National Park Service

#1271 Current Events

#1271 Current Events

We speak with President Jefferson about current events including the government shutdown, philanthropy, and water shortages in Cape Town.

#1257 Down from the Mountain

#1257 Down from the Mountain

"Jefferson was a gentleman. Mountains weren't climbed in his time."

— Clay

This week, we speak with Clay about his recent mountain climbing experience and answer listener questions.

Not with a Bang, But a Whimper

Not with a Bang, But a Whimper

I’ve wanted to climb Mt. Whitney for twenty years or more, but it has never happened, because life kept getting in the way, and I didn’t ever want to do it alone, and not that many people are willing to entertain the thought of climbing straight up for eleven miles.

#1255 Show Mister Jefferson

#1255 Show Mister Jefferson

Prompted by a listener letter, Clay answers the question, “If Thomas Jefferson appeared before you today, what would you want to show him from our time?”

#1205 Save the Republic (Part One)

#1205 Save the Republic (Part One)

On episode #1200 Our Republic, President Thomas Jefferson spoke about the differences between a true democracy and a republic. In the podcast introduction, Clay S. Jenkinson asked Jefferson Hour listeners what their suggestions would be to improve or “save” our republic. Those many responses are discussed this and next week.

A Quarter, a Library & Animadversions

A Quarter, a Library & Animadversions

Listen in as Clay & David discuss their summers, the commemorative quarter for Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and new projects — including the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and a new book about conservation. Animadversions on this episode broach subjects such as food, recording quality and bibliophilic materialism.

The Elkhorn Ranch: If Not a National Monument, What?

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.


Well Done, Our Good and Faithful Public Servant

Valerie Naylor has been the superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park since 2003. Now she is retiring. I'm glad for Valerie, who is one of my closest friends, but sad for North Dakota. We need her brand of quiet but unapologetically firm leadership now more than ever, as the fracking industrial revolution encircles the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP).

Valerie has been an amazingly effective public servant during her 11-year tenure. She has borne the responsibility of protecting the national park through a period of unprecedented challenges: a pesky south unit inholding whose private owner tried to transform into an outsized pile of cash; repeated efforts to force a bridge across the sacred Little Missouri River in the vicinity of Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch; the long and divisive campaign to protect the Eberts Ranch (in the prime Elkhorn Ranch viewshed) by permitting its private owners to sell it either to the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service (in the end, it was the latter); the great elk-reduction controversy of 2010-2011, which even Valerie's loud and sometimes abusive critics eventually praised as a "classical textbook case of wise and thoughtful management"; and now the impact of the oil boom.

How do you honor private property rights and cooperate with reasonable development and at the same time protect North Dakota's only national park, which consists of three relatively small and separated units that sit right in the heart of oil country?

If the Bakken oil boom were on the perimeter of Yellowstone National Park there would be two very important differences. First, there would be an extremely robust local, regional, and national debate about responsible development in the vicinity of the park. Unfortunately, Theodore Roosevelt National Park and its crown jewel the Elkhorn Ranch are not sufficiently well known across America to generate the kind of national conversation they deserve. With most other national parks—Rainier, Arches, Yosemite, and perhaps especially Yellowstone—it is immediately and automatically understood that they belong to the whole people of the United States, that it is in the entire nation's interest to cherish and protect them, and that the local communities are not always the best custodians of their integrity.

Second, Yellowstone is so much larger than TRNP that perimeter distractions have less visual and audio impact on the heart of the park. Yellowstone National Park embraces 2.219 million acres, Theodore Roosevelt merely 70,000 acres, the largest parcel of which (the south unit) contains only 46,158 acres. From most places in Yellowstone or Glacier, you cannot see outside the park. You feel that the park goes on forever in every direction. There is almost no place in TRNP where you cannot observe what happens on the other side of the perimeter fence. From the highest point in the south unit, Buck Hill, you can see well more than a dozen oil sites, some of them of course flaring their untapped gasses. National park perimeters matter all over America, but they matter more in small parks than in the large ones.

Valerie has worked hand in hand with oil companies to limit their impact on the park experience. We go to national parks for many reasons, but somewhere near the center of their mission is a determination to provide us all a sanctuary from the everyday hustle and clutter of our advanced industrial civilization. We go to the national parks to enjoy a simplified, more basic experience in a place that is kept as far as is possible in its natural state. The national parks are remnants—perhaps "islands" is a better term--of the vast untrammeled wilderness that America once was. We go to them to find relief from the bustle, the humdrum, the consumerism, and the over-domestication of modern life. Theodore Roosevelt said we go to them so that we don't get too soft and comfortable.

Valerie has been a lover of Theodore Roosevelt National Park since she first visited the badlands in her childhood. She has worked in a number of other national parks and monuments in the course of her career, but this was the assignment she most wanted. She fully understands that a national park supervisor must address whatever challenges come her way, but I think it is fair to say that her life's dream was not to spend the heart of her career in weekly, sometimes daily, negotiations with oil company executives, striving to win little half-satisfying victories about where to place the rig, and what color to paint the storage tanks to blend in with park terrain. The amazing people who are drawn to careers in the National Park System have souls that are drawn to the bison snorting on the banks of the river in the morning fog, or the restoration of native grasses in a landscape that has been compromised by leafy spurge, or that exceedingly rare glimpse of a mountain lion slipping over the ridge. They want to do positive work to enrich the properties they manage, not fight rearguard skirmishes at tedious indoor public hearings.

I have had the good fortune to observe most of Valerie's tenure at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. She has done superb work along the lines of her park service job description, often in the face of criticism, but always in a way that makes her critics or opponents respect and genuinely like her. There is nothing brash or assertive or self-aggrandizing in her management style. She has such obvious integrity and character, and is so unfull of herself, so quietly dedicated to process and rational decision making, so unwilling to take the bait in the sometimes bombastic public debates, that she has won over two types of skeptical people: know-it-alls who believe they could manage the park better than any trained professional; and the large body of people who have an instinctive distaste for federal authority, federal supervision of the public domain, and federal employees (the feds!).

Valerie is not one of those temporary federal officials who appear on the horizon to take up a job, do it well, fraternize to a certain degree with the local folks, and then move on to the next assignment without much fanfare. She has become a friend to Medora, the badlands, and the people of North Dakota. In some cases, she has become family.

Now Valerie has purchased a beautiful modest conversion van RV. She plans to travel extensively throughout America—and beyond. She has more wanderlust than almost anyone I have ever known. I imagine her exploring America in that lovely rig, meandering from national park to national park and to wild places throughout the continent that most of us have never heard of. She has friends all over the country. She has an insane desire to step foot in every county of the United States.

I feel a little grumpy about her plan. My most persistent dream—since I was 18 years old—has been to buy a brand new, cat-free conversion van RV and travel the country for a year or two with books (now miniaturized on iPad!), cameras (no darkroom now required), and a typewriter (no postage now required). How I will envy Valerie as she wakes up in that rig, somewhere in America, on our public lands, with nowhere particular to be and a moose nosing about in the clearing.


Thanks to Valerie Naylor for Award-winning National Park Stewardship

As my mother and our guest and I sat around my dining room table on Thursday evening, we explained some of what we are thankful for this year. Our lists are long—health, friendship, family, freedom, longevity, and the abundance of American life. But this year I feel especially thankful that Valerie Naylor is the Superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

A few weeks ago, Valerie received the National Parks Conservation Association's prestigious Stephen T. Mather conservation award. She accepted the award at the 36th annual Ranger Rendezvous in St. Louis. It's an amazing achievement, all the more impressive because Valerie did not seek it and, in her characteristically modest and matter of fact manner, she neither expected it nor, for that matter, ever even thought about it. She just did her job with exceptional skill and thoughtfulness, and those who study the future of North Dakota from elsewhere in the nation realized how important her superintendency has become. She won the 2013 Mather Award for her outstanding vigilance in protecting Theodore Roosevelt National Park from the impact of the Bakken Oil Boom, and for her previous management of the complicated and controversial elk reduction project that reduced the elk herd at TRNP from 1200 to about 200 critters.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of America's 58 National Parks. The great documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has called the National Park System "America's best idea." TRNP is North Dakota's only National Park. It is one of North Dakota's best assets and finest treasures, without which we would be a far less interesting place. It is a relatively small national park, at 70,446 acres, and it is subdivided into three units: the North Unit near Watford City, the South Unit just north of Medora, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit (218) acres, midway between.

The three units embrace and protect some of the most beautiful and distinctive terrain on the Great Plains. Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) had a significant presence in all three units of what became the National Park, especially the Elkhorn, where he established one of his two Dakota Territory ranches between 1883 and 1887. All three units are bisected by the magnificent Little Missouri River. Because the three units are separated and fairly widely dispersed, they present a serious management challenge. They have lots of perimeter, and no single unit is sufficiently large for a visitor to escape entirely the nagging claims of the outside world.

Now that the Bakken Oil Boom has overwhelmed the landscapes, the social structure, the economy, and the politics of North Dakota, the National Park is beginning to resemble a beleaguered trio of wild and endangered islands surrounded in every direction by a noisy industrial revolution. The three units of TRNP are more important to North Dakota and the world every day, because they are becoming the last precious remnants of what was once an endless untrammeled wilderness, what Roosevelt described as "a land of vast silent spaces, of lonely rivers, and of plains where the wild game stared at the passing horseman." If that Rooseveltian sentence does not make you ache for our losses, nothing will.