June, for me, marks the beginning of the end of “Spring fishing season.” I’m mostly a Missouri River fisherman. My fishing buddy Jeff lives on the river just south of Bismarck, and keeps his boat tied to the bank behind his house. It’s pretty easy to just jump in the boat and go, and we do, a lot. We’re going Thursday morning, in fact. But by late June, or sometimes early July, the bite slows down in that section of the river, and that’s when I head for the Badlands.
This year I’ll probably spend more time there than ever. Because this year, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is participating in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
Writer and historian Wallace Stegner called national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
American filmmaker Ken Burns, who borrowed the title “America’s Best Idea” for his six-part mini-series, called national parks “an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved for everyone.”
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, 70,000 of the best acres in North Dakota’s Little Missouri Scenic River Badlands, is where you’ll most often find me in July, August and September, and even into October when I can get a few days off from pheasant hunting. It’ll probably be a little bit busier this year than normal, because the park is getting some much-deserved recognition lately.
In January, the New York Times, in its annual list of “52 Places To Go In 2016” put our park at Number 5. Above TRNP on the list were Mexico City, Bordeaux in France, Malta, and St. John in the Virgin Islands. Below TRNP: everything else in the world. Pretty elite company.
“Few presidents have done as much for conservation as Teddy Roosevelt,” the Times wrote. “Fly into Dickinson in western North Dakota to visit the park named after him, where rolling grasslands dotted with bison collapse into the spectacular red, white and gold badlands of tumbling mud coulees. Lonely dirt roads bring you to one of the park’s less-visited attractions, Elkhorn Ranch, about 35 miles north of Medora, where Roosevelt arrived in 1884 as a young New Yorker ready to raise cattle and heal from the deaths of his wife and mother. Transformed and inspired, the 26th president eventually set aside more than 230 million acres of federal land to help preserve the wonder of places like Crater Lake, Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon.” (None of which made the Times’ list).
Just a couple months after the Times’ story this past winter, the U. S. Postal Service announced that Theodore Roosevelt National Park would be featured on one of 16 “Forever Stamps” to be issued this year in celebration of the National Parks Centennial. In announcing the stamp, the Postal Service wrote “According to the National Park Service, when Theodore Roosevelt came to Dakota Territory to hunt bison in 1883, he was a ‘skinny, young, spectacled New Yorker.’ He could not have imagined how his adventure in this remote and unfamiliar place would forever alter the course of the nation. The rugged landscape and strenuous life he experienced here would help shape a conservation policy that we still benefit from today.”
And this summer, in a ceremony celebrating “Founders Day,” the actual 100th Birthday Party for the National Park Service, the U.S. Mint will unveil a new quarter-dollar coin featuring an image of Theodore Roosevelt astride his horse Manitou in the North Dakota Badlands as a tribute to the park named after him. The ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. August 25 at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center just east of Medora. You’re invited.
The Mint, in its press release, said “Theodore Roosevelt National Park is named after Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, who owned a ranch on the land that is now part of the park. Thanks to President Roosevelt’s love of nature, many of the national parks in operation today were formed by his administration.”
The New York Times. The U.S. Postal Service. The U.S. Mint. Pretty heady company. Pretty significant recognition for our little old park in the North Dakota Badlands.
Did you notice a theme in those press releases?
All of them talked about TR’s conservation ethic and love of nature, and his significant contribution to preservation of some of America’s best places. That’s a different kind of recognition of our national park than what it has mostly been getting the last five years or so. Because much of the publicity has not been good. Mostly, it’s been about threats to this important place in America’s conservation history.
It began a few years ago when the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of the park was named one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Trust cited threats from a new oilfield road and Little Missouri Scenic River crossing adjacent to the Elkhorn Ranch site, and a gravel mining operation just across the river. The threats are real. The gravel mine began operation this spring, and an Environmental Impact Statement on the river crossing is due out this summer.
The latest threat to the park is a proposed oil refinery just three miles from the park boundary. That project is the most in-your-face proposal yet to emerge from the Bakken Oil Boom. The idea of putting an oil refinery—a noisy, smelly, ugly industrial complex—just across the highway, within eyesight and earshot of a National Park dedicated to our greatest conservation president ever—a president so important that he is the only U.S. President to have a national park named for him—just boggles the mind.
The refinery has received preliminary zoning approval from local authorities. Final approval could come from the Billings County Commission next Tuesday, June 7, when Meridian Energy Group, the California company proposing to build the plant, presents its answer to some some conditions set forth by the county zoning board and the commission itself at its meeting in May. State and federal agencies have yet to weigh in, but Meridian has assured everyone they are committed to keeping the air clean near the park. We’ll see.
But beyond clean air—the plant will have to take steps to insure that the park’s Class 1 Air Quality status is maintained—there’s the visual impact. Not long ago, in a fit of boosterism to impress local government and economic development officials, Meridian bragged that the company would attract “compatible industrial process units” to locate alongside the refinery. “Meridian has received inquiries from agricultural chemicals firms, brewing companies, and others interested in locating facilities nearby once the project is in operation,” they said.
In fact, Meridian even produced a slick video presentation about that, but then, realizing the folly of bragging about an industrial park running all the way along the entrance to a national park beside Interstate 94, they dumped the video from their website. In its place is a new video touting the company’s commitment to Belfield and the surrounding area. It’s 3 minutes long. It’s pretty. You can look at it here.
Also missing from the website now is a sketch of what looks like “Davis Refinery Village.” The sketch shows a development east of the proposed refinery, with a little more than 500 acres, not much smaller than the entire existing city of Belfield, hard up against the town’s west edge, almost doubling the size of the town. It includes housing for more people than now live in Belfield–400 units of work force housing or motels, 500 units of multi-family housing (read: apartments), and 200 units labeled “single family duplex.” The design also includes a modular housing manufacturing facility, commercial and industrial property, a school site, 6-plex theater, clinic, gymnasium, restaurant and bar, storage facilities and a bowling alley. Quite an addition to a town of less than 1,000 souls.
Unlike the refinery, which is in Billings County, the development looks like it is across the county line in Stark County, so it likely won’t be discussed at Tuesday’s Billings County Commission meeting. In looking at Tuesday’s agenda, it looks like the Meridian refinery rezoning request is pretty much scheduled to take up the whole day.
Both former Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor, now a consultant for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), and current Superintendent Wendy Ross, have called the refinery proposal “unacceptable.” It’s not often federal employees take such visible positions, so they are obviously very concerned.
There are a number of other visual intrusions on the park, mostly the result of nearby oil development. The night skies, for example, are no longer dark, as they should be in a wilderness area—about a fourth of the park is officially labeled as wilderness where no traffic other than foot traffic is allowed.
In a recent article in NPCA’s magazine, Park Ranger Bill Whitworth said “The point of wilderness is to remove yourself from the impact of human settlement, and the oil and gas industry has taken that away.”
On one trip to Buck Hill, the highest point in the Park’s South Unit, a year ago, I counted more than two dozen visual intrusions on the horizon, either from well drilling sites or gas flares. If you drive the scenic road through the North Unit at dusk, the entire northern skyline is afire. The slowdown in oil activity caused by the recent slump in prices has eased that some, but it will be worse when prices come back.
Little Missouri State Park, just down the road from the North Unit of TRNP, has suffered much the same fate. It was once one of my favorite Badlands getaway spots, because the scenery is just as spectacular, the hiking trails are an almost magical escape from civilization, and there are generally fewer visitors, but today the development is so overwhelming and the flaring is so intense there that I won’t even go there anymore.
But this summer, we will celebrate 100 years of America’s Best Idea. I’m going to go to the bank in Medora, get a few rolls of those quarters, then walk next door to the Post Office and buy a bunch of Forever Stamps, and then go over to Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s Visitor Center and buy some postcards to send to all my friends. I hope I see you out there. It’s North Dakota’s Best Place. I hope it can keep that title.