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Oil And Gas Exploration Threatens The Setting That Gave Teddy Roosevelt His Conservation Ethos


In the 1880s, a young Theodore Roosevelt wrote about the Elkhorn Ranch in his book, The Home Ranch...

My home ranch lies on both sides of the Little Missouri, the nearest ranchman above me being about twelve, and the nearest below me about ten, miles distant. The general course of the stream here is northerly, but, while flowing through my ranch, it takes a greater westerly reach of some three miles, walled in, as always, between chains of steep, high bluffs half a mile or more apart. The stream twists down through the valley in long sweeps, leaving oval wooded bottoms, first on one side and then on the other; and in an open glade among the thick-growing timber stands the long, low house of hewn logs.

Just in front of the ranch veranda is a line of old cottonwoods that shade it during the fierce heats of summer, rendering it always cool and pleasant. But a few feet beyond these trees comes the cut-off bank of the river, through whose broad, sandy bed the shallow stream winds as if lost, except when a freshet fills it from brim to brim with foaming yellow water. The bluffs that wall in the river-valley curve back in semicircles, rising from its alluvial bottom generally as abrupt cliffs, but often as steep, grassy slopes that lead up to create level plateaus; and the line is broken every mile or two by the entrance of a coulee, or dry creek, whose head branches may be twenty miles back. Above us, where the river comes round the bend, the valley is very narrow, and the high buttes bounding it rise sheer and barren, into scalped hill-peaks and naked knife-blade ridges. 

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An 1885 sketch of the Elkhorn ranch house by Robert Swain Gifford.  Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Dickinson State University. 

Before he developed his barrel chest, and before he so strongly developed his conservation ethos, Theodore Roosevelt came to the Dakota Territory to hunt bison. It was the first foray in a landscape and way of life that, he would later admit, "took the snob" out of him.

Considering the year -- 1883 -- and the frontier landscape, that's not surprising. Here, in the rutted and rugged badlands that rise up around the Little Missouri River, the young Mr. Roosevelt felt himself pretty much out of his element, having grown up in New York City. But his thirst for the West was greatly visible to his companions, and his initial discomfort with the setting was recognized by Roosevelt himself.

"There were all kinds of things that I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to mean horses and gunfighters," he noted in a diary entry in 1883. "But by acting as if I was not afraid, I gradually ceased to be afraid."

Nearly broken by the death of his wife, Alice, two days after giving birth to their daughter, and his mother on the same day, Valentine's Day 1884, in the same house, Roosevelt exiled himself back to the Dakota Territory. He paid another man $400 so he could take over ranching the land along the Little Missouri that soon became the headquarters for his ranching operations, the Elkhorn Ranch.

The setting remains today, even some of the cottonwood trees that once shaded the ranch house and the porch from which the young Roosevelt would escape the heat with a book or simply to rock in his chair while taking in the Little Missouri and the badlands that it carved into the landscape.

The Elkhorn Ranch also gave the future president a place to mend after the loss of his wife and mother, and a place to think about what was transpiring in the West in terms of the declining bison herds and wildlife in general. The time spent there helped Roosevelt develop his thoughts on conservation, on setting aside lands forever from development.

"The extermination of the buffalo has been a veritable tragedy of the animal world," he would write.

And a bit later still he wrote, "it is also vandalism wantonly to destroy or to permit the destruction of what is beautiful in nature, whether it be a cliff, a forest, or a species of mammal or bird. Here in the United States we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals -- not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements. But at last it looks as if our people were awakening."

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Looking north across the setting where the Elkhorn Ranch buildings once stood. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Industrial Impacts Coming To Elkhorn?

Today, despite his hope that such "awakening" was coming to the country, oil and gas development seemingly is bearing down on his beloved Elkhorn Ranch. A proposal, first broached in the 1970s and recently risen back to the surface, would have a bridge span the Little Missouri in large measure for "increased traffic demands from the oil and gas industry."

The Little Missouri Crossing proposal being considered by the Federal Highway Administration, the North Dakota Department of Transportation, and Billings County (North Dakota) does not call for the bridge and the connecting road to physically intrude on the Elkhorn Ranch site that is a part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. However, one of the options under consideration would bring the bridge and its envisioned traffic close enough to intrude on the site, according to opponents.

That option would place the bridge just downstream of the ranch, within both visible and audible distance. Those opposed to the bridge fear such traffic -- estimates range anywhere from 100 to 200 oilfield trucks a day -- would breach the peacefulness and solitude of the setting that not only soothed Roosevelt's emotionally tattered soul in the months after the loss of his wife and mother, but the place where he honed his conservation thoughts.

Many refer to the Elkhorn Ranch as "the cradle of conservation," says Tweed Roosevelt, the president's great-grandson. "And it was indeed where TR developed many of his ideas that he was later able to implement when he became president."

Adds Valerie Naylor, superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park: "It’s where he saw first-hand the decline of the bison, elk, pronghorn, overgrazing, and other issues. He saw that the wilderness was disappearing even then, in the 1880s."

President Roosevelt Greatly Valued Conservation

As president, Theodore Roosevelt created five national parks, 150 national forests, 51 national wildlife refuges, four national game preserves, and signed the enabling legislation for the Antiquities Act, which presidents ever since have turned to to protect landscapes from development. Roosevelt himself used the Act to protect the Grand Canyon, Devils Tower, Muir Woods, Lassen Peak, Mount Olympus (later Olympic National Park), and many other landscapes that today lie within the National Park System.

That he developed his conservation ethics at Elkhorn makes preservation of the ranch, and a minimization of any impacts on the nature of that setting, so important, say those opposed to the bridge.

Already there are intrusions on the site. Across the river to the southeast a pump jack nods and rises round-the-clock on a ridge that looks down on the ranch. More directly across the river from where the ranch house's veranda stood lies a plot on a hill's rutted flanks that a businessman hopes to turn into a gravel pit that can feed the stone needed for the growing ranks of drill pads rising around northwestern North Dakota.

The bridge proposal attracted the attention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which recently declared the Elkhorn Ranch one of its 11 most-endangered historic sites in the country.

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The Elkhorn Well is visible from the Elkhorn Ranch. Kurt Repanshek photo.

"This is a project that has been proposed in various iterations over the past 30 years, and we’ve been monitoring over that course of time and it has kind of come and gone and has come again," says Jennifer Buddenborg, a field officer working out of the Trust's Denver office. "We see this as an opportunity for us to finally squash this threat that could do potential harm to the veiwshed and the serene setting and landscape of the Elkhorn Ranch.”

Ms. Buddenborg explained that the organization hopes enough opposition can be mounted to the bridge project during the environmental regulatory process to block it from crossing the river so close to Elkhorn.

“Theodore Roosevelt was a big personality in a lot of different ways, and there are a lot of sites associated with him. The reason we think Elkhorn Ranch is so important is because truly this is where the former president developed his ideas on conservation," she explained.

"Elkhorn Ranch is where he sought solace and where he found it, and it’s where he really started to see, even back in the late 1800s, the effects of development on wildlife and wilderness, and so it really put into motion his time out in the badlands, in the Dakota Territory, what it meant to have these national resources be put at risk. And so he developed his conservation ethic which, you probably know, was one of the strongest of any president we’ve had in the United States.”

Preserving A Sense Of The Past

Tweed Roosevelt, along with arguing against the Little Missouri Crossing project and the gravel pit, would like to see a larger monument, one that encompasses lands surrounding the Elkhorn Ranch and on which his great-grandfather ran cattle on, protected as a national monument.

“North Dakota is now wrestling with the issue of all this oil and gas devleopment, and there’s no need to develop every last square inch of the state, and many, many people in the state understand that and don’t want it to happen," he said during a phone call from his Massachuetts home. "These are the same elements that TR battled during his presidency, when he was making national parks and national monuments, the same short-term greed. They want to make a few bucks over a few years, and that’s what this is all about...

"What more appropriate thing to honor TR, a man who arguably did more for the environment, what we have environmentally here today in national monuments, etc., than to declare it a national monument in his honor?" he added a moment later. "Any arguments about, ‘Well, that takes land out of potential use for ranchers,' it’s just BS. They’ve got 45 million acres (in North Dakota). Who would buy that argument?"

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Some of the cottonwood trees behind the placards are thought to have been in place when Theodore Roosevelt ran the Elkhorn Ranch in the 1880s. Kurt Repanshek photo.

So determined is Tweed Roosevelt to see such a monument created that he mentioned it to President Obama earlier this year when he was in the Oval Office for a ceremony to honor his stepmother. In a followup letter to the president he wrote that, "What better way to protect this extraordinarily important site from these and future threats than to make it a National Monument in honor of the man who in 1906 developed the concept and established the first National Monument, Devils Tower in Wyoming."

Back at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Superintendent Naylor said the setting of the ranch should be preserved and protected as much as possible so future visitors to the site can gain an appreciation for the environment that swayed Roosevelt so.

"The Elkhorn Ranch site is a place that is maintained for its solitude and it is the place where Roosevelt went to find solitude, and the entire experience of the Elkhorn Ranch is dependent on natural sound, lack of visual intrusion, and the ability to experience what Theodore Roosevelt experienced," she said. "So it is an extremely significant historic site on a national level, and one that we need to preserve."

Watch this short video to see Elkhorn today.

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Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a Teddy available today?

Yes, I agree, Lee. I think you would be both surprised and possibly horrified by his realism and thoughts on the nanny state/parks direction. He was not a ninny, I believe.

Expansion of the Elkhorn Ranch unit by some 5000 acres was investigated even before these recent energy and road projects. IIRC local opposition was one factor in determining not to expand then. One may hope that there is a middle ground between 5000 and zero here.

I agree, Lee. TR's defense of wilderness in terms of American exceptionalism doesn't quite seem to fit with today's dominant political narratives.

This angers me. Apparently even graveyards are also no longer off limits to oil and gas exploration, not joking. There's a graveyard in Ohio considering a purposal.

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