Ranchers offered offset grasslands
By LAUREN DONOVAN
The Forest Service met with 16 Billings County ranchers this week and offered to sell each of them up to a section of land to offset the agency's acquisition of the former Eberts ranch.
The ranchers have six months to take their deal or leave it.
The agency received congressional authorization in late December to sell odd lots, ranging from a quarter to a section of land, on the Little Missouri National Grasslands, so the 5,200-acre Eberts' ranch does not increase the Forest Service's net holdings in North Dakota.
However, Congress did not authorize use of the Eberts' ranch as a grass bank. The authorization dictates that the agency must continue leasing out the former Eberts ranch under grazing agreements with the Medora Grazing Association.
The Forest Service bought the ranch last year, renaming it the Elkhorn Ranchlands, to preserve it for its association with Theodore Roosevelt, who free-ranged cattle there in the 1880s.
The deal cost $5.3 million, with all but $500,000 from federal funds.
The ranch borders the Little Missouri River and is just slightly downriver and across from Roosevelt's Elkhorn cabin site, which is owned by the National Park Service.
The Forest Service had hoped to use the former Eberts ranch as a sort of grass preserve available for grazing based on special needs like drought or fire.
That grazing instruction by Congress will be part of the Forest Service's management plan for the ranch, which is in the midst of two-year environmental impact statement.
Forest Service spokeswoman Sherry Schwenke said the agency is preparing a management proposal to address wildlife habitat, restoration, use of the ranch buildings, access and recreation.
Congress also said multiple uses of grazing, hunting and oil development have to continue.
By authorization, the offset offers had to go to ranchers who are already leasing the parcels in conjunction with their privately owned headquarters.
The parcels are all rolling prairie terrain and a sprinkling of odd lots scattered about more cohesive Forest Service grasslands.
The agency will realize at least $1.4 million from the sale, based on a value of between $270 and $350 an acre. The money has to go toward costs of conveyance or other land acquisitions.
She said the Forest Service has four other parcels on standby in case these offers aren't taken.
Congress said the land has to be sold competitively otherwise.
She said the Forest Service is optimistic it will be able to sell the 5,200 offset acres without having to conduct a competitive sale.
"We're hopeful that we don't have to go there," Schwenke said. "If the sales don't add up to 5,200 acres, we'll look at plan B."
(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 888-303-5511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)