The rolling hills, crested buttes and cottonwood trees surrounding the Elkhorn Ranch in the western North Dakota badlands look very much the same as when a young Theodore Roosevelt first settled there in 1884.
Roosevelt moved to the ranch to heal after his first wife and mother both died on Valentine's Day 1884 -- exactly 129 years ago today. Though he lived at the ranch only a short time, and the log house and scores of cattle that once grazed there are long gone, this ranch is where Roosevelt first developed the conservation ethic that defined his term as the nation's 26th president and earned him the title the "Conservationist President."
Indeed, the Elkhorn Ranch, which is now part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, is often referred to as the "cradle of conservation" and the "Walden Pond of the West."
"He had that interest in nature before he came here, but he gained a lot more understanding of the issues during his time at Elkhorn Ranch," said Valerie Naylor, superintendent of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. "You go out there, and it is very much like when Roosevelt was here in 1885. The same bird species can be heard, the wind whistling through the same cottonwoods when he was there. So it's a very special place, and we want to keep it that way."
But today the solitude and natural splendor of the 218-acre ranch and the entire national park are under increasing threat, park officials say, by rapidly expanding shale oil development in North Dakota's booming Bakken Shale play. Proposals to build a gravel pit and bridge within view of the park, both of which are related to the oil boom, also pose major risks.
A record 8,100 production wells have been drilled mostly to tap into the massive formation that underlies most of the western half of the state, and these wells now pump as much as 23 million barrels of oil a month, according to state statistics. The energy development and associated activity have generated thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of tax revenues for the state and local communities.
So far, the vast majority of the development has occurred on private lands to the north of Billings County, where the 70,000-acre national park is located. But within the next decade or so it's estimated the state could house as many as 40,000 wells with much of the development moving farther south and southeast across the badlands -- and onto and around public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.
Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council in Bismarck, N.D., said he's not ready to speculate whether the same level of heavy drilling under way in the northwest part of the state will move that far south in the next decade or so.
More than 3 million barrels of oil a month are produced in neighboring Dunn County northeast of Billings County; production rigs in Billings already produce about 400,000 barrels a month, according to state statistics.
"There are some holes there, and the park and the ranch have been right in the middle of an oil field since the 1950s," Ness said. "So there are wells in that area, but so far there does not seem to be much activity."
Flaring from about two dozen drilling rigs already can be seen at night from the Buck Hill observation area in the Roosevelt National Park's south unit and from various vantage points along Scenic Drive in the park's north unit, Naylor said.
But the drilling rigs themselves may be the least of the park's concerns.
A Montana business owner has proposed digging a gravel pit on an adjacent lot across the Little Missouri River and within the viewshed of the ranch to support anticipated oil development in the region.
The Forest Service manages the roughly 25 acres in question, but Roger Lothspeich of Miles City, Mont., owns the subsurface mineral rights. The Forest Service announced last summer that it and Lothspeich are working on an exchange for other federal land or mineral rights at different locations, but so far no deal has been announced, and the outcome remains unclear.
Even more troubling to park officials, Billings County leaders want to build a $15 million bridge that, depending on several routes under review, could cross the Little Missouri River within the viewshed of the Elkhorn Ranch. The Federal Highway Administration is reviewing the project, and the agency is expected to release a draft environmental impact statement this spring.
The "Little Missouri River Crossing," as the bridge project is called, is needed in part to support increased truck traffic when the anticipated oil development stretches to southwest North Dakota.
"The bridge is of greatest concern," Naylor said. "Oil wells come and go, but a bridge is permanent."
These proposals were among the reasons the National Trust for Historic Preservation last summer added the Elkhorn Ranch to its list of "America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places." The trust produces the annual list to raise awareness about threats to the nation's most historic treasures.
That ranking, however, was also based on growing concern about the future impact of the booming Bakken Shale play and the fact that state leaders appear to have little interest in slowing things down and preserving the area, said Jenny Buddenborg, senior field officer in the national trust's Denver field office.
"The general attitude is that this is a boom and we should take advantage of it," said Buddenborg, who added that she has no problem with energy development as long as it is done correctly.
"By and large we are not against oil and gas development, that's not what we're trying to say," she said. "But we think there are certainly areas that are so important to our culture and our history that they can and should be avoided. There are hundreds of acres elsewhere that can be exploited or explored. There are other places."
Long history, uncertain future
Man-made threats to the sprawling grasslands and wildlife habitat across the North Dakota badlands were evident to Roosevelt when he moved there and established the Elkhorn Ranch.
During his ranching years, Roosevelt saw the disappearance of large herds of bison and the destruction of swaths of grasslands due to overgrazing.
When he became president in 1901, Roosevelt created the Forest Service and used his authority to protect 230 million acres of public land by establishing 150 national forests and five national parks, including Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado and Crater Lake National Park in southwest Oregon.
He also signed into law the 1906 Antiquities Act, which remains controversial today with GOP congressional leaders because it allows the president to bypass Congress and to designate national monuments. Roosevelt used the law to designate 18 national monuments, including Devil's Tower in Wyoming -- the nation's first monument.
"We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources," Roosevelt said in a 1907 speech. "But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation."
Tweed Roosevelt, the now 70-year-old great-grandson of the former president, last year asked President Obama to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate the Elkhorn Ranch and about 4,000 acres around it as a national monument.
Obama has used his authority under the Antiquities Act four times, most recently in October 2012 when he dedicated the California home of labor rights icon Cesar Chavez as a national monument.
But there are complications in doing so at Elkhorn Ranch, Buddenborg said.
One of the major complications is that all around the Elkhorn Ranch property in question, including adjacent prairie lands managed by the Forest Service, the subsurface mineral rights are owned by private interests.
That has made it difficult to plan out a conservation strategy for the area, Buddenborg said. "That's a huge thing to tackle," she said.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation is considering asking the Forest Service and BLM to weigh purchasing the private mineral rights in critical areas, or as with the nearby gravel pit proposal, working out an exchange.
Buddenborg noted the successful effort guided by the Trust for Public Land to raise $8.75 million and purchase 58,000 acres of drilling leases from Plains Exploration & Production Co. inside Bridger-Teton National Forest to prevent development. Environmental groups, private citizens and more than 1,000 donors raised the money during a three-month fundraising effort (E&ENews PM, Jan. 2).
She said the National Trust for Historic Preservation is holding a strategy session next week in Bismarck with other conservation groups, including the Dakota Resource Council and the Badlands Conservation Alliance, to try to determine what strategy would best work to protect the ranch and national park.
"We are trying to find solutions that will stem this incompatible development," she said.
Meanwhile, the Park Service does what it can to protect the natural resources at the ranch and national park by carefully monitoring drilling activity and projects on a case-by-base basis.
"We are trying to preserve the Elkhorn Ranch itself and the [natural] value that Theodore Roosevelt cherished, such as the quiet, the solitude, the night skies," said Naylor, the park superintendent. "Roosevelt wrote about the sound of the wind in the trees, the birds. But it makes it difficult when so much activity is going on around us."
She added, "We don't want to see or hear the oil [drilling] activity around us."
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.
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