‘Do What You Want, But Stay Off Of My Little Mo’

Here’s part of an article which appears in the November issue of Dakota Country magazine, on the news stands now.

“If we find the moral courage to save the Little Missouri River valley today we will congratulate ourselves 100 years from now, just as we congratulate Theodore Roosevelt for bucking the industrial zeitgeist a hundred years ago to set aside 230 million acres of America’s public lands as National Park, National Monument, National Wildlife Refuge, National Game Preserve and National Forest. Nobody can regret Roosevelt’s work to save the Grand Canyon from commercialization, and yet at the same time his bold and decisive executive action made fierce enemies of very powerful people. Nobody can wish we had not established Yellowstone National Park in 1872, Glacier National Park in 1910, or Theodore Roosevelt National Memorial Park in 1947.”

Those aren’t my words. I wish they were, and I wish I could write like the man who wrote them. He’s Clay Jenkinson, noted North Dakota author, and those are the concluding words from an essay on the Little Missouri River in his upcoming book, tentatively titled ”Who Are We Now? Imagining The Future Of North Dakota.”

The headline on this article is the title of the essay that will appear in that book. The essay is a thoughtful look at the threats to the Little Missouri River, North Dakota’s only official State Scenic River.

I’m going to share some excerpts with you, because he makes the case better than I can about why we need to protect this great resource, and the North Dakota Badlands it carved.

“The Little Missouri is North Dakota’s only truly public river,” Clay writes. “It is also the most beautiful river in North Dakota. It is also the river with the most colorful story base, though the Red was once important as Minnesota spilled over onto the prairie, and the great Missouri has Lewis and Clark, Prince Maximilian, the American Fur Company, Forts Union and Clark, Fort Lincoln, the steamboat era, and the monuments of the era of gigantic dam building of the mid-twentieth century. The Little Missouri is North Dakota’s greatest single natural wonder—believe it or not, there are others. It has a unique heritage. In a state that is 95% privately owned, with virtually every inch of its surface paved, tilled, occupied, overbuilt and manicured–North Dakota is one of the world’s great farmlands—we can afford to carve out a sliver of magnificent landscape to leave in its natural state. We can, but we do not need to, develop the Little Missouri River Valley and turn its resources (water, oil, incredible beauty and unusualness), into cash.”

The threats to the Little Missouri and the Badlands are numerous, from concrete bridges connecting endless miles of dusty gravel roads, to oil well pads, tank batteries and water depots on river banks, to a planned refinery beside a national park set aside to honor our greatest conservation president. Two years ago, the North Dakota Legislature passed a bill, signed into law by Governor Doug Burgum, to allow, for the first time in our state’s history, the use of Little Missouri River water for industrial purposes—fracking—bringing those water depots and the thousands of trucks that will use them, deep into the valley of our state’s only official designated State Scenic River.

In his essay, Clay decries that, as North Dakota’s latest transgression. Why do we allow that, and why does the oil industry choose to run its trucks through the Little Missouri River valley to get its fracking water when the massive Lake Sakakawea offers a never-ending supply?

“Because they can,” Clay writes, “because nobody protests, because the intake structures are so far from the main traveled roads of North Dakota  they are almost never visited, because the Little Missouri State Scenic River Act is ignored, because the North Dakota state government, including the three-member Industrial Commission, which includes Governor Burgum, (an avowed conservationist) is more comfortable working for the oil and gas industrial complex than for the general welfare of North Dakota.”

Clay goes on: “Without any federal protection under the (federal) Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and a toothless and unenforceable State Scenic River designation, North Dakota’s most remarkable and fragile river is vulnerable to industrial development that impairs its aesthetic and historical integrity, the more so because the State Scenic River designation gives the North Dakota public the illusion that someone is looking out for the river.”

Those are harsh words, but for someone who loves the Little Missouri enough to name his only child for it, Clay says what needs to be said in this era of the Bakken Boom. I know his need to say them. We’ve spent countless hours together in the Badlands, our pants rolled up to our knees as we waded across the shallow river in summer, our boots dusty from the Petrified Forest trail, our lungs near collapse as we raced up the last hundred yards to the top of Pretty Butte.

When Clay writes about the Little Missouri, he knows of what he speaks. He is surely the only living person who has hiked banks of the entire length of the river, all 560 miles, from its source near Devils Tower in Wyoming to its mouth near the Killdeer Mountains in North Dakota. He wrote about it in his first book of essays, “Message on the Wind,” in 2002. Here’s how he described the way he and I saw the Badlands from the top of Bullion Butte on a cloudy day:

“We were just below the base of the massive cloud bank that stretched to the horizon in every direction. The cloud was full of moisture, which precipitated into our foreheads and forearms like dew, like manna. The cloud base was luminous and white, not black like a storm cloud. We were so close to the base of the clouds that we felt we could stand upright and disappear into another world. The sky cast a bizarre, almost fluorescent, light on the valley of the Little Missouri River. I don’t think I ever saw that country more green than it was that day. We felt like balloonists ascending into Emerald City. The quality of the light was magnificent. The green of the country was not a dark, sensuous summer green, not quite the sagebrush washed green of arid country. It was a luminescent and even enchanted green, brilliant with a hundred billion perfectly spherical water droplets distributed over its foliage, and it rolled endlessly in every direction to the end of the world.”

Bullion Butte Clouds
The view looking northwest from the west face of Bullion Butte

Clay’s power of description has not diminished in the nearly 20 years since he wrote that. From his new essay:

“The badlands of North Dakota seem to come straight out of central casting: the kind of landscape you’d set a Roy Rogers or John Wayne or Clint Eastwood movie in. It’s the Old West on a kind of modest scale: broken country in every direction, rugged hills, cliffs, ridges, and buttes, with a broad (though miniature) valley at its center and a lazy serpentine shallow plains river running through it. The badlands have a kind of droll, whimsical slightly improbable feel about them, perhaps because they appear so suddenly as you approach from the east. It’s hard to believe that shallow, sluggish river carved so dramatic and breathtaking a landscape. There are times in the southern part of the Little Missouri River in North Dakota when you think you might be on the Moon or Mars and there are times when the river valley north of the Elkhorn Ranch unit feels like a mild version of the Grand Canyon. The river bites deeper into the land as it flows north.”

I hope North Dakota’s important people, leaders who can put the brakes on the massive and thoughtless development not just threatening but already devastating this most important natural wonder and asset our state has to offer, will read this essay and the rest of the Clay’s important thoughts about our state in his new book. North Dakotans, and visitors to our state, deserve better than this. I hope you’ll read it too. I’ll tell you when it is ready, and where you can get it.


4 thoughts on “‘Do What You Want, But Stay Off Of My Little Mo’

  1. As you know Jim, I’m the author of the Little Missouri State Scenic River Bill, written way back in the mid 1970s. I took on this task to prevent two dams which were proposed to be built through the State Water Commission’s West River Diversion Plan. One of the dams was proposed to be constructed on Sand Creek, a tributary, and the other on the mainstream Little Missouri at an undisclosed location between Marmarth and Medora. I also inserted language that the waters of the Little Missouri River were to be diverted only for agricultural and recreational purposes. I inserted language that established a Little Missouri River Commission to serve as a watchdog over future activities.
    The West River Diversion Plan, in substance, was a good plan except for the Little Missouri River portion. Nobody foresaw the Bakken oil boom in the 1970s, I did anticipate that some human caused disturbances which would degrade the valley immediately adjacent to the river other than those undertaken by the ranching community could occur, although I didn’t know what. I tried unsuccessfully to place a legislative protective layer over the river valley which would have stipulated what activities would have been prohibited. Even ranchers I knew personally did not favor including anything like that in the legislation that was passed. The Little Missouri State Scenic River Act did accomplish what was the major task at hand. That was the prohibition of dams on the Little Missouri River itself. Without that legislation, you could very well now be looking at one or more dams on the more northern reaches of the river within the active areas of the Bakken Oil Field. The legislation that was passed almost unanimously by the state legislature in the 1970s did not consist of just words on paper. We accomplished what we intended to do. It is now up to the present generation of North Dakotans who have concerns over what is or what could occur, to take up the torch. It would be a very daunting task.



    jim, last week you provided some concerns written by your friend Clay Jenkinson regarding the state level protections for the Little Missouri River as it regards the Little Missouri State Scenic River Bill passed by the North Dakota Legislature and signed into law by Governor Link back in the 1970s. You indicated that Mr. Jenkinson plans to include his thoughts you provided in your blog concerning the river and what he has identified as an inadequate state law, plus other aspects of interest to some of the citizenry of your state in a book he is planning to have published. One of the statements you quoted was that Jenkinson was advocating for federal protection of the river via inclusion within the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

    One of the first considerations if such an effort was to become successful is identification of the federal agency that would become the managing entity if such an effort would become successful. First and foremost, given the current political and economic environment in your state, I find that proposal to be a huge undertaking with a very uncertain outcome. The only federal agencies that come to mind for me are either the U.S. Forest Service or the National Park Service.

    The federal government is not in the business of managing privately owned lands. If I’m not mistaken, not all, but the majority of privately owned lands in the North Dakota Badlands anywhere near the river are within the river valley itself. Ranch headquarters are also located on those lands bordering the river.

    I left North Dakota in 1977 to take a position with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Montana. My first task was to write the management plan for the 149 mile section of the newly designated Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River. This was a congressional requirement. That plan and all management aspects could only apply to federal lands managed by the Bureau within an identified Wild and Scenic river corridor. Identifying that corridor and the management actions for selected portions of the river were included in the plan.

    Consultation with one or both federal agencies I have mentioned to gauge their receptivity should be one of the first tasks undertaken.

    The valley of the Little Missouri in regard to land ownership is far different than what exists on the Upper Missouri. This is especially true from Coal Banks Landing down river to the Fred Robinson Bridge where the majority of valley lands are managed by the federal government.

    As I indicated earlier and of which you have been aware, I’m the author of the Little Missouri State Scenic River Legislation. If I and others had thought that there would have been a chance of obtaining federal wild and scenic river designation for the Little Missouri more than four decades ago, we would have taken steps in that direction after all necessary consultation at state and federal levels. For obvious reasons, that did not happen.

    I wish Mr. Jenkinson and other like minded citizens well in any endeavor to obtain federal wild and scenic river designation. I can assure you that it will become a very controversial task. I will be watching from afar with a great deal of interest for any future news on this subject.


  3. Gary, the NPS made a run at it back in the 80s, trying to get the portion of the river in the national park designated as wild and scenic, but it failed because of local opposition. I don’t think there’s much appetite for it now.


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