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Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, the “Walden Pond of the West,” Threatened by North Dakota’s Oil Boom

By John McChesney

Note: A radio version of this story ran on NPR's Morning Edition today.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota is often called the “Walden Pond of the West.” But Roosevelt’s ranch today is in the midst of an oil boom that is industrializing the local landscape. Critics say a proposed gravel pit and a bridge could destroy the very thing that made such a lasting impression on Roosevelt: the restorative power of wilderness.

It’s not easy to reach the place that Roosevelt said created the best memories of his life. Over 30 miles of dirt road, then and a mile-and-a-half hike, lie between a visitor and the ranch. Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor drove me out on a Sunday. We didn’t see another person at the ranch site, which sits on the banks of the Little Missouri River. 

Naylor showed me the old hand-dug well and the ranch house’s massive foundation stones, cut from granite. “That’s what’s so special about the Elkhorn ranch,” she told me, “We don’t have anything that’s reconstructed here – we just have a site and it’s the way that it was – for the most part – when Roosevelt first found it in summer of 1884. So it’s very special.”

The long drive out here takes you across the North Dakota Badlands, which are in fact beautiful, not bad. Because they made for hard travelling, early French trappers called them so. The area is crisscrossed with ravines (called coulees), meadows at bottom, tree-lined on the sides, and bordered by gray and red walls. Their fantastical formations fracture the horizon. Naylor said the site’s isolation is its charm. “You can see and hear things that many people have never seen or heard,” she explained, “That is, a landscape without any development, or minimal and all natural sounds, birds, wind in the cottonwood trees, and that’s exactly what Roosevelt heard and wrote about while he was here at the Elkhorn ranch.” (Read More)

Massive cottonwoods, some of them probably here in Roosevelt’s day, their leaves quaking in the wind, line the Little Missouri river, which winds like a brown snake through the gray cliffs. Roosevelt first came here in 1883 to hunt buffalo, but he was so seduced by the landscape that he bought a ranch.  

Naylor says before Roosevelt finished the ranch house, he went back home to be present when his wife delivered a child. “When he went back home in February of 1884, his wife died two days after giving birth,” she says, “And his mother died in the same house on the same day. He was devastated. So later in the year, he came out here to mourn, and really to leave his life in New York behind, and to become a cattle rancher in Dakota Territory.”

Roosevelt built a 30-by-60 foot cabin with a broad veranda on the banks of the river, which became a place of recovery, reverie, and reflection on the future of the West. Historian Douglas Brinkley, the author of Wilderness Warrior, a history of Roosevelt’s conservationist accomplishments says this about the ranch: “If Walden Pond is known as the birthplace of preservationism, conservation and the ideas were born on the Elkhorn as much as anywhere. It’s a place where extreme solitude, and historical sanctity, a place where Theodore Roosevelt generated his ideas for his crusade to save wild and special places in the United States.”

Park Superintendent Naylor fears that North Dakota’s Bakken oil boom will despoil the ranch, that wells will be drilled along the ridges lining the Little Missouri.  She worries about plans to mine a gravel pit just across the river on National Forest land: “The proposal for the gravel pit is less than a mile from the Elkhorn Ranch site. Highly visible and the sound would travel here for sure. We would see a lot of dust and a lot of industrial activity.”

The other threat to the isolated ranch site is a bridge to be built nearby, primarily to service oil field trucks. The park service is not opposed to a bridge, as long as it’s not too close to the park. Jim Arthaud is chairman of the Billings County Board of Supervisors, and he owns a trucking company. He says the county can’t dictate where the bridge is built, “even though we know damn well where that bridge belongs,” he says, “on federal ground, about three miles north.”

Arthaud says he’s sure that would be out of earshot and eyesight of the park. Naylor says studies have yet to be done to sustain that claim. Arthaud, whose county gets nearly 100 percent of its revenue from oil and gas, says the bridge would be good for tourists as well. “The whole public would be able to use that place, not just the elitist environmentalists. That lousy 50-however many acres it is – 200? – where Teddy sat and rested his head, and found himself.”

It’s estimated that about a thousand trucks a day would cross that bridge. Jim Arthaud has a message for Park Superintendent Naylor: “When she talks about noise, she needs to understand that there’s private property rights in the United States of America, and that Elkhorn Ranch is surrounded by people who own mineral rights, and it’s going to get developed. Minerals underneath that land are probably worth $15,000 an acre.”

Douglas Brinkley says messing up that ranch site would do a great dishonor to the man who did so much for conservation in America. “Theodore Roosevelt, as president, saved over 234 million acres of wild America. There’s been no president that’s come close to what Theodore Roosevelt did in the environmental realm, and that was over a hundred years ago.”

Back in February, Roosevelt’s great-great grandson Tweed met with President Obama and urged him to declare the whole area a national monument via executive order, a tool often used by Roosevelt himself – and more recently by Bill Clinton.  But should that should happen, Commissioner Arthaud says, locals would raise hell and do everything in their power to stop it. 

Photographs by John McChesney


Last modified Tue, 23 Apr, 2013 at 19:40