|A conservation group has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Forest Service’s approval this year of a gravel mining project near a ranch where Theodore Roosevelt once lived — a site that is often called the “cradle of conservation” and the “Walden Pond of the West.”
The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) filed the lawsuit late yesterday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and it names Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and other regional agency officials as defendants.
The 27-page complaint targets the Forest Service’s approval in January of an environmental assessment and so-called finding of no significant impact for the gravel mine. The project is proposed to be built on nearly 25 acres of Forest Service land less than a mile from the Elkhorn Ranch in western North Dakota, where a young Roosevelt developed the conservation ethic that later earned him the title of “conservationist president.”
The Forest Service’s Medora Ranger District in Dickinson, N.D., issued a decision notice in January allowing gravel miners to use Forest Service roads across the Elkhorn ranchlands to reach the project site. The gravel pit would be built on a lot across the Little Missouri River from Elkhorn but within the view of the ranch that is part of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
NPCA, which is being represented by the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said in the complaint that the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act by not analyzing all the potential impacts of the project on the national park.
Among other things, the complaint says the gravel pit “would cause significant noise that would be heard in the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.” It also “would cause significant visual disturbances of the natural landscape” and “lead to decreases in tourism due to its significant adverse effects on the defining characteristics of the historic Elkhorn Ranch site — beauty, serenity, and solitude.”
The association wants the court to vacate the “flawed” environmental assessment and for the Forest Service to conduct a more in-depth environmental impact statement (EIS) of the gravel project that it says in the complaint is required under NEPA.
The NPCA lawsuit is the first challenging the Forest Service decision.
“The Forest Service must go back and conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement to consider reasonable alternatives to permitting a gravel pit this close to Theodore Roosevelt National Park,” said Mindi Schmitz, a government relations specialist with the Environmental Law & Policy Center based in Jamestown, N.D.
A Forest Service spokeswoman in Bismarck, N.D., said today the agency does not publicly comment on pending or ongoing litigation.
While the Forest Service manages the roughly 25 acres in question, Roger Lothspeich of Miles City, Mont., owns the subsurface mineral rights. The agency announced in 2012 that it was working with Lothspeich on an exchange for other federal property or mineral rights elsewhere.
But the agency announced in January that “a reasonable option could not be found and the mineral owners requested the Forest Service complete processing their permit,” which was originally filed in February 2010.
“Under federal law, the Forest Service must provide access to allow the owner of private minerals to remove their minerals,” the agency said in January. “After lengthy discussions, the owner agreed to multiple conditions of operation that would minimize the impact to the surrounding area.”
Those include “appropriate mitigation and reclamation related to extraction of the private surface minerals,” the Forest Service said. The approved plan of operation also ensures that processing of the gravel is done off-site.
The plan also addresses cleanup after gravel mining is completed, a Forest Service spokeswoman said at the time.
The gravel project is supposed to support once-booming oil and gas development in North Dakota, and it’s not clear how low oil prices that have curbed development in the Bakken Shale play will affect the project.
But the Forest Service approval of the gravel project has come to symbolize growing concerns about development pressures affecting the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Park officials have complained in the past few years that the solitude and natural splendor of the 218-acre ranch and the entire national park are under increasing threat by nearby shale oil development.
Hundreds of wells have been drilled mostly to tap into the massive formation that underlies most of the western half of the state. The majority of development has occurred on private lands to the north of Billings County, where the 70,000-acre national park is located. But flaring from wells in the region can be seen at night.
Former Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor, who retired last year, was honored in 2013 by NPCA for her work to protect the park from encroaching oil shale development and for a controversial elk management plan that ultimately proved successful.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2012 added the Elkhorn Ranch to its list of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.” And the National Trust has launched a campaign to protect Elkhorn “from incompatible development,” among other things.
NPCA says that is why the Forest Service must go back and conduct an EIS that better analyzes the full range of impacts the gravel project could have on Elkhorn Ranch, as well as on the park and its visitors.
“The Elkhorn Ranch at Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of North Dakota’s most significant historic places that offers all Americans an opportunity to walk where President Roosevelt walked and contemplate our nation’s conservation legacy,” Bart Melton, NPCA’s Northern Rockies regional director, said in a statement. “We are asking the Forest Service to consider that legacy too.”