BISMARCK, N.D. - The site of the Elkhorn Ranch in the badlands of North Dakota looks and feels much as it did when Theodore Roosevelt retreated there to raise cattle following the deaths of his wife and mother in 1884.
The cattle are gone, as the ranch is now part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but the sweeping views of wind-carved buttes, cacti, and colorful rock formations remain pristine and are a major draw for the more than half-a-million visitors to the park each year.
That could soon change, unless the government steps in to stop development on the adjacent plot of land, including a plan to mine gravel that would bring heavy machinery, roads, noise, and dust to the site, said the former president’s great-grandson, Tweed Roosevelt. He has asked President Obama to designate the area as a national monument, which would block the development.
“I think it would be a terrible shame for short-term gain to destroy this iconic site,’’ Tweed Roosevelt said. “It would be a travesty to ruin this place over a few bucks.’’
Theodore Roosevelt traveled to the North Dakota badlands in 1883 to hunt, and during the trip he decided to raise cattle and bought a ranch. He returned the next year, several months after his mother and first wife, Alice, died on the same day, and established the Elkhorn Ranch, which sits along the Little Missouri River about 25 miles east of the Montana border.
Roosevelt only lived in the area a short time. He remarried two years later and settled into a new home he had built on Long Island, in his native New York. But the time he spent in the picturesque but unforgiving badlands deepened Roosevelt’s respect and admiration for nature, and later as president he served as an early champion of conservationism, setting aside millions of acres for national forests and wildlife refuges.
“This was a place he loved dearly and where he honed his ideas of conservation,’’ Tweed Roosevelt said of the ranch. “It’s the cradle of conservation.’’
As part of the national park, the Elkhorn Ranch site is off limits to development. The 5,100-acre ranch just across the river was not, though, when the family that owned it put it up for sale a few years ago. With $500,000 donated by wildlife and conservation groups who feared housing complexes would spring up, Congress authorized the purchase of the plot for $5.3 million in 2007.
Cattle have been grazing on the eight-square-mile plot and seven oil wells have been pumping crude oil there for decades, and under the terms of the purchase, that would be allowed to continue, as would further oil exploration. The government decided not to buy the rights to the oil and minerals below the surface, and a Miles City, Mont., businessman who noticed swooped in and bought the underground rights to a large tract near the Elkhorn Ranch.
Roger Lothspeich and his fiancée, Peggy Braunberger, spent about four years arguing they have the right to mine gravel and other minerals at the site, and the Forest Service is fielding public comments on a proposed plan for a 25-acre gravel pit about a mile from Roosevelt’s former home.
Lothspeich, who grew up near the park before moving to Montana, previously offered to sell his mineral rights to the government for $2.5 million, but the government showed no interest. He says he would still consider selling the rights to the government, but he wants to get the gravel project running as quickly as possible to take advantage of a growing demand for the rock in North Dakota, which is in the grips of an oil boom and needs gravel for new roads.
“It’s six of one, a half-dozen of the other,’’ he said. “It’d be a lot less of a headache for me if they just bought my minerals.’’
Tweed Roosevelt said he has personally met with the president about the request for a monument designation. But if it is approved, there are other consequences: It likely would torpedo plans for a proposed $15 million bridge over the Little Missouri that would connect two highways, cutting as much as 100 miles off some commutes and speeding economic development of the region, said Jim Arthaud, chairman of the Billings County Commission. State and federal officials are crafting an environmental impact statement and are taking public comment on different crossing locations near the ranch site.