A Deadly Sin

During a recent campfire discussion among friends, we decided, only half jokingly, that it’s just possible the Seven Deadly Sins need an update. I mean, they date back to about the 6th Century, and the world has changed a bit since then. Don’t get me too wrong here—they’re still bad things, and should be avoided, and those who commit them should probably be punished. But there are things going on that Pope Gregory just didn’t synthesize when he listed what most of us have come to agree are the original Seven Deadly Sins:  Anger, Envy, Gluttony, Greed, Lust, Pride and Sloth.

It got late into the night, and we’re pretty old to be staying up late, so we never finished coming up with a whole new list. But we did agree on some things that ought to be included if a new list were ever compiled and put forth for ratification, and at the top of my list, the deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins, as far as I am concerned, is (drum roll) . . . Being an Asshole. And I got lots of agreement from our group.

Now, we recognize some further definition and refining might be in order here, but generally, there’s really no excuse for being an asshole, by anyone’s definition, so maybe the easiest way to define it is to come up with a good example (to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “I know one when I see one”). Well, today’s Bismarck Tribune provided one really good example.

Today’s Tribune carried the latest story in the ongoing saga of the gravel mineral ownership on what used to be known as the Eberts Ranch, now known as the Elkhorn Ranchlands, in western North Dakota. A bit of history:

The ranch is located across the Little Missouri River from the National Park Service’s Elkhorn Ranch Site, part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The Elkhorn Ranch is where Theodore Roosevelt lived in the Bad Lands. The Elkhorn Ranchlands is where he ran his cattle.

The Ranchlands were purchased about three years ago by the U.S. Forest Service for $5 million or so from the Eberts family, to preserve them from development into ranchettes. The money to buy them was raised by conservation groups interested in preserving the viewshed of the Elkhorn Ranch. The conservation groups labeled the site “The Cradle of Conservation,” since it was where Roosevelt did much of the thinking that led to his becoming the greatest conservation president in our history.

The Forest Service made a major screw-up when they bought the Eberts Ranch: they did not buy the mineral rights. How that happened is open to speculation, but a Forest Service spokesperson told an Associated Press reporter back in 2009 that the Forest Service never made a formal offer for the mineral rights. (A bit of the old-school sin of Sloth, I’d say.) A little more history:

The ranch was owned by the Connell family for many years, and sold to the Eberts family in the early 1990’s. The Eberts purchased half the “surface mineral rights,” including the gravel under the ranch land, and the Connells retained the other half. Gravel had been mined on the ranch in the past, providing a substantial amount of income to the Connells, but the Eberts family was not interested in mining the gravel. When the Eberts family sold the ranch to the Forest Service, they retained their half of the mineral interests. The Connells, meanwhile, sold their remaining half to a fellow named Roger Lothspeich, a local opportunist who grew up on a nearby ranch and knew the area well. Lothspeich is now a businessman in Miles City, Montana.

And as soon as Lothspeich got what he believed was title to the minerals he announced in a 2008 story in the Bismarck Tribune that he was going to go in and dig up the gravel. In full view of all the visitors to the National Park’s Elkhorn Ranch. You’ve seen gravel pits. Not a pretty sight.

Well, the Forest Service, while wiping the egg off its face, told Lothspeich he needed better documentation that he actually owned the surface minerals in question before he could begin mining on their land. Lothspeich set out to do that in 2009, and now has provided proof that he actually owns 27 per cent of the gravel under the ranch, according to today’s Tribune story. And he’s going after that gravel. Lothspeich says there’s $10 million worth of gravel under the ranch. He’ll sell his share for $2.5 million to someone who wants to stop him from mining it.

“If they want me out of the picture, pay me $2.5 million and I’ll go back to Montana and they’ll never hear from me again,” he told an AP reporter in 2009. “Or I’m going to mine that ranch for decades and decades to come.” (Greed?)

Today’s Tribune says Lothspeich has submitted an operating plan to the Forest Service to mine his share of the gravel from a 25-acre site about a half a mile as the crow flies from the Elkhorn Ranch, up on a plateau overlooking the ranch site. And more pits will be opened later to get at gravel reserves scattered around the ranch, possibly including the gravel in the Little Missouri River, the Tribune story says. The Forest Service is taking comments on the plan until Nov. 4 and will release a final environmental document next spring, according to the Forest Service spokesman, Roger Sexton.

That’s the story to date. At first blush, it sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? The Forest Service screwed up, and a citizen is going to exercise his property rights.

Except that this guy is doing more than just exercising property rights.

He’s committing what my friends and I think is the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins (see paragraph 2).

Look at some of the things he has said over the past three years. Submitted, as Rod Serling used to say, for your consideration:

From the Bismarck Tribune, October 15, 2008:

“If they (Forest Service) want it to remain pristine, they need to get some more cash. This thing is so far from over it’s pathetic. I’ll be just completely relentless.”

From the Helena, Montana Independent Record, March 1, 2009:

They’re (the Forest Service) jacking me around because they know I’ve got them over a barrel.” (Pride?)

Tourists coming to the area will be disappointed if he doesn’t get his ($2.5 million) asking price, Lothspeich told the Independent Record:

“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. It won’t bother me one bit to have big open pit mines at that place.”

“I’m not blinking. I’m going to get my gravel or write me a check.” (More Greed?)

The Independent Record talked to Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club. Schafer 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. He thought for sure we’d 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 surface 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.”

From today’s Bismarck Tribune:

(After the first 25-acre pit is mined) The next gravel pit will be south of and much larger than the first and even closer to the Elkhorn Ranch, Lothspeich said. He said he’s still open to negotiating if some conservation group wants to buy the gravel to prevent it from being mined.

“I’ll negotiate with anybody, but I’ll also mine at the drop of a hat,” he said.

Lothspeich said the operation will be perfectly timed with a heavy demand for gravel in western North Dakota due to oil development.

“A buyer is the least of my concerns” he said. In fact, he said, the long delay in getting to this point “was nothing but a huge benefit to me,” since the price of gravel has dramatically increased.”

Well, okay, I admit I’m one of those “tree-huggers” and I don’t have $2.5 million. So here’s what I’m suggesting to all you fellow “tree-huggers” reading this:

First, we’ll talk to the Forest Service, and find out when Mr. Deadly Sinner plans to begin mining, and who he plans to get to do it. Then, we’ll just get in our cars and drive out to the Bad Lands and sit down in front of the equipment. And tell them they’re just going to have to run us over to get at that gravel.

Second, we’ll find out who Mr. Deadly Sinner plans to sell this gravel to, and we’ll put public pressure on any potential customer not to buy it. Certainly, county commissioners, the biggest users of gravel in North Dakota, won’t want to be in the middle of that. And I can’t imagine any oil company wants the publicity they’re going to get if they buy this gravel that was dug up from President Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch. In fact, a number of energy companies, including Tesoro and MDU Resources right here in North Dakota, contributed to the $5 million fund to get the land purchased in the first place. I don’t think they’re going to want to see their investment ruined by a rogue gravel pit owner from Montana. We’ll be talking to them, and asking them to talk to their fellow energy companies.

To quote Mr. Deadly Sinner, “We’ll just be relentless.”

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a good dose of civil disobedience in North Dakota. It’s warranted here.

Is civil disobedience a sin?

Probably.

But I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as being an asshole.

NOTE: I talked to a Forest Service official today, and she said the Lothspeich application which will be open for public comment will be posted on their website Friday. I’ll put the address up here as soon as she gives it to me.

5 thoughts on “A Deadly Sin

  1. Pingback: The Prairie Blog

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