'Keefe said. "They have a process and a procedure for this. There's obviously more conversation to be had with the local community. Just because we say it's our preferred site doesn't mean that it's a done deal."

A U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman did not immediately return a request regarding details of a land acquisition. The site is described as encompassing "Butte grasslands and rugged Badlands" 1½ miles from Medora. The report noted challenges at the site including the erosive environment in the Badlands, potential impacts to the hillside landscape, and the land acquisition and timing.

U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt visited Medora last fall, hosted by Gov. Doug Burgum and U.S. Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, all Republicans. The group viewed potential library sites near the amphitheatre and at the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park's South Unit.

The 2019 Legislature authorized a $50 million operations endowment for the library that's available only after $100 million in private donations is raised to build the facility. Burgum championed the library as an anchor for North Dakota tourism and a fitting tribute to Roosevelt, who ranched and hunted in the 1880s in the Medora area before becoming president.

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It's unclear how much money has been raised for the project. O'Keefe said three fundraising events and the board's New York meeting set for April have been canceled due to the virus outbreak, which he added could ultimately delay the project's completion.

"I think at the end of the day, this might slip us into 2025," he said. "We had ambitiously been hoping for summer of 2024. I could see a six- to eight-month delay, but we just don't know yet."

The board had planned for an announcement by April 26 as to the library's fundraising status. That is the one-year anniversary of Burgum signing the enacting legislation.

"I don't think we'll make that date now," O'Keefe said. "I can tell you that we are still well on our way to unlocking the state endowment. We still are very confident of achieving our goals, but there's no doubt going to be an effect. ... Nonetheless, we will move forward."

He said the board considered whether to release the siting plans amid the pandemic, but went ahead "because I think and hope that people want to see projects moving forward." The virus outbreak has led to many events being canceled or postponed.

The board held community meetings March 10-11 in Dickinson and Medora to inform the public of the overall plans for the library and siting process, said Ken Vein, the library's director of design and construction. 

"We had a nice number of people that came and asked questions," he said.

Medora City Councilman Doug Ellison, who was there, said it was "a good meeting" attended by plenty of locals who talked with Vein.

Medora Mayor Todd Corneil, who owns Todd's Old Time Photo & Gifts in town, said the board's preferred site "will work out just fine" for the library.

"I think it's a wonderful addition to Medora," he said of the project.

The proposed site should offer visitors "a great sense of the Badlands," said Ellison, who owns the Amble Inn & Western Edge Books, Artwork, Music in Medora. He's acted as an informal liaison between the city council and the library board.

"I think it's a gorgeous location, vistawise, a great view of the Badlands from up there, so that'll be a strong advantage," Ellison said. "I think it's close enough to Medora to provide services for the visitors. That's important as well."

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

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