BISMARCK (AP) - The U.S. Forest Service is working to find a gravel-rich parcel somewhere in western North Dakota to trade with a Montana businessman who gave up a controversial plan to mine rock near the site of Theodore Roosevelt's historic Badlands ranch.
Mark Sexton, a Forest Service minerals program manager in Dickinson, said it hasn't been easy identifying land for the swap somewhere within the 1.2 million acres the federal government owns in the western part of the state.
"This is a priority with us and we're trying to find gravel sources," Sexton said. "But we want to make sure it's not in another area that creates a ruckus."
The federal government bought the ranch in 2007 for $5.3 million. But the purchase of the 5,200-acre parcel did not include mineral rights. Roger Lothspeich and his fiancee, Peggy Braunberger, spent almost five years proving they own the right to remove gravel and other surface minerals beneath the historic ranch land near Medora.
Lothspeich had proposed a 25-acre gravel mine less than a mile from Roosevelt's historic cabin. He estimated the site holds some $10 million in high-grade gravel that could be sold for road building and other infrastructure needs in North Dakota's booming oil patch.
The plan drew much criticism in the area hailed as "the cradle of conservation" by the Forest Service, Park Service and conservation groups. Tweed Roosevelt, the former president's great-grandson, said he personally asked President Barack Obama earlier this year to designate the area as a national monument, which would block development in the area.
The Forest Service and Lothspeich signed an agreement in July to work on an exchange for other federal land or mineral rights far from Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch site, where the former president once ran cattle.
Lothspeich has not set a deadline for the land swap, but believes it should be done within the next year.
He said he's not particular about a new mine site, as long as it represents an equal trade in acreage and value. But he said he wants to start digging gravel soon to take advantage of the enormous need for the road-building rock.
"I'd like to get going here," said Lothspeich, a North Dakota native who owns a motorcycle, snowmobile and ATV dealership in Miles City, Mont. "I want to sell gravel to oil companies."
Sexton said the agency began collecting gravel samples in October at sites in western North Dakota. He said the samples have been sent to a lab to test the rock for erionite, an asbestos-like mineral that has been linked to lung cancer.
Sexton said the land swap will take time.
"I think (Lothspeich) is well aware that this is not the fastest process in the world," Sexton said. "It would be real nice to find an area that has got what he wants so we can swap it out."
Lothspeich said, "I'm a patient man but I'm only patient for so long. Obviously, I want to get my return on investment, just as anyone else would want to do."