Drifting down the river in the afternoon, gazing up at the blue blue sky, slipping past golden eagles as if they were sparrows or wrens, examining the famous White Cliffs that Lewis said had the feeling of “scenes of visionary enchantment,” and at times just pulling the paddles into the canoe to feel the gentle but inexorable tug of the continent, this too is paradise on earth.
"But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
— Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
We discuss Jefferson’s only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson completed his first draft of the book in 1781 and first published it anonymously in Paris in 1785. It is widely considered the most important American book published before 1800.
Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch is back in the news. A coalition of conservation groups and dedicated individuals have been pressing the Obama administration to designate the Elkhorn Ranch as a National Monument. Under the provisions of the Antiquities Act, passed by Congress in 1906, the President of the United States has the authority to designate National Monuments by presidential proclamation alone. No further congressional approval is necessary.
Since 1906, 142 National Monuments have been proclaimed by presidents of both parties, including, most recently, George W. Bush (six) and Barack Obama (sixteen). All eleven western states have National Monuments—in profusion. Minnesota and South Dakota each have one. North Dakota: none.
The history of the National Monuments system, beginning with President Roosevelt's designation of Devils Tower National Monument (September 24, 1906), tends to go something like this. Ardent local or national conservationists convince the president to make the designation, often over the strong, sometimes fierce, protests of local development interests. In the ensuing decades, most of the opposition subsides, except for a little residual grumbling in some quarters, and the localities come to realize that National Monument designation does wonders for tourism, which proves to be a sustainable and lucrative economic engine for the region in question. At some point, like Devils Tower (WY), Jewel Cave (SD), Death Valley (CA), and Scotts Bluff (NB), National Monuments become beloved local and national treasures, and sources of great pride in the very regions where they were at first opposed.
Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch headquarters is currently one of the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Consisting of a mere 218 acres, it has been called the crown jewel of the National Park. It is remote, pristine, serene, and not effortlessly accessible. As you approach the site, on a hike of about 1/3 of a mile, you realize with great joy that it is little changed since TR last departed.
Maybe indeed Roosevelt just departed—and will return with stories of fabulous adventures, covered with dirt, blood, and grit, "all teeth and eyes," as Victor Hugo Stickney described him in 1884. The Elkhorn Ranch deserves to be cherished as a national shrine to TR, who "became" the larger-than-life Theodore Roosevelt of American memory during his sojourn in North Dakota's badlands, and who turned out to be the greatest conservationist in presidential history thanks to the dynamic interplay of wildlife, habitat, hunting, grazing, resource exploitation he observed along the banks of the Little Missouri River.
Roosevelt chose the Elkhorn site in 1884 for its beauty and remoteness, made it his Dakota Territory headquarters and retreat center, and returned to it again and again, even after he left North Dakota, as a place where he could hunt, read, write, and restore his great spirit in times of perplexity and sorrow. He grieved for his first wife Alice there. He wrote parts of at least two of his books there. He seems to have formulated some of his revolutionary conservation principles there.
The Elkhorn Ranch was much larger than 218 acres, of course. According to the informal custom of the badlands at the time, TR was entitled to "claim" a ranch that extended four miles upriver and four miles downriver from his headquarters, and all the way out to the end of the Little Missouri drainage system. That means he had an effective ranch claim of 20-30,000 acres. When Theodore Roosevelt National Park was created by Congress in 1947, only the ranch headquarters was set aside to protect and commemorate TR's Elkhorn experiences. Back then the size of the NPS site was not particularly important, because it was so remote and inaccessible, and it was surrounded solely by the kind of family ranches that Roosevelt prized.
The Elkhorn National Monument would probably include the 218-acre ranch site, the 5,200-acre former Eberts Ranch, purchased by the U.S. National Forest System in 2006, and perhaps some modest parcels of adjacent North Dakota state lands and private property. The National Monument would attempt to knit these parcels together to conserve forever Roosevelt's "greater Elkhorn Ranch," ensure that the viewshed from the ranch headquarters will never be ruined or compromised by industrial or commercial activity, and provide a critical buffer around the ranch headquarters to protect it from the noise, dust, and visual scarring of oil development. Oil extraction in the vicinity has already begun to diminish the quality of experience that Roosevelt sought at the Elkhorn (silence, serenity, the sense of inhabiting a landscape barely touched by human enterprise). As the oil boom continues, pressures on the Elkhorn will grow in intensity.
To understand what is at stake, we need to remember how small the current Elkhorn site is. 218 acres is about a third of a section of land. Imagine what it would be like if Old Faithful were merely a quarter mile from an interstate highway, an array of oil storage tanks, or a gold or copper mine. If we could ensure that the 218-acre Elkhorn headquarters would always be surrounded by traditional cattle ranching, there would be no threat to the sanctitude of the shrine. But the U.S. Forest Service's National Grasslands have a multiple use mandate—mining, oil development, gravel extraction, grazing, recreation, etc.
The Forest Service is decidedly lukewarm about the idea of an Elkhorn National Monument, for at least three reasons. First, when the Eberts ranch was sold to the U.S. Forest Service ten years ago, there was an "understanding" that the land would continue to be available for a range of non-commemorative uses. Second, a re-designation of the land would create a turf between federal agencies. Third, most of the Little Missouri River ranch community is hostile to the idea of the National Monument, in part because they don't want any further acreage "locked up" by the federal government. Since the Forest Service has to work continuously with badlands ranchers to regulate their use of federal grazing lands, it is not eager to damage what is already an often-contentious relationship.
Last week the Billings County Commission rejected the idea emphatically, arguing that commodity production is the heart of the economy of Billings County. Presidents can proclaim National Monuments over the objection of local and state entities, but they are generally reluctant to do so unless they are able to secure at least the grudging support of a state's congressional delegation, the governor, and local communities. It seems unlikely that President Obama will declare the Elkhorn a National Monument. The president does not seem to have much passion for conservation measures of this sort, and Roosevelt does not appear to be one of his heroes.
But if nothing is done, the Elkhorn Ranch will be seriously degraded in the years and decades ahead.
If we care about Theodore Roosevelt as a man we helped shape for national and international greatness, North Dakota's "honorary president," certainly one of the greatest individuals who ever lived among us, if we cherish Theodore Roosevelt National Park as one of the finest things in North Dakota, if we believe that anything, (something!) is too sacred to sacrifice on the altar of carbon extraction, we must together find a way to protect and conserve the Elkhorn Ranch.
To do nothing because there is no easy thing to do is a formula for the permanent degradation of one of the most important places in America. To do nothing is the very antithesis of what Theodore Roosevelt represents in American life.
This year I had the joy of making the Lewis and Clark trip with my daughter, now 20, who is spending her summer in Dakota with her adoring papa. For many years I have wanted to bring her on this tour, but she was a serious 4H participant through high school, and the county fair down in northwestern Kansas always competed with Lewis and Clark. Pigs and pies trumped John Colter and Pierre Cruzatte.
The Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Herodotus said you can never walk into the same river twice. He was talking about actual rivers, of course, but also something metaphorical much bigger than rivers. All my life I have been drawn to rivers—more than lakes, oceans, seas, or prairie potholes. I love their linearity, their sinuousness, their purposefulness in carrying their silten loads down towards a faraway sea or gulf. As Herodotus understood, a river is an invitation to philosophize, to muse about the not-same person who wades into the not-same river a second time. Where does the water come from? Where does it go? How does it keep recharging itself? Is it possible to find and bestride its source? If you do, what have you accomplished? Since I was last here, who or what have I become?
We are fortunate to have one of the world's great rivers running right through our lives in North Dakota. The Missouri River and its tributaries drain the entire Great Plains before being absorbed by the mighty Mississippi at St. Charles, Missouri. The Missouri was America's first highway to the far west—until replaced by the Oregon Trail in the mid-19th century. As he closed in on its source in August 1805, Captain Meriwether Lewis marveled that so extensive a river was navigable so deep into the interior of the continent, more than 2,500 free-flowing miles, he reckoned. Lewis was more accustomed to such rivers as the James, the Potomac, and the Ohio, where the fall lines (waterfalls) cut the river in half and posed a serious impediment to navigation.
Unfortunately, the giant dams between Fort Peck, Montana, and the bottom of South Dakota, have metamorphosed (to use one of Lewis's words) the wild Missouri into a series of tame flat-water reservoirs, whose purpose is flood control, irrigation, power generation; and to support an entirely unnecessary barge industry between Sioux City, Iowa, and St. Louis. Not very sexy. The dark genius of America has been to transform the new world Garden of Eden into an industrial infrastructure designed to provide us security and comfort and profit rather than adventure and romance.
You can pretend you are visiting the old authentic Missouri up at its confluence with the Yellowstone River southwest of Williston; or by floating the 90 or so "free-flowing" miles of the Missouri between the tailrace of Garrison Dam and the Oahe Reservoir slack water just south of Bismarck. But even in those beautiful places you are not encountering the true Missouri, but rather humankind's wing-clipped Missouri Valley water management system. There was a proposal in the last thirty years to rip rap the entire stretch between Garrison Dam and Bismarck, just to make sure that the river could never again jump its banks and redesign its course. Thank goodness that weak-souled plan was never fully implemented.
If you want to see the Missouri in something like its natural state, you have to go to Montana. The stretch between Fort Benton and the backwater of Fort Peck Reservoir (hundreds of river miles) bears a very light industrial footprint. Cattle have replaced the buffalo, and dilapidated shacks have replaced tipis, but otherwise the river looks the way Lewis and Clark left it in August 1806. When you turn your canoe into the stretch of river that runs through the White Cliffs (Meriwether Lewis's "scenes of visionary enchantment") or the Missouri Breaks and badlands, you are suddenly thrust back into a time before we decided that the Missouri River could no longer be trusted to manage its own destiny. For a few stolen days you find yourself floating through Karl Bodmer's America rather than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' hydraulic corridor.
I float the White Cliffs every year now, with a couple of dozen fellow travelers. It has a kind of "same time next year" feel, except that I am not the same person as last year (or next), and the river is a different creature every time, too. Three days are not a lot of time in so magnificent a place, but even in so brief an encounter the experience is profoundly restorative. Each year I go kicking and screaming—not enough time, too many projects, too much work to do, my body and soul are unprepared, and what about my garden? And each year I am in some sense born again on the second day out when the accumulated crud in my heart and soul slips away into the river and transforms me into a leaner, clearer, happier, more serene, more alive, more present organism, more in tune with what Jefferson called "Nature and Nature's God."
By now I've canoed the White Cliffs section of the Missouri River southeast of Fort Benton, Montana, a dozen times. We've had thunderstorms and punishing headwinds and days so hot that you wind up dipping your baseball cap ten times per hour just to stay cool enough to continue. There have been many whole afternoons when my canoe mate and I just rest the paddles and drift down the continent, letting the river take us where it listeth, dozing, soaking up the hot Montana sun like human zucchini, gazing from time to time at the stunning sandstone outcroppings and the igneous dikes that thrust themselves up between sandstone formations eons ago and now stand like the ruins of some lost pre-Columbian empire.
At the end of the day, we usually jump out of the canoes in our life jackets and just bob down the river like corks. That's when you feel closest to God and the river god Missouri, and surrender to something much bigger than yourself.
On the last camping night of the journey, I wandered away from the group and found a spot to lie down in underneath a grove of 50 or so lodge pole pines. It was a calm clear night. A very slight breeze wafted through the mountains every few minutes. At ground level the breeze was so slight as to be essentially imperceptible, but up at the top of the trees it created a gentle sway and stir. Lodge pole pines are named from their pencil-like straightness; they were prized by plains Indians for tipi poles. As I took the time to look up at them, I realized that they are almost unbelievably thin, like reeds or tall grass, no more than a foot in diameter, often less, and yet 75-125 feel tall. All praise to the engineer! The subtle dance of the treetops was astonishingly beautiful. It made me ache. About half the trees are now dying from the pine beetle epidemic in the American West. But as I lay there drinking in the pine tree poetry, mesmerized by their grace, I realized that the pine beetles are just doing their job, filling their evolutionary niche, and the trees will come back stronger when that moment comes.
I know this, surely. I will continue to make this odyssey as long as my body holds up—twenty years, I trust—and I will try always to look into the mirror Herodotus holds up before us. We see through the glass darkly, but woe to those who refuse to gaze into the river looking for clues.