Mineral rights showdown at Badlands ranch
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP)--A Montana man who wants to mine gravel on the Badlands ranch where Theodore Roosevelt once ran his cattle is comparing his dispute with the U.S. Forest Service to an Old West stare-down. He says he won't blink.
"If they want me out of the picture, pay me $2.5 million and I'll go back to Montana and they'll never here from me again," Roger Lothspeich said. "Or I'm going to mine that ranch for decades and decades to come."
Lothspeich, 50, of Miles City, Mont., claims he owns half the mineral and gravel rights beneath the 5,200-acre ranch in western North Dakota. He said his portion of the subsurface rights represents about $10 million in high-grade gravel that can be sold to the government and oil companies for road building.
"I'm not blinking," he said. "I'm going to get my gravel, or write me a check and I'll go away."
The Forest Service purchased the ranch, next to Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch site, from brothers Kenneth, Allan and Dennis Eberts and their families in 2007. It cost $5.3 million, with $4.8 million coming from the federal government and $500,000 from conservation groups. The purchase did not include mineral rights.
The Ebertses had bought the ranch and half the mineral rights from the Connell family in 1993 for $800,000. Lothspeich, who grew up near the ranch before moving to Montana, bought the other half of the mineral rights about a year ago, knowing the government had not obtained them in the Eberts deal.
Byron Connell, of Scottsbluff, Neb., said the Forest Service never gave him a formal offer for the mineral rights.
"They had a middle man call me and he offered some ridiculous price," Connell said. "After that, I never heard from them again."
Connell calls it a joke and says it's typical of government.
"Nobody did their homework on this," Connell said. "Now, everybody is ducking and diving at the Forest Service and trying to save face."
Forest Service district supervisor Ron Jablonski said the agency never made a formal offer for the mineral rights to the Ebertses or the Connells.
"We thought at the time that the land was a good purchase for taxpayers," Jablonski said. "We had no idea that something like this would come up. We knew the potential was there, but we were willing to take the risk."
The Ebertses have not expressed interest in exploiting their mineral rights, he said.
The Forest Service has not acted on Lothspeich's application to mine gravel at the ranch because his application is not complete and lacks proper documentation, Jablonski said.
"He has not provided to us what we need," Jablonski said. "The reality is, we're still trying to figure out who actually owns it (mineral rights)."
The Forest Service is attempting to work with Lothspeich, "but we are not interested in buying Mr. Lothspeich out," Jablonski said.
Lothspeich says the government has been stalling for nearly a year and is fighting his plan with red tape. He wants to begin mining gravel this summer.
"They're jacking me around and backpedaling because they know I got them over a barrel," said Lothspeich, who owns a motorcycle, snowmobile and ATV dealership in Montana. He claims he has documentation dating back to the late 1800s, when a railroad owned the land.
Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, said Lothspeich approached his group about buying the subsurface rights to the ranch.
"He basically said he'd dig it up unless we gave him money," Schafer said. "He thought for sure we'd just jump at the chance to pay him $2.5 million, but I told him, 'that's not what we do and good luck."'
Lothspeich said he is open to selling the subsurface rights, which include "coal, scoria, uranium, sand, gravel, the whole works," to anyone who gives him $2.5 million.
"If those tree-huggers want to write me a check, that's OK, too," he said.
"This guy is taking advantage of this because it is a special place," Schafer said. "If he came with a reasonable offer, maybe something could be worked out."
Connell, whose family owned the ranch for nearly 50 years before selling it in the early 1990s, said gravel had been mined at the ranch from about 1917 through the 1980s. He said many of the roads in Billings County were built with gravel from the ranch.
Roosevelt, who was president from 1901 to 1909, set aside millions of acres for national forests and wildlife refuges during his administration. The newly acquired ranch is part of an area now hailed as "the cradle of conservation" by the Forest Service, Park Service and conservation groups.
The Forest Service's acquisition of the historic ranch has been fraught with problems since the deal was inked. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, accused the agency of skirting the law when it announced plans last year to manage the ranch as a forage reserve without traditional grazing.
The Forest Service has not yet completed the sale of an equal number of acres in North Dakota to balance the acquisition of the ranch. The agency has promised to continue grazing and other activities, including oil and gas development.
Lothspeich's battle with the agency doesn't surprise Dorgan.
"If he has a legitimate claim, it would be an unbelievable and pretty spectacular failure on behalf of the Forest Service not to have addressed that issue," Dorgan said. "They're going to have a lot of egg on their face, if they didn't deal with the mineral rights."
Lothspeich said tourists coming to the area will be disappointed if he doesn't get his asking price.
"These people who think they'll come out there and see the so-called 'cradle of conservation' won't see anything except a bunch of gravel pits," Lothspeich said. "It won't bother me one bit to have big open pit mines at that place."