- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

An environmental group filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the U.S. Forest Service over the agency’s decision to allow a man to mine gravel near former President Theodore Roosevelt’s historic western North Dakota ranch.

The lawsuit filed by the National Parks Conservation Association in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., challenges the Forest Service’s decision to issue the mining permit. It requests a more thorough analysis of how the proposed 25-acre gravel pit could affect Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, located within the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and park visitors.

Mining has not yet begun. In January, the Forest Service, which owns the land but not the mineral rights to the mining site, agreed to issue the permit to Montana businessman Roger Lothspeich after the agency said its environmental assessment found “no significant impact” for the project. The decision came after Lothspeich, of Miles City, spent most of the last decade proving he owns the right to remove gravel and other surface minerals at the 5,200 acres surrounding Roosevelt’s ranch, near Medora.

The lawsuit claims that the gravel pit about a mile from Roosevelt’s cabin will cause serious disturbances to the “beauty, serenity and solitude” of the site.

“The proposed large new Elkhorn Gravel Pit would cause significant noise that would be heard in the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park,” attorneys with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which is representing the conservation association, said in the lawsuit. The group also argues that the gravel pit will cause “visual disturbances of the natural landscape” and lead to a decrease in visitors.

The plaintiff’s attorneys also argued that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act because it conducted a narrow environmental study, instead of a broader “environmental impact statement” they say is required for this type of project. The impact statement allows for public comment periods and can take up to two years to complete.

“The Forest Service has an obligation to North Dakotans and all Americans to follow the letter of the law when considering this type of development within view of a National Park, let alone where President Roosevelt once sat on his front porch,” said Bart Melton, regional director for the conservation association’s Northern Rockies district.

Neither Lothspeich nor the Forest Service returned requests for comment on the lawsuit Tuesday. The district ranger in Medora, Shannon Boehm, is also listed as a defendant and declined to comment on the case.

Lothspeich signed an agreement in July 2012 with the U.S. Forest Service to work out an exchange for other federal land or mineral rights at a different location. But Lothspeich told The Associated Press in April 2014 that the government had taken too long to find him land and he decided to mine gravel at the site.

Roosevelt set aside millions of acres for national forests and wildlife refuges during his administration. He spent more than three years in the North Dakota Badlands in the 1880s.

The Forest Service purchased the land next to Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch site in 2007. It cost $5.3 million, with $4.8 million coming from the federal government and $500,000 from conservation groups. More than 50 wildlife and conservation groups, including the Boone and Crockett Club started by Roosevelt himself, had pressed Congress to approve the deal. The purchase did not include mineral rights.

Lothspeich, who grew up near the ranch, knew the government had not obtained the mineral rights and bought half of them for an undisclosed price.

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