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.