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Billings Co. Commission rejects proposal for national monument

MEDORA, N.D. -- A representative from The National Trust for Historic Preservation pitched a plan to the Billings County Commission to incorporate the former Eberts ranch -- part of the Little Missouri National Grasslands near the Elkhorn Ranch U...

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Senior Field Officer at National Trust for Historic Preservation, Jennifer Buddenborg, presents to Billings County Commissioners Aug. 4, in an attempt to persuade the board to support acquisition of land for the state's first ever national monument.

MEDORA, N.D. - A representative from The National Trust for Historic Preservation pitched a plan to the Billings County Commission to incorporate the former Eberts ranch - part of the Little Missouri National Grasslands near the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park - into a national monument on Tuesday afternoon.

Jennifer Buddenborg said the trust is interested in gaining local support for the acquisition of nearly 5,000 acres of land located in a rural section of the Badlands - which includes land owned by the state, the U.S. Forest Service and private individuals - with the intention of preserving the historic site. It would be the first national monument in North Dakota and could potentially work to draw revenue for the area’s $32 million a year tourism industry.

However, commissioners rejected the plan, citing threats to gravel mining, oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, limitations to road development, and conflicts with grazing that could arise if acquired by the organization.

“We are a commodity-producing county,” commissioner Jim Arthaud said. “Tourism is big, don’t get me wrong. But the things that makes this community function - from infrastructure, to low property tax, to good safety, to good schooling, to good ambulance - that is all commodity driven.”

He said such a project would jeopardize livelihoods by making it more difficult to gain access and further restrict usage of the land.

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Buddenborg said in comparison to other national monuments, the acreage being proposed is modest in scale and therefore would not have widespread implications.

But, Arthaud argued that 50 percent of county land is already under federal regulation, so any additional federal land acquisitions would become burdensome to those making a living off of the land.

As it stands, the Elkhorn Ranch is already protected from mineral extraction. However, the trust is looking to add additional acreage, currently managed by the Forest Service, which commissioners feel could encroach on already-strict limitations in the area.

“We have a hard time understanding why federal agencies think someone can protect us from ourselves,” Arthaud said. “There are no better stewards of this land than the people who live on this land.”

In response, Buddenborg argued that the organization does respect locals, but that they want to ensure generations of families are able to enjoy the place that influenced Theodore Roosevelt’s life and work.

“This is your place, your landscape,” she said. “But it is nationally significant.

We are trying to preserve the landscape as it currently is. It is a wonderful location and a beautiful representation of the Badlands.”

In the language of a rough-draft bill written by the trust organization, it notes how Roosevelt as president designated more than 230 million acres of public land as federally protected national forests, wildlife refuges, national parks and preserves, making the current proposal one he conceivably would have backed. The organization will seek congressional support on the drafted bill, though Buddenborg said lawmakers will not support the project without listening to residents.

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After the meeting, Buddenborg said the organization is dedicated to the cause, even though it does not have support from commissioners. She said the group would continue talking with residents and entities alike to gauge grassroots support for the project.

She said it’s not necessary to have the support of commissioners to continue with the project, though the organization would have liked it.

“We appreciated the opportunity to present our Elkhorn Ranch national monument proposal to the Billings County Commission and to respond to questions raised by the commissioners and audience members,” Buddenborg said. “While we were disappointed that the commission did not support the proposal, we will continue our community outreach to other local stakeholders.”

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