Thanks for the views, likes and comments on last week’s post about a few of the people I’ve met on our trips to Costa Rica. If you missed the post, here’s a link: People Stories from Costa Rica. This week I return to my home state with a commentary and opinion on some happenings near the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Badlands of Western North Dakota.
First a little history and background. The Theodore Roosevelt National Park is named after the 26th President of the United States. Roosevelt first came to Dakota Territory and the Badlands in 1883 to hunt and became enamored with the rough terrain and the cowboy life. After his wife and mother died on the same day, February 14, 1884, in the same house in New York, he was despondent and came back to Dakota Territory to mourn his loss. Once there, he invested in two cattle ranches, the Elkhorn located 35 miles north of Medora and the Maltese Cross, seven miles south of Medora, both along the Little Missouri River. Roosevelt gradually regained his vigor and spent most of the next few years shuttling between New York and Medora, Dakota Territory leaving his ranches in the care of trusted partners. His cattle ranching days ended during the winter of 1886-87 during one of the harshest winters on record. A lot of cattle were lost on the Northern Great Plains that winter. Roosevelt sold both his ranches and went back East to New York where he remarried and became involved in politics serving as New York City Police Commissioner, Governor of New York, Vice President under William McKinley, and President after McKinley was shot by an assassin. Later in life he attributed his successes to the time he spent in Dakota Territory as is demonstrated by his legacy of conservation measures put in place during his Presidency. Roosevelt died in 1919 at age 60. After his death, there were several proposals to establish a memorial to honor his many accomplishments. One of those was to establish a National Park in the Badlands near Medora. There was opposition to that proposal with a lot of discussion between the National Park Service and State of North Dakota. Then came the depression and severe drought of the 1930’s. The Federal Government acquired hundreds of thousands of acres of land in and around the Badlands for as little as $2 per acre from broke and disillusioned homesteaders. This became the Little Missouri National Grasslands and some of these holdings were set aside for the establishment of a park to honor Roosevelt. In 1935 the CCC, WPA and other Depression era job relief organizations began to build roads, trails, picnic areas, campgrounds and scenic overlooks in the area designated for the park. Many of these structures are still in use today. Then came World War II that stopped much of this work. Finally in 1947, President Truman signed the bill to create the Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park, the only one of it’s kind, it was like a stepchild to the “real” National Parks! In 1978, President Carter gave it National Park status that provided more funding for staffing, upkeep, and improvements.
The Park consists of three distinct units. The largest is the South Unit near the village of Medora. The North Unit, about 80 miles north of the South Unit, is more remote and primitive but of stark beauty. The Elkhorn Ranch Unit consists of the site where Roosevelt’s ranch cabin stood in the cottonwoods along the Little Missouri River.
My very first trip to Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park was in 1961 when I attended 4-H Camp at a facility a few miles south of Medora. It was likely the very first time I stayed overnight away from home with people other than family or relatives. I have faint memories of staying in an old musty bunkhouse type of building with bunk beds and a thin mattress, going to the mess hall for meals, and doing KP (kitchen patrol). I wish I remembered if I brushed my teeth and hair, changed clothes or took a shower during my stay in camp! I have stronger memories of seeing the Badlands for the first time and how awe inspiring they were, the nearly treeless grasslands, the clay buttes with their gray, reddish colors with a black strip (a coal layer). While I can’t remember precisely, I’m sure we stopped at the prairie dog towns and gawked at the bison that roamed the Park. It was love at first sight. By the way, below is a photo of the camp program, my Mom kept a lot of mementos that I recently rediscovered.
Those who have followed my blog for a while have likely seen one or more of my posts on the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I’ve been to the Park many times over the years, actually more since we moved to Wisconsin in 1987. My Traveling Partner’s family lives in Billings County where most of the Park is located so visits have became more frequent. I have thousands of photos to prove it! I’ve been there during all four seasons, some of my most memorable were in the winter; totally quiet and serene, very few visitors, and no snakes or bugs!
You might be asking yourself: “So what’s with the history and nostalgia where’s the commentary and opinion?” Well here it comes.
I think you’ll agree that South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park has some of the most interesting, unique, and beautiful landscape nature has made. Here are some summer and winter photos of the Little Missouri Scenic River from the Wind Canyon trail. In the third photo, note the deer crossing the ice covered river.
On a drive through the Park, visitors commonly see buffalo, wild horses, deer, and occasionally a bighorn sheep.
The Painted Canyon Overlook is right off I-94 on the east end of the Park. In the photos below is what visitors will see during their stop. Unfortunately, just three miles east from this awesome sight is a plan for an oil refinery. Huh?! Near a National Park? Yup, the developers have received a permit from the State of North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality without much of an environmental impact statement because it will refine less than 50,000 barrels of oil per day. I’m not against building a refinery in the middle of an oil field but why does it have to be sited near a geological and environmental treasure like Theodore Roosevelt National Park? Why not site the refinery at least 10 or 15 miles away from the park? This would have reduced much of the initial opposition and continuing controversy over the location of this plant. It seems from what I’ve been able to gather there were several places that would be more appropriate. Fortunately, the only work that’s been done is the leveling of the proposed site and the contractor who did the work hasn’t been paid for the work. The design company also went bankrupt so the design and building of this project continues to be pushed back with a proposed completion dates of 2023. I’m one hoping it never gets built on the current location. If Theodore Roosevelt was still living, I’m guessing he’d be rounding up the Roughriders to attack the site. And maybe carrying a big stick!
On the remote Northwest corner of the South Unit of the Park is the Petrified Forest Trail that takes you through the ancient petrified forest and wilderness areas. The day of my most recent visit, I pretty much had the place to myself. Below are some photos that show the appeal and uniqueness of this landscape. Several miles north of this location, near the Elkhorn Ranch Unit, the Billings County Commission is seeking to build a bridge across the Little Missouri Scenic River. The proposed bridge (to nowhere in my opinion) and approach road would cut through the historic Short Ranch, Don Short was a long time rancher and Member of Congress in late 1950’s to the mid 60’s. The proposed route is bad in itself but worse is the likely significant increase in oil field related traffic creating dust, noise and otherwise disturbing the peaceful nature of the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. As with the refinery, it’s about catering to the interests of the oil companies (in my opinion) over the preservation of protected and pristine lands. The Billings County Commission is appealing to the US Department of Transportation for the major portion of the funds needed to build this bridge, going around state approval processes and priorities. In my opinion, Western North Dakota has become on large industrial park with a few percent of land set aside for enjoyment; fresh clean air, birds singing, and crickets chirping. Again, I’m not against the fossil fuel industry, I think we need all types of energy sources for the future. But come on, don’t we deserve a place for peaceful respite from the many tribulations of the day? I believe we do! If you are so compelled to write a letter in opposition to this bridge, please contact me for the information of where to send your letter.
While not affected as much by these controversies, the more remote North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National has it’s distinctive charm, it’s one my favorite places to visit. It’s quiet, has abundant wildlife and the photography opportunities are plentiful.
That’s it for this week. Back to regular time next week.
Until then, happy virtual travels!