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 oil booming 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, noting that locals' comments would hold more weight with regulators.
"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.
Arthaud, who also is a rancher and owns an oil trucking company, said an engineering firm hired by the county has identified three alternatives for the river crossing and road, all of which would at least partly traverse federal land.
Two of the routes would go through a 5,200-acre parcel, the former Blacktail Creek Ranch, next to Elkhorn. The U.S. Forest Service completed the $5.3 million purchase last year, with $4.8 million coming from the federal government and $500,000 from conservation groups, including the Boone and Crockett Club, started by Roosevelt himself.
But the county won a court battle in 2005 to build a 6-mile long road and a low-water crossing through the Blacktail ranch when it was privately owned. Forest Service spokeswoman Sherri Schwenke said the county still has a right to the road, which currently is little more than a jeep trail.
The three routes eyed by the county already have an existing roadbed and can easily be tied into existing farm-to-market road systems, Arthaud said.
"It's not like we just threw a dart. This is not only the logical location, but the only place that is feasible because of terrain," Arthaud said. "Otherwise, we'd have to plow through 6 miles of untouched Badlands."
Roosevelt, who was president from 1901 to 1909, set aside millions of acres for national forests and wildlife refuges during his administration. He spent more than three years in the North Dakota Badlands in the 1880s.
He helped conceive the idea of conservation during the years he spent in the Badlands, said Lowell Baier, executive vice president of the Boone and Crockett Club, started by Roosevelt in 1887.
"We see it as the cradle of conservation, where the concept of conservation started in this country," Baier said.
"Find another route," he said. "Leave the sanctity of this place in silence."