By Joseph Guinto
More than 5,000 acres of federal land in North Dakota’s Badlands could go up for sale. That’s up to Congress. The property is supposed to be offered as a unique offset to a purchase made by the US Forest Service. Last spring, the Forest Service ended a years-long controversy by spending $5.3 million on a 5,200-acre ranch across the Little Missouri River from the Elkhorn Ranch, a property once owned by Theodore Roosevelt and considered by many as the nation’s “cradle of conservation.”
Roosevelt retreated to the ranch in the late 1880s and emerged three and a half years later as an avowed environmentalist who would, as president, go on to add millions of acres to the government’s holdings for use as national forests, parks, and wildlife refuges. But adding to the government’s holdings was just what the Forest Service didn’t want to do when it bought the neighboring Blacktail Creek Ranch. After all, the government already owns 1.2 million acres in North Dakota. Some local ranchers and officials vehemently opposed taking a working ranch out of production just so Roosevelt’s property could continue to enjoy an unspoiled view.
So, in a unique compromise, the Forest Service said it would buy the Blacktail Creek Ranch and sell an equivalent amount of land it already owns in North Dakota, but that it would sell that land only to about 40 ranchers who currently own property in Billings County, where Elkhorn Ranch is located. And that’s where Congress gets involved. Or not. North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, a proponent of the ranch purchase, says he doesn’t support legislation with such restrictions.