The departing Superintendent of Theodore Roosevelt National Park says the state “needs to be honest about what is happening in western North Dakota and address the environmental and social problems” that have been created by the state’s oil boom.
Valerie Naylor, superintendent of the park for almost a dozen years, will retire from her National Park Service career on October 31. As she leaves, she cautions her fellow North Dakotans: “We must better manage the oil boom if we are to sustain western North Dakota for the future.”
“We must preserve our extraordinary places,” Naylor said as she prepared to retire to farmland she owns in the Black Hills of South Dakota. “Talking about it is not enough. We must VALUE our resources. Wildlife cannot live without habitat. Neither can humans. We have to preserve some habitat for both wildlife and humans if we are to sustain our way of life in North Dakota. The boom will end someday. What will be left?”
Naylor is not walking far away from the park she grew to love, and fiercely protected, during her watch here. “I will continue to work to preserve the resources of North Dakota, but in different ways. I don’t intend to disappear. There is much to be done to preserve Theodore Roosevelt National Park and I will never quit fighting for this place.”
“Fighting” has been the right word to describe Naylor’s work here. She might have felt like she was playing “Whack-A-Mole” as she watched various oil development threats pop up around the borders of the park’s three units. For the last few years, almost as soon as she negotiated a well position with an oil company in one spot, another one would pop up somewhere else. A lot of that can be blamed on lax oversight of the industry by the state.
“The state needs to truly value the national parks and other public lands,” she says. “It should not have to be a fight to preserve one of the 59 National Parks in the country, or a critical historic site like Fort Union Trading Post or Knife River Indian Villages. You can’t say that you ‘love Theodore Roosevelt National Park’ and then make decisions that degrade the area. We should not have to make a case to preserve wildlife habitat and recreational values on our public lands, such as the Little Missouri National Grassland. Those lands need special protections and regulations. They are public lands and need to be managed for the public.”
She’s had some success protecting the Park’s integrity by negotiating with oil companies. She staved off a threat to put an oil well at the gate of the Elkhorn Ranch, Theodore Roosevelt’s home when he lived and ranched here in the 1880s, getting the company to move the well site almost two miles away, and going after the oil by drilling horizontally. She convinced another company to move a well back a bit from a ridge overlooking the Elkhorn and turning the pump sideways so it was less of a distraction. And another company scratched plans for a saltwater disposal site near the border of the North Unit of the Park after some pretty intense public scrutiny and a face-to-face meeting between Naylor and company representatives .
But as the industry marches inexorably south into the Badlands from its epicenter north of Lake Sakakawea, more and more threats to the park will arise. Already, as night falls over Buck Hill, the South Unit’s highest point, lights and flares from more than two dozen wells and drilling sites dot the horizon, some less than a mile from the park’s border. That saddens the superintendent.
“The terrain and the wildlife here are just amazing,” she says. “There is no other place like it. Assets include incredible wildlife habitat, dark night skies, natural sounds, interesting terrain that changes with every rainstorm, and the Little Missouri River
that pulls it all together. Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy is very strong here. It is a strong natural park with historic undertones. You can’t beat it! The park’s greatest needs are protection from rampant energy development all around its boundaries, and rehabilitation of the historic Peaceful Valley Ranch in the South Unit.”
Rampant energy development. That’s the concern she leaves behind for her successor, who will be chosen in the next few months. “I’ve had a much harder time recruiting quality applicants for positions and ‘selling’ the area to them,” she says. “I used to tell them that there was no better place to live. I used to tell them that despite hard winters, the state was beautiful, there was amazing wildlife, hunting and fishing were exceptional, there was no traffic and no crime, the cost of living was low, and everything was clean. You can’t say that now for the western half of the state. It is much harder to ‘sell’ North Dakota to people. That makes me sad.”
She’ll also share how her job has changed since she’s been here. “I feel like I have had three different jobs. The first few years were focused on trying to acquire the Eberts Ranch to add to the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. That land eventually was purchased by the US Forest Service, which provides some protection for it, but not enough. The next few years were all about elk. Our successful elk management plan and elk reduction took a long time. But everything worked. The last few years, I have focused on oil development around the park, trying to keep the park’s integrity in the midst of a big energy boom.”
Indeed, many Dakotans got an unexpected opportunity to shoot an elk as part of the Park’s program to reduce a population that was in danger of eating itself out of house and home. She considers the successful elk reduction program as one of her biggest accomplishments here, along with raising national and international awareness about the Elkhorn Ranch. “The Elkhorn was considered a ‘site’ before, but it now is discussed as a full unit of the park, just like the South and North Units. There is much more awareness, concern, and visitation at the Elkhorn Ranch than there was in the past. Response to the oil boom is also one of my accomplishments, but it is ongoing and never perfect. There is so much activity going on.”
She lists four highlights during her time here:
- Hosting two secretaries of Interior – Dirk Kempthorne and Sally Jewell
- Receiving the Stephen Mather award from the National Parks Conservation Association
- Getting to know so many people around North Dakota
- Living and working in this magnificent park
The Mather award is the highest honor a superintendent can receive, and it was awarded because of her efforts to protect the Park from energy development, showing that the concern for the Park is a national issue, not just a local one.
Naylor grew up in Oregon and received her undergraduate degree there, but her North Dakota roots go deep. Her great grandparents immigrated to North Dakota in the late 1800s, settling near Minnewaukan, and her grandmother was raised here and spent much of her life in the Carrington area. Her mother attended NDSU before moving to Oregon. She first visited the Badlands in 1973 on a family vacation, and returned to UND to get her graduate degree in biology before joining the National Park Service. Her first NPS assignment was at the park she is now leaving as Superintendent, where she worked as a seasonal ranger and did her field work for her master’s degree.
“North Dakota and Theodore Roosevelt National Park are important places to me,” she says. “While the oil boom provides some benefits to the average person in North Dakota, it is also greatly changing the mood, tone, scenery, and general feel of western North Dakota. For those of us who are tied to the land in some way, it is very hard to watch this major transformation. I’m sure most of my North Dakota friends feel the same way. Many who have moved away say they will never be back. That is hard to stomach.”
While the state has changed, she says, “If we do our jobs right, a national park should not change very much over time. This is not true of most other entities, which are always trying to make improvements or launch new attractions. Facilities may improve and infrastructure should be maintained, but the general park experience should be the same over decades or longer. We cannot improve on nature’s handiwork. I worked here in the early 1980s when there was an oil boom going on. The park was concerned about it then, but that was minor compared to the current impacts and threats. The park itself has not changed much, but the environment around it has changed dramatically.”
And that’s her biggest fear for the park, the Badlands, and the state. She offers these words of caution to the state’s leaders:
“The state needs to do more to protect special places that North Dakotans hold dear and that others come to North Dakota to experience. Otherwise, there will be nothing left of North Dakota after the energy boom ends. There has to be a more measured and conscious approach to development. The state really holds the cards on this one. The Federal agencies, land owners, and private citizens really do not have the power. Only the state can make this happen.”