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.
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.
Long before white people showed up, what would become North Dakota was the home of buffalo and antelope, elk and grizzly bears, and indigenous people who either roamed the plains on foot in pursuit of the great herds or farmed along the river bottoms. The former lived in tipis and wickiups, and the latter dwelled in round earthlodges. At times the game could be hunted out in some very local sense, but the technologies of American Indians were such, and their understanding of the chain of being so deeply respectful, that there was never a question of killing so many of anything that the resources central to their lifeway would collapse.
Then came Euro-Americans, Verendrye from the north in 1738, Lewis and Clark from the south in 1804. White folks run by a different software. Lewis and Clark saw their first grizzly bear just south of today's Bismarck in October 1804. By the summer of 1805 they were killing every grizzly they could, not for food but because they regarded them as a dangerous nuisance. Today there are no grizzly bears in North Dakota, and though elk have been reintroduced in and around Theodore Roosevelt National Park, they were hunted out in the age of Theodore Roosevelt (who mentioned several times that he had killed the "last" elk), and they probably could not survive here if it weren't for the protection of the national park.
Once the floodgates of Euro-American settlement were opened, it was only a matter of time before more than 90% of the land base was privatized, thanks to the homestead programs, under which fully 39% of North Dakota was deeded out, what now appear to be obscene land grants to the railroads, and private speculation corporations. When Indians refused to get out of the way or sell out by way of "legal" land cessions, the white newcomers drove them off the lands they coveted, and finally settled them on reservations, which at the time were seen as temporary holding zones for Indians who would soon either disappear altogether or be assimilated into the new dominant culture. The tenacity and resilience of American Indians in the face of the unrelenting pressures white culture has employed against them is one of the most significant (and joyful) developments in the modern history of North Dakota. We are an incomparably richer culture for the continuing presence of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Dakota, Lakota, Assiniboine, and Ojibwe in North Dakota life.
The first homestead in North Dakota was filed in the northeast corner of the state in 1868 (early), but the great homesteading boom did not occur until the period between 1890 and 1920. Fully 39% of North Dakota's 45 million acres were homesteaded, second only to Nebraska, where 45% of the land was homesteaded. The percentage in Indiana was less than 1%, because most of that land had been deeded out by the time Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862. More than ten million acres (23%) of North Dakota were handed over to the railroads in post-Civil War era as an infrastructural economic incentive.
For many decades North Dakota was primarily a producer of wheat (and some cattle). Today, on the Fourth of July, less than a quarter of the state is carpeted in wheat. From 1889 to 1989 we were an essentially agrarian backwater, a broad open land of family farms and ranches. Since 1989, certainly since the millennium in 2000, we have been graduating into a more mixed economy (with or without the oil boom). The day may soon come when agriculture slips out of first place as the engine of the North Dakota economy. That will be a sad day for the agrarian dream. Meanwhile, we are, in the second decade of the new century, knocking on the door of corporate agriculture.
The first population peak in North Dakota occurred in 1930, at 680,845. The second peak is occurring now. At the moment, the best estimates show 739,482 people living in North Dakota, the largest population in our history. Some people believe the population will reach one million in the next twenty years. Where will we put them!?
Think of the transformation. In 1830, none of North Dakota's 45 million acres had been plowed, and very few acres had been planted by the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Indians. Today, there are only a handful of acres left in North Dakota that have never been plowed, and the demise of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) means that we are moving back towards fence post to fence post tilling. Actually, we are tearing up the fences and shelterbelts, too. My point is that North Dakota has been a culturally modified landscape for most of its recorded history. To see it as it looked before the first plow broke the prairie grasses would now be an overwhelming, and perhaps disturbing, experience. I know an artist who ventured to Mongolia to see endless grassland without the rectilinear grid of section and township lines. She felt swallowed up.
Making North Dakota viable for modern white civilization required an amazing sequence of infrastructural "developments." A U.S. military presence (occupation may be a better word) to protect white settlers from the displaced native peoples whose lands we appropriated. This included Fort Totten, Fort Berthold, Fort Abercrombie, Fort Buford, Fort Lincoln, etc. Steamboat service (1832-1870) along the Missouri and the Red Rivers. Railroads, including the two upper latitude transcontinentals, the Northern Pacific (approved 1864, completed 1883) and the Great Northern (completed 1893). Paved roads, including U.S. 10 (created 1926) and U.S. 2 (organized 1919 as the Theodore Roosevelt International Highway), U.S. 83 and U.S. 81. Rural electrification (begun under the New Deal in 1936, finally completed in the remotest hollers of North Dakota in the 1970s). The telegraph, followed by the telephone, followed by fiber optic cable, followed by the Internet. Airports. Microwave towers. Cell towers. An extensive and enviable university system. The Interstate Highways of the 60s and 70s.
Lay the groundwork, and then reap the benefits.
Now, suddenly, thanks to oil, we are rich in an unprecedented way.
If I may use a slang term, the 2014-15 downturn in world oil prices freaked a lot of people out, including many members of the North Dakota legislature. But the experts are almost unanimously confident that oil prices will climb back up, more or less permanently, and that the economic upturn in North Dakota will continue for many decades. Three factors have brought about our unprecedented prosperity. First, there is a giant carbon foundation under western North Dakota, including lignite coal. Sorry Minnesota. Second, a technological revolution in oil extraction has occurred in the last fifteen years, and Continental Oil's Harold Hamm had the insight to bring it to bear on our Bakken shale oil deposits. Third, during the darkest period of our recent history (1980-1995), North Dakota's political leaders, led by former ND Governor Ed Schafer, created a friendly business (i.e., regulatory) climate in the state, which makes North Dakota a more desirable oil extraction platform than Montana and Saskatchewan.
Just what the future holds is unclear. The question will not be how will we pay our bills, but how we should invest public wealth so vast that our grandparents could never have conceived of it, much less expected it to happen here.
This much is sure. We won't be slopping the hogs hereafter, or walking four miles to school through a January blizzard.
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.
On Monday, March 5, I heard my first thunder of 2014. It was the 125th day of the year, one of the first shirtsleeve days of 2014. I'd been in Dickinson for an early evening meeting. My soul is ragged these days. I'd promised myself I'd bend down in prayer before a crocus (pasqueflower) before the day was out, and I have learned to measure my mental health in reverse proportion to the number of days since I was last in the badlands. So on a whim I drove to Medora, into Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and then into Cottonwood Campground. I'm keeping what I call "last minute camping equipment" in my vehicle through the summer.
Given the rapid industrialization of western North Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt National Park has emerged as the one last pure sanctuary where, as long as you are facing inward from its boundaries, you can climb up over a ridge and be sure you will not see a fracking rig or an array of storage tanks on the other side. There is something deeply, even profoundly, comforting in knowing that the National Park will always be able to deliver that spiritual solace—a quiet landscape left alone by man's hustlings—no matter what happens beyond the park perimeters.
There were just five occupied campsites in Cottonwood campground. Three of them had large RVs, and there was one other tent a few hundred yards away. RV and fifth wheel folks tend to spend their time inside their portable houses, which begs some questions, but makes them ideal campsite neighbors.
Part of what makes tent and backpack camping so enjoyable is the way it forces simplification on our lives. If you have to carry it on your back, you are not going to take much, and much that you think you need you soon find that you don't.
It was a "short notice camping trip," so all I had was a blue and off-white tent, a lightweight air mattress, a sleeping bag, water, an exquisitely elegant and miniature gas cooking burner, two miniature pans, a plastic knife and spoon, a small salt and pepper shaker in one reversible cylinder, a Swiss Army Knife, a butane lighter, one food packet, two small bars of chocolate, a miner's lamp that you attach to your forehead with its elastic headband, and a book. I had a backpack, too, but this was car camping, so I barely needed it. This whole ensemble weighed less than twenty pounds. There is something purely delightful in assembling all this miniature high-tech gear. I was roughing it, but roughing it at the top of a very ingenious industrial pyramid.
Nor is such gear cheap. Making any important thing lightweight is an expensive challenge. I just made an itemized list of the gear described above, and the retail price—if you were starting tomorrow—comes to $1,385.40. The backpack ($450), tent ($250), and sleeping bag ($250) are the big ticket items, but once you have them they will last for twenty years or more, if you aren't infected with a raging itch for newer, lighter, more ingenious gear. I can hear my father saying, $1400 would buy a lot of hotel rooms, and they throw in the shower and toilet.
As soon as I had picked my campsite (a very complex enterprise in an organized campground, fraught with second-guessing, backtracking, and lingering misgivings), I walked down to the sacred Little Missouri River. It was up, but not greatly up, and flowing as calmly as it ever gets. I reckoned I could walk through it without wetting my chin, but it was now just an hour before sunset and I didn't want to have to start a fire at my campsite. I never light fires when I am alone. It feels self-indulgent and, though I know it is silly, I don't like the feeling of being exposed alone in the firelight with darkness all around me. I put up the tent (four minutes), and threw my sleeping bag over a bush to air out. The air mattress is one of those self-inflating units.
In honor of the 17-day hike I took on the Little Missouri River a few years ago, and in pursuit of simplicity, I decided to cook a freeze-dried meal from a plastic pouch. You can buy them now at any good outdoor recreation store. They are surprisingly tasty. I chose Chicken & Rice, but if I remember correctly the Lasagna and the Kung Pao Chicken are the best of the lot. All you do is tear open the top of the package, pour in 14 ounces of boiling water, seal up the packet (it has a double ziplock), and let it stand for about ten minutes. Voila: a hot camp meal that occupies a space somewhere between "not bad" and "surprisingly good." I wouldn't recommend it for a date, but on the whole I wouldn't recommend camping with anyone who isn't as eager to do it as you are. The 6 a.m. sullen, sleep-deprived, "I cannot believe you talked me into this," "this is going to be a very bad hair day," look is priceless, but you do wind up paying a price down the line.
After supper, I folded and tucked all the miniature gear back into the appropriate satchels. This is an important part of the ritual, for it reminds us of how little we really need in life, how easily our basic needs can be met, and how much more graspable and manageable life is when we reduce it to lowest terms.
For a while I read my book—a novel by Dickens—at the picnic table, using my nerd headlamp. For a while I stood silently in the juniper trees listening to the concert of a half a dozen species of birds bedding down for the night. And listening to the strange comings and goings of the breeze—a long period of complete calm followed by a little flow-through of purposeful air, and then two more soughings through my campsite, a longer one and a shorter, at long intervals, but never rising to the strength of wind. I remembered John 3:8: "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit."
It is a little eerie standing there all alone on the banks of the Little Missouri River, ears on special alert, trying to drink in the spirit of place of the Great Plains, trying to identify the sounds of quiet (crickets, frogs, owls, bats, small rustling mammals in the dry grass), and puzzling over the way the unhurried breeze now visits, kissing the tops of the trees, and then slips away like a living presence.
An hour later, cocooned in my down bag, I heard the first rumble of 2014 thunder off to the west. As I dozed in and out of sleep the little starter storm crept in to my tentsite, and gave me two outstanding "just over your head" ka-booms, no interval between the flash of lightning and the thunder retort.
It was just scary enough to be perfect. It was the sound of a much-anticipated summer in North Dakota.
My goal this summer is to visit all the Special Places designated by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and the North Dakota Industrial Commission. Last Saturday I took a couple of delightful badlands greenhorns to the Killdeer Mountains and Little Missouri State Park. We drove from Bismarck to Dickinson the easy way as quickly as possible. Then the adventure began. We turned north.
North Dakota highway 22 between Dickinson and the New Town turnoff used to be one of the greatest roads of the Great Plains. Now it is not much more than an industrial corridor, one of the two north-south transportation trunkways in the Bakken Oil Industrial Park. The other is US85. When I was growing up in the 1960s, ND22 was one of those wonderful "barely paved" roads, narrow, serpentine, a little dangerous in places, a slender ribbon of asphalt that looked as if it might just blow away in the next big drought. You felt like you were on a vision quest when you drove it, especially north of Killdeer. During the last oil boom, in the 70s and 80s, it was widened and straightened and given proper shoulders. That made it safer and less interesting. And now it has been transformed into an ugly industrial corridor. You cannot believe how long it takes you these days to get out of Dickinson's corrugation-and-Quonset shadow. The north-suburb stoplights stretch up to where Manning is supposed to be!
We stopped at what's left of Lost Bridge 20 miles north of Killdeer. The funky old steel girder bridge, built during the Clutch Plague, has been gone since 1994, when a typically bland and efficient DOT concrete slab replaced it. It used to be one of the most delightful moments in North Dakota wandering, to crest the bluff where the rolling plains break down and suddenly you are cast right down into the heart of the badlands, and way, way down there where a cottonwood river runs through the scene there was the uncanny little steel arch of Lost Bridge. Somehow that lonely bridge made a magical landscape even more magical. It reminded you of both the poverty and the audacity of North Dakota in 1930, tucked up in almost complete isolation at the top of America along the Canadian border, a profoundly rural and simple land of barely mechanized farms and traditional horseback cattle ranches. The bridge had been built in anticipation of a serious north-south road, a paved road, but the funds just weren't there in those desperate years when a third of the people of North Dakota were on direct federal assistance, and the outmigration was appalling, so the bridge, impressive for its time, just sat there all alone, gleaming for no good reason in the middle of nowhere, with a two track dirt road snaking off in either direction.
Lost Bridge was part of the romance of North Dakota. That romance is being erased now at a furious pace because that vast sweet western landscape is being refitted as rapidly as possible as an industrial platform for the mere extraction of oil and gas. Our gods are now Efficiency and Profit and Economic Development and Production. Nothing is sacred to such gods. The Bakken carbon zone is merely a problem to be solved—how to turn that entire landscape into an interlocking extraction machine as efficiently as possible. There is no room for romance in such a paradigm, or the kind of quaint country heritage that you find in those old thick county history books, Slope Saga, Pioneer Tales, and Echoing Trails. There is no longer any respect for the sacred places of North Dakota, because to grant that anything is sacred the extractors would have to acknowledge that western North Dakota is something more than an industrial platform, and that would force them to do some tiptoeing, which would violate the gods of Efficiency and Profit. To such an Extraction Engine the Lost Bridges of the West are just a nuisance and the badlands are just a slightly more challenging development platform than the smooth plains all around them.
One small section of the old girder bridge has been embedded into a roadside turnoff on the south side of the Little Missouri River. A number of years ago a superb outsized metal historical marker was attached to the last span, with an incised image of old Lost Bridge and information about how it came to be lost. The sign is gone now. Where did it go? It was too big to be stolen, so it must have been demoted.
The Republican Party platform, adopted a week ago in Minot, opposed the proposed Clean Water, Wildlife, and Parks Fund Constitutional Measure by declaring proudly that North Dakota has "balanced development needs of the industry with the stewardship of our state's natural, historical, and environmental resources."
Here's an example. Precisely where ND 22 sweeps up to the lip of the Lost Bridge badlands, precisely where the rolling plains yield to the magnificent chasm of the Little Missouri River, in what has to be regarded by any breathing being as one of the four or five most beautiful places in North Dakota (or for that matter, on the Great Plains), a Salt Water Disposal plant has been erected. There it is, right on the rim, right at the entrance to Little Missouri State Park, a dozen large brown cylindrical storage tanks, and an array of dumping stations that looks like a gigantic covered truck stop. A line of huge mud-splattered oil trucks idles nearby, waiting their turns, their diesel gurglings replacing the quietude of the last great stretch of the Little Missouri with industrial noise.
All I can say is that you have to go see it to believe that such a facility could be built in such a place, when it could just as easily have been built just about anywhere in the neighborhood, and at the very least a couple of miles back from the South Rim of the Little Missouri gorge. If you didn't know better, if you were a visitor from Jupiter, you'd have to conclude that it was put there for the express purpose of destroying the view and the serenity and the grandeur and the poetry of the place. But you do know better. It wasn't erected in one of the most sublime places in North Dakota out of malice. It was thrown up there out of indifference.
At the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, in May 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt said, "Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it." Well, this is our Grand Canyon, and oh my have we marred it. Who's responsible for this travesty? We are. Industry is indifferent. Dunn County didn't stop it. The state of North Dakota permitted it. We the people were apparently asleep and, voila, one morning it was there.
I urge you with the deepest sincerity to go see it right away. And ask yourself, is this ok? Is this "balanced development" that exhibits "stewardship of our state's natural, historical, and environmental resources."
A few weeks ago I wrote here that I regarded the Special Places initiative as perhaps the most important moment of North Dakota history in my lifetime. This last week the ND Industrial Commission voted unanimously to "approve" Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem's proposal—but so stripped of its original intent as to be essentially pointless and meaningless. The original proposal (December 2013) would have designated a number of Special Places in western North Dakota and required oil companies to tiptoe around them as they extracted carbon from under both public and private land in their immediate vicinity. In its second generation (February 2014) the Initiative went from a proposed rule to a proposed process, thus seriously reducing its capacity to really protect anything. And now it has been stripped, at the Governor's insistence, of any application to private land and private minerals.
I am by nature an optimist. But for the moment I am really deeply saddened to see the Industrial Commission throw its immense weight (as usual) behind the dynamics of wholesale development—drill, baby, drill—rather than take measured risks on behalf of the commonwealth values of North Dakota. The Industrial Commission has a constitutionally-mandated responsibility to create broad policy protocols for economic activity in North Dakota. In other words, the state government of North Dakota has the right and responsibility to set the terms of industrial engagement as we strip our countryside of its immense oil shale reserves. If Governor Dalrymple and Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring had voted to adopt Attorney General Stenehjem's proposal as he originally presented it, the oil industry and "landowner groups" would have howled, but they would have soon found a way to work with the new protocols, which would have affected only a tiny fraction of the oil properties in North Dakota. Even in its original form, the Initiative would not have prevented a single barrel of oil from being extracted from beneath our soil.
So what's left after last week's vote? A list of special places—still a very good thing, in my opinion, because the State of North Dakota has now gone on record as believing that there really are some extraordinary places worthy of special care. James Madison resisted the Bill of Rights at first (1787) because he thought it would be a mere "parchment guarantee." He was wrong. The Bill of Rights has become a fundamental baseline American text around which we the people can rally when our natural rights are jeopardized. Think of the power of "invoking the fifth," or demanding respect for "my first amendment rights" (or second). The Special Places List of 2014 gives the people who love the landscape of western North Dakota official permission to rally around more than a dozen extraordinarily beautiful and fragile places that need and deserve advocates.
The effective collapse of the Special Places initiative points to a deep problem of North Dakota life. If the Special Places were Mount Rushmore, the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone Falls, Monument Valley, Devils Tower, Half Dome, Mount Rainier, or Lake Tahoe, I believe even a pro-development Industrial Commission would find ways to protect their sanctity by setting special conditions for industrial activity on adjacent private properties. If our Special Places were as obviously spectacular as the ones listed above, the people of North Dakota (and throughout the United States) would be their champions and clamor for their protection. The simple truth is that most North Dakotans have never seen the Killdeer Mountains or Pretty Butte or even Little Missouri State Park. Most North Dakotans live well east of Bismarck (the 100th Meridian), and the closer you get to the Red River Valley, where the bulk of our population lives, the more North Dakotans lean into Minnesota. They look east not west. Their idea of a special place is Detroit Lakes.
North Dakota's Special Places are not sublime in the Grand Teton sense of the term. Probably only a few dozen North Dakotans have been to all 18 of them. Most North Dakotans will acknowledge that the badlands are pretty, but when they say "badlands," most North Dakotans are referencing what you see from the Painted Canyon overlook off Interstate 94, what you see from the Burning Hills Amphitheater, or (a couple of times in a lifetime) along the loop road in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Most North Dakotans have never been to Bullion Butte and only a few thousand have ever climbed it. White Butte, the highest point in North Dakota, at 3,506 feet, is hard to pinpoint as you hurtle along US 85 between Belfield and Bowman. It's not even as impressive as its more traditional cousin Black Butte (on the other side of the highway), and it generally gets talked about by way of a flatlander's smirk.
We North Dakotans undervalue the beauty of our landscapes, including our public lands. We compare our landscapes unfavorably with those of Colorado, Utah, and Montana, or the woods and lake country of Minnesota. For most of North Dakota's policy makers, by which I mean the Industrial Commissioners, the state's regulatory bureaucrats, and most members of the state legislature, the lands in question are something of an abstraction. The attitude of most North Dakotans is that there is not much special here, that the country west of the Missouri River is a vast and largely bleak empty quarter that should be damned grateful that it now finally has found a way to attract economic development. Matthew 6:1: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
I sincerely wonder how many of the Special Places our three Industrial Commissioners have visited. I don't mean by flying over them in a plane or helicopter or driving past them en route to somewhere else in suit and tie. I mean get out of the car and spend some time in hiking boots. I know that Wayne Stenehjem ventured quietly to Bullion Butte when it became an issue before the Industrial Commission a year or so ago. That seems to me to be exemplary leadership. I wish the three commissioners would take a weeklong Special Places vacation, with no media and no neckties, camp out on the ground (no RVs) at Pretty Butte north of Marmarth, and climb White Butte on a hot July afternoon, to watch the thunderheads gather and rumble in from the west. I'd want them to have a picnic of baguettes and cheese within the perimeter of Theodore Roosevelt's cabin site at the Elkhorn Ranch. Month after month the Industrial Commission sits in judgment of the future of North Dakota and yet they have been making profound decisions about places they know mostly from maps.
I hope everyone who is reading these words will go visit the Special Places between Easter and first snowfall. If you contact me (see below) I will give you tips about how to sequence your visit, and which ones you can legally climb. We need to build a broad protective constituency for the subtle magnificence of western North Dakota. Until you have been to the Elkhorn Ranch (no climbing required), you cannot, in my opinion, quite realize how much is at stake as we frack North Dakota.
We have now reached the defining moment of North Dakota life in the 21st century.
North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem has quietly put together a very modest proposal to designate a small number of acreages of western North Dakota as special or extraordinary places, and to require oil companies to treat those few parcels with special care when they extract the oil. The Attorney General has proposed that the North Dakota Industrial Commission, of which he is one of three members, adopt a set of special rules (or processes) for the management of those few acres.
It's that simple. And here's the most important point. If the Industrial Commission votes to accept Stenehjem's proposal, not a single barrel of oil will be put off limits.
The short list of parcels Stenehjem has in mind includes such things as the near perimeter of the three units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park; North Dakota's most magnificent landform Bullion Butte (south of Medora); the inner channel of the Little Missouri River; historically important sections of the Killdeer Mountains; the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers; the shoreline of Lake Sakakawea; Pretty Butte north of Marmarth. And a few others.
If you ask 100 people to name the most beautiful, fragile, pristine, or sensitive parcels of western North Dakota, almost everyone's list is going to be the same for the first dozen or so places. Everyone understands that the best of the badlands are more valuable to the Idea and Identity of North Dakota than a lovely coulee near Parshall or Crosby. Public lands are inevitably easier to identify with, recreate on, and protect than strictly private properties, however beautiful those may be or special to their private owners. We take our collective identity from those things and places we especially prize (a flag, a veteran's cemetery, a church, a landscape vista), and it is in the interest of a civilized people to make reasonable discriminations about such things as they develop and clarify public policy.
When Stenehjem began to think about this initiative he said, emphatically, that any list he made would need to be shorter rather than longer (a very few very special places, not a unrestrained conservation "wish list"), and that no list would preclude oil development in those parcels. He was adamant that the state of North Dakota has no right to violate the sanctity of contract between private parties or to intrude itself between a willing mineral owner and a willing oil company.
The shortness of Stenehjem's list and his repeated vocal insistence on the sanctity of private property rights has frustrated some members of the environmental or conservationist community in North Dakota. But Stenehjem did not undertake this initiative to please this or that constituency. He has taken the lead because he loves North Dakota, greatly appreciates the landscapes that happen to overlay the Bakken oil shales, and because he understands that reasonable regulatory protocols are as important in the oil fields as they are in all businesses that impact public health and welfare. As a member of the state Industrial Commission, he has a unique public responsibility—to uphold our laws, to promote economic development, to serve the interests of all North Dakotans, and to balance competing interests for the benefit of the broadest number of people possible.
I think Wayne Stenehjem deserves great credit for his leadership in the most critical issue in North Dakota life, the most critical moment (I believe) in my lifetime as a North Dakota citizen. My respect for him was always high, but it has deepened dramatically as this initiative has begun to unfold. The easiest thing would have been to just leave it alone, to stamp the oil permits and get out of the way. To show leadership at a time like this is to invite criticism and backlash from both ends of the spectrum, and to have one's integrity maligned by those (on the one hand) who think that any restraint on the oil industry is tantamount to confiscation and communism, and those (on the other) who believe that the special places initiative is nothing more than a public relations smokescreen behind which the "rape" of North Dakota will continue unabated.
The Attorney General is no wild-eyed liberal. He is not a "radical environmentalist," as some in the oil industry like to characterize those who do not rubber stamp all of their extraction plans. He is not trying to lock up North Dakota to oil development, or even a tiny number of parcels. Above all, he knows and respects the U.S. Constitution, the North Dakota Constitution, and the common law. He knows and condemns what would constitute a Fifth Amendment "taking" of landowners' or mineral owners' property rights, or an unfair burden on private property. He's a brilliant man. He's a Republican. He's a cheerful and serious advocate of the oil boom. He's a man of unimpeachable integrity.
The fate of the Attorney General's initiative is going to tell us who we are and what we value and where we draw the line as the first half of the 21st century unfolds in North Dakota. If his leadership prevails, it will not only help to mitigate the industrial impact on those parcels he has designated (and yet still permit oil development), but it will also reassure the people of North Dakota that the government of the state is directing this great economic boom rather than being passively directed by it, that we are sovereign, that we are in control of our own destiny. His list may seem conservative and modest, but it will make a huge difference to the spirit of North Dakota. We are awash in oil.
If Stenehjem's initiative fails, if neither Governor Dalrymple nor Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring chooses to support the Special Places protocols, it will be an unmistakable sign that nothing is sacred in North Dakota anymore, that everything is for sale, with the least resistance, to the highest bidder. It will be a license to the oil companies that they may have their way with us, because we are insufficiently committed to our own sacred landscape to make reasonable requests about how it should be stripped of its oil reserves.
Oil industry pressure on Governor Dalrymple is going to be gigantic, almost unbearable. Already a "landowners' group" has sprung up, located interestingly enough in Tulsa, Oklahoma, denouncing the Attorney General's initiative, urgently warning mineral owners that, "Nearly a million acres of private land across the Peace Garden State may soon be restricted or even condemned." This is so erroneous that it would appear to be a naked lie, both with respect to the number of acres in question, and the suggestion that lands may be condemned, which is no part of Stenehjem's proposal whatsoever. Furthermore, that "landowners' group" warns that, "Out-of-state interests are pushing their anti-development agenda in Bismarck." This would be hilarious if it were not patently untrue and unfair. The Special Places initiative was wholly the brainchild of Wayne Stenehjem (decidedly in-state!) and nobody else, and his "agenda" is in no way whatsoever "anti-development."
I find such tactics simply appalling. An initiative of this importance deserves a serious public debate. That debate will be passionate, possibly even acrimonious at times. But it ought to be a debate by North Dakotans about the future of North Dakota, and it ought to be conducted with a commitment to honesty and fair play.
In my 58 years, I have never felt more strongly about anything than I feel about this.
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.
The solstice has come and gone. That always trips a little anxiety deep below the surface of my summer joy. We have reached peak light and now we are heading back into the darkness at the rate of three minutes per day. I spent that evening outside. It would be a crime against the light to be inside on 21 June. I don't know what your top five things about North Dakota are, but for me the lingering summer dusk is one of them. Sunset plus two hours of speechless serenity. Yellow followed by gold followed by pink followed by Bloody Mary red followed by charcoal and gray. Each color phase longer and subtler than the last. The pink sometimes wraps itself all the way around the horizon. Now station a thundercloud way, way off on the far western horizon intermittently pulsing with firefly light and you have paradise on earth.
When you sit out on a night like that, it is like a moment out of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam by the English poet Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883):
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread-and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness-
O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
To which I reply, Oh let the summer linger and the light.
On the Fourth of July I went to Medora with my daughter and my mother. My daughter is home in western Kansas for the summer. She is involved in 4-H for the last time as a competitor and she already feels the loss. Ask what is the most Jeffersonian thing in America and you will get a range of answers--from the exquisite Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress to the perfect cubic dining room at his retreat home Poplar Forest in Bedford County, VA. As far as I'm concerned, 4-H may be the epitome of Jefferson's vision of life rural kids learning principles of stewardship, humane care of livestock, household economics, craft, nutrition, rural teamwork, and responsible record-keeping, at the hands of enlightened community volunteers.
We sat through the Medora Fourth of July parade in mid-afternoon smirking, had supper in the hotel, and then went to the Medora Musical with Sheila Schafer, now enjoying her 49th consecutive summer in the badlands. Her health issues keep creeping up towards the tipping point, and she just keeps swatting them away with her perpetual youthfulness and lust for life. Her refrain seems to be, I'll let you know when I'm ready! I just want my daughter to be in the presence of such a woman, the most life-affirming person I have ever met. So there I was in the Burning Hills Amphitheater on a fabulous early July evening, with my three favorite women in the world my 18-year-old daughter, my 81-year-old mother, and the ageless Queen.
There were about 1,800 people in the crowd. The singing and the dancing are especially splendid this year. The prestidigitator Bill Sorensen (co-hosting) tells jokes so lame that we guffawed in spite of ourselves. My daughter laughed until she had tears in her eyes. And the principal co-host Emily Walter has such beauty, talent, and stage presence that in my opinion she deserves a much fuller portfolio, in Medora and beyond. Off in the distance Bullion Butte, and the sinuous thread of the sacred Little Missouri River.
The show was moving towards its close. The Burning Hills Singers had danced themselves out. The two North Dakota songs—Come Home to North Dakota, and Always North Dakota-- choked me up, as always, and sent a surge of raw North Dakota pride right into my heart. The finale this year is a beautifully understated patriotic medley. As it began, the most wonderful thing happened. Spontaneously, without cue cards or a barker or an MC, the large crowd just stood up to honor America, born 237 years ago in the pen of our most gifted dreamer Thomas Jefferson. It was everything you could want on the Fourth of July—just retro enough to clear out all the noise of modern life and make you believe again.
Afterwards, Sheila handed out hundreds of ice cream bars out behind her cabin tucked under the bluff at the edge of town, while one of the best fireworks displays I have ever seen cascaded down just over our outstretched heads. God Bless America.
On the way home the next day, near Almont, I noticed that the prairie grasses have begun to turn. After a late wet spring, the northern plains are beginning to take on their proper tan and russet look. The moment when the grass turns, mostly green and partly tawny, mostly tawny but still partly green, is my favorite moment of the summer in North Dakota. It's the paling and the graying of the green. That's when I think Ah, I live on the Great Plains of America.
This last Tuesday night I found myself at home alone with no pressing deadline. There had been a quick soaking thunderstorm about four p.m. so I could not work in my much-neglected garden without becoming a human mud ball. I made myself a little dinner of little leftovers and ate it in silence as I read the famous steeplechase scene in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. All my electronics were in the off position, as they say on commercial aircraft. The house was perfectly quiet. I took my book and a glass of cold white wine out onto the deck.
The temperature was perfect, precisely what I would have dialed up if I had a hotline to the great god of meteorology. It was not hot. It was warm and, depending on how the breeze stirred, sometimes a little cool and sometimes a little toasty, but toasty in just the right way. No wind, just a gentle breeze that came and went without any drama, like the steady even breathing of the continent. If it had been ten degrees hotter or the breeze three miles per hour stronger, it would have been just one of those North Dakota summer evenings with a summer wind. That would be just fine, but I would not have lingered outside. But this was an evening so perfect in every way that it made me forget that there is winter on the northern plains. About an hour into my reverie, I remember thinking, If I died at dusk tonight (rather than go in to fetch a jacket), I'd be wholly content. The Oglala warrior Crazy Horse used to ride off to battle saying, Le anpetu kin mat'e kin waste ktelo, it is a good day to die. That's how I felt Tuesday night, though I am quite happy to be alive and (reverie or no reverie) there are, fortunately, dozens of projects that must be completed before I let myself croak. Still, that feeling that this is what human happiness is, there is nothing that is missing, was exquisite. I miss my daughter sorely, but if she had been with me we'd be chattering and laughing, not drinking in the gentle breeze in a silence so powerful that you hear it, if that makes any sense.
I just lay there just taking in the evening like a human zucchini, letting thoughts drift in and out of my mind the way you see those motes in your eye drift around slowly and disappear. Somewhere in the distance a mother called out lovingly for her children to come in now for the night.
Happiness at its core is such a simple thing.
A few days ago I had the opportunity to fly over western North Dakota with one of the most remarkable men I know, a significant player in the oil boom with strong roots in the badlands. We love many of the same places and many of the same people out there, and we're both concerned about what the boom means for the beauty and solemnity of the badlands. For many months he's offered to take me flying over the butte country and the sacred Little Missouri River. Things finally lined up for us both and I jumped at the chance.