North Dakota’s Best Place: Can We Keep It That Way?

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).

Theodore Roosevelt National Park Forever Stamp
Theodore Roosevelt National Park Forever Stamp

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.”

quarter
Theodore Roosevelt’s new quarter-dollar coin

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?

Conservation.

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.

Meridian's proposed addition to the town of Belfield
Meridian’s proposed addition to the town of Belfield

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.

7 thoughts on “North Dakota’s Best Place: Can We Keep It That Way?

  1. Your cry for a public outcry is persuasive. But few things are simplistic. Does the owner of the property lose his rights, because of where it is located? If you can’t develop your property within three miles of the park, how about 6 miles, or 9 miles, or 40 miles? If we get an agreement on that, can we make it retroactive to apply to a purchase that was made before? I have a friend who built a dream home on a Minnesota lake with a gorgeous view; then lost his view when a neighbor build a bigger, legal structure next door. Made him mad. Zoning boards have difficult decisions. They work best when they listen to interested parties on both sides. And they work even better when they can mediate and bring peaceful resolution to both sides. Righteous indignation is too easy.

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    1. Was the refiner required to buy that land in the first place? No. They could have picked another spot.

      I’m all for property rights, but I’m also a big fan of corporate responsibility. It seems to me that a responsible, good corporate citizen would look at the surroundings and say “you know what, there are other spots in the region we could build this.”

      Property rights and common sense don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

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  2. I’m rather proud to be a fellow citizen with two such capable and civil exponents of their honest views. Thank you, Jim and John. John, speaking among ourselves as lifelong Republicans, and as people of property–what if we, and the many thousands of others like us, were to agree that as conservatives, we possess both rights and responsibilities? Yes, righteous indignation–“outrage” seems to be the fashionable term these days–is too easy. Let me gently suggest, however, that the 6 miles, 40 miles argument, also, is too easy. It substitutes ideological doctrine in place of reflective consideration. Finally, gentlemen, it seems to me that both your essays are sadly pessimistic. Jim, let’s pour some coffee and talk Stegner one of these days when the fish aren’t biting. Wasn’t it he who wrote of “the geography of hope”?

    All best wishes to a couple of great North Dakotans.

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  3. People protect what they love. If you love your spouse, your child, your dog, or even your house or your classic car — you will do almost anything to protect that beloved person, place, or thing from harm. National Parks are best protected when citizens, business owners, and local governments realize their importance and take steps to protect them. The Federal government cannot do it alone. It would be better if North Dakotans would come together and say “Theodore Roosevelt National Park is beautiful and important to the state and we love it. We will not let any harm come to it.” Then they should act accordingly. How would we feel if the Statue of Liberty was being negatively affected? Or the the Washington Monument? Or The Vietnam Veterans Memorial? Those are also national parks. Why don’t we see that love for North Dakota’s national park? It always comes down to worrying about an individual person’s potential rights, rather than collective love and care for the park, which benefits the people, the state, and the nation.

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  4. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is not only North Dakota’s best place, it’s one of America’s best places. I’ve been to Mexico City and St John in the Virgin Islands that rank above it on that NY Times list. Not even close. Give me TR Park in a heartbeat.

    Oil has to get refined, but it doesn’t have to get refined three miles from the border of this magnificent place. When I am in the park, I also often go up to the top of Buck Hill. I know TR Park is relatively small as national parks go, but for my taste I wish the view would let you think for just an instant that the beauty and wildness this place represents goes on forever.

    Thanks for your words Jim. An oil refinery three miles from the Theodore Roosevelt National Park border is certainly not one of America’s (or North Dakota’s) best ideas.

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  5. Too much Bakken crude leaves our state without being processed. That is dangerous for the people (think disastrous fire in Canadian town last fall caused by Bakken crude railcar accident; dozens were killed. Think of long-delayed trains because crude oil transport has clogged the railway system.) Yes, a refinery would be helpful. It also would create some well-paying jobs and keep some of the oil money in North Dakota at least a little longer.

    But so close to Teddy Roosevelt National Park? No, that flies in the face of proper local zoning, probably some federal regulations, not to mention common sense. It insults the memory of Theodore Roosevelt.

    As for the little “company town” near Belfield, that is not feasible. Too big, too ambitious over a short time span.

    Jim, I love reading your blogs because they give me a taste of home. People commenting are so polite to each other; it is democracy at its best. Can’t wait to get to the Mountain time zone and my family reunion in four days!

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  6. I have seen no compelling argument for the proposed refinery. A lot of space exist for building. I have held for a long time, that we should refine more of our oil here. Same is true for wheat or cattle. Since it all has to be shipped somewhere, the somewhere is where the consumer is, the benefits of processing to our economy should be kept here at home.

    Of course, environment considerations come first. That is a problem with solutions. However, I just do not understand why a refinery or any processing facitlity should be on or close to a Park.

    The idea smacks of politics. In general, I would resist more Parks or expansion of those existing but the sanctity of these parks should come first. The Public needs places to enjoy Nature and to remind us that Nature has a critical place for all of us. And a reminder that all of our new wealth comes from Nature—–there simply is not other way to create new wealth. To ignore that is as big a human folly as I can see.

    Radical environmentalism has no more standing than those who would plunder our home as has been done so often in the past. Sometimes, common sense gets pushed aside for political/economic reasons.

    We have removed ourselves so far from nature that we tend to forget that life on this planet is dependent on the top 6 inches of soil. To recognize that nature is critical for our survival and prosperity gets lost in the shuffle of modern technology will not fill your glass with milk or provide the wheat needed to give your your morning toast. And that it is human activity that assists nature in providing those necessities of life. With that said, we must protect these resources wisely.

    Again, I cannot fathom the idea that a refinery at the proposed location meets any of these criteria..

    As the Right seems to believe, a free and unregulated market is what makes our system work are as foolish as those who believe that more and more regulations and regulators are the answer.

    Today, more than ever, we need to elect people that has the wisdom and common sense to solve these problems. It appears that this is too much to ask of our political system today. It is time that we step back and begin to seek ways to heal the divisions that are harming our way of life.

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