U.S. Forest Service Photo
Billings County officials want to build a crossing over the Little Missouri River and<BR> a road to cut commute times for locals.

BISMARCK, N.D. — Plans to turn a secluded Badlands trail into a major road and river crossing might not have created such a stir if not for where it is: near the ranch where Theodore Roosevelt helped conceive the American conservation movement.

But as it is, hundreds of people and groups have flooded the officials in charge with their thoughts on the proposal, which has been stalled for years but now appears to be moving closer to reality.

Billings County officials want a crossing over the Little Missouri River and a road north of Medora to connect state Highways 16 and 85. Proponents say it would cut as much as 100 miles off commutes, encourage economic development, and help fire trucks and ambulances respond faster.

"Our plan is not an evil plan, and we are not trying to terrorize the people who love the Badlands," said Jim Arthaud, a county commissioner. "We need this and we have a legal right to it."

But opponents fear it will become a road heavy with RVs and traffic from the area's booming oil industry, ruining an area that inspired the conservation-minded president.

"Teddy Roosevelt would be going nuts over this," said Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club. "It's going to alter the whole feel of the area if this road goes through."

All the county's proposed routes are within 2 1/2 miles of Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch, said Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor.

"We're very concerned about the soundscape and any potential visual intrusion and dust," Naylor said. "It would forever impair a very special place."

Public comment is being accepted until Friday, said Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration. An environmental impact statement could be done by next spring, with a final decision in 2010, he said.

Sentiment is running about half and half, Hecox said.

"A lot of folks are very supportive of it, and would like the benefit of shaving 90 to 100 miles off their commute," Hecox said.

Billings County has just under 800 residents, according to the Census Bureau.

"Locals are all for it, but I wonder how heavy they (federal officials) will weigh it in a county ... losing population," Schafer said.