In spite of what you read in the newspaper, don’t pop any champagne corks and celebrate victory over the dude who wants to dig a gravel pit at the Elkhorn Ranch just quite yet. As Yogi Berra says, it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.
The Associated Press reported last week that “Development of a gravel mine near the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s historic Badlands ranch in western North Dakota will not continue, a Montana businessman said Wednesday.” That’s from the July 19 issue of the Bismarck Tribune.
Roger Lothspeich said he had intended to start digging gravel this year but he said the agreement for a potential land exchange means the plans are “stopped dead in their tracks.”
“I’m shutting everything down,” Lothspeich told the AP.
As if he really had something to shut down. He hasn’t turned a shovel. I don’t trust Roger Lothspeich. And sometimes, I’m not sure I trust the U.S. Forest Service, either.
Monday, I called Mark Sexton, the project manager for the Environmental Assessment being done on Lothspeich’s proposed gravel mine. I do trust Mark Sexton. He gives me straight answers. Like this:
Me: “Mark, could I stop by your office on Wednesday and pick up a copy of the agreement the Forest Service signed with Roger Lothspeich?”
Mark: “No, you’ll have to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get that.”
Me: “All I want is a copy of a piece of paper you have in your office.”
Mark: “Sorry, they won’t let me do that. You have to submit a FOIA request.”
Me: “I’m not sure I know how to do that.”
Mark: “Sure you do. You submitted one last fall . . .” (not audible: “uh oh.”)
Me: “Well, it sure takes a long time to get an answer. I haven’t heard back on that one yet.”
Mark: “Well, you asked for a lot of information.”
Me: “Yeah, well this time all I want is a copy of a piece of paper you have in your office. No homework. That shouldn’t take long, should it?”
Me: “Well, could you just read it to me? Are you allowed to do that? I could take notes.”
Mark: “I could tell you what it says.”
And with that, this is the gist of what Mark told me: They have agreed to sit down at the table with Roger Lothspeich and his girlfriend, Peggy Braunberger, and talk about an exchange for the mineral rights the two hold on the gravel at the Elkhorn Ranchlands. That, apparently, is what the agreement said. Nothing more. In essence, they have agreed to try to determine what the gravel is worth and, once they have done that, to try to find something of equal value that the Forest Service could trade for Lothspeich and Braunberger’s 27 per cent of that gravel. If they can’t agree, which is possible, well, then I suppose the process starts all over again.
The AP story said that Lothspeich thinks his gravel is worth $10 million. I’m not sure where that figure came from. I’ve been paying pretty close attention to this and I haven’t seen that number before. I have seen Lothspeich’s earlier estimate of $2.5 million. Almost choked on that one too.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Assessment we’ve all been waiting for, the one on which we all submitted comments opposing the gravel mine, goes back on hold. The Forest Service will not have to complete the process and issue a determination on whether Lothspeich and Braunberger can get a gravel mining permit. For now. How long the process might take is anybody’s guess.
And that’s the official story. I will submit my FOIA request. I’ll provide weekly, or monthly, or yearly reports back to you on how that request is doing.
Meanwhile, I’ll give you the unofficial, but real, story. This is what is really going on. When this hit the national news, Tweed Roosevelt of the Theodore Roosevelt Association and Lowell Baier of the Boone and Crocket club went to work on President Obama to have this designated a National Monument.
“Holy shit!” said Lothspeich and Braunberger. “That would mean no gravel mine. Now we’re up against some big timber. They got the President of the United States involved.”
Of course, it would mean that they would have to be compensated somehow, but it would really weaken their negotiating position. Because they would no longer hold the threat of mining over the government’s head. That option’s gone. Now it just boils down to dollars, and the government has public opinion on its side. So they decided to get out in front of the curve, to go in and start negotiating now, before National Monument status becomes a reality. Besides, if they back away now, they don’t come off so bad in the press.
And so they called Ron Jablonski, head of the Forest Service out here, and said “We want to negotiate.” They signed a piece of paper agreeing to negotiate. And that’s where it stands today. As far as I know, there’s no date set for the start of negotiations.
Jablonsi and Lothspeich, meanwhile, are basking in the glory of the AP story which makes everything appear okay now. They’re having their own little public lovefest. Lothspeich told the AP “I’m happy, the Forest Service is happy, everybody will be happy.” And in the very last line of the AP story last week, which appeared on the Bismarck Tribune’s website, but which the paper’s copy editor mercifully cut from the print version, Jablonski said “I think Roger and Peggy showed a great amount of respect for the place, its history and the feeling people have for this.”
Keep the champagne in the fridge. This is gonna take a while.
And if you haven’t jumped on the National Monument bandwagon, do it now. The President needs to hear from a lot of us who support the National Monument status.
President Barack Obama
The White House
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President:
Please make the Elkhorn Ranchlands a National Monument.
It’s as easy as that.