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Roosevelt's Badlands Ranch Faces Potential Threat

Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota is often called the Walden Pond of the West. But Roosevelt's ranch is now feeling the pressure of an oil boom that is industrializing the local landscape. Critics say a proposed gravel pit and a bridge could destroy the very thing that made such a lasting impression on Roosevelt: the restorative power of wilderness.

Roosevelt first came to the western North Dakota Badlands in 1883 to shoot one of the area's few remaining buffalo. He got his trophy, but he also fell in love with the landscape and cattle ranching.

He came back in 1884 and rode 30 miles up the Little Missouri River from the nearest town and found an isolated site on the river bank that suited him. That's where he built a big cabin called the Elkhorn Ranch.

Leaving New York Behind

Driving those 30 miles on a dirt road recently, Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor describes that chapter in Roosevelt's life.

"When he went back home in February of 1884, his wife died two days after giving birth to their child," she says. "And his mother died in the same house, on the same day. And he was devastated. So later in the year, he came out here to mourn — and really to leave his life in New York behind and to become a cattle rancher in Dakota Territory."

The Elkhorn Ranch is in the North Dakota Badlands, which are, in fact, beautiful. The area is crisscrossed with ravines called coulees: meadows at their bottoms, with tree-lined sides bordered by gray and red walls. Fantastical rock formations fracture the horizon.

Naylor points out the old hand-dug well and the ranch house's massive foundation stones cut from granite. But that's all that's left today.

"That is one thing that's so special about the Elkhorn Ranch. We don't have anything that's reconstructed here," she says. "We just have a site. And it's the way that it was, for the most part, when Roosevelt first found it in the summer of 1884."

'A Place Of Extreme Solitude'

The leaves of massive cottonwoods, some of which were probably here when Roosevelt was, quake in the wind. The trees line the Little Missouri River, winding like a brown snake through the gray cliffs.

"You can see and hear things that many people have never seen and heard," Naylor says. "That is, a landscape without any development, and all natural sounds: birds, wind in the cottonwood trees."

When he wasn't working with cattle, Roosevelt sat on the cabin's broad veranda — a place for recovery, reverie and reflection about the future of the West.

Historian Douglas Brinkley calls the ranch "a place of extreme solitude and historical sanctity, a place where Theodore Roosevelt generated his ideas for his crusade to save wild and special places in the United States."

Brinkley is the author of Wilderness Warrior, a history of Roosevelt's conservationist accomplishments.

"Theodore Roosevelt, as president, saved over 234 million acres of wild America," he says. "There's been no president that's come close to accomplishing what Theodore Roosevelt did in the environmental realm. And that was over a hundred years ago."

Seeing Threat In An Oil Boom

Conservationists fear that North Dakota's oil boom will ruin the ranch's contemplative seclusion; that wells will be drilled along the ridges lining the Little Missouri; that a dusty, noisy gravel mine just across the river will soon start up; and that a big bridge will soon be built too near the ranch.

"We know damn well where that bridge belongs," says Jim Arthaud, chairman of the Billings County Board of Commissioners. "On federal ground, about three miles north."

Arthaud also owns a trucking company. He says the bridge will be out of earshot and eyesight of the ranch. But studies of those effects have not been completed. It is estimated that at least 1,000 trucks a day would cross the bridge. But Arthaud says tourists would use it, too.

"The whole public would be able to use that place, not just the elitist environmentalists," he says. "That lousy 50, however many acres it is, 200 acres or whatever, where Teddy sat there and rested his head and found himself."

The owner of the gravel mine rights just across the river from Elkhorn has agreed to negotiate with the Forest Service about possibly relocating. But Arthaud says even if that happens, it won't set a precedent for the ranch region's future. Development, he says, is just a matter of time.

"That Elkhorn Ranch site is surrounded by people that own mineral rights," Arthaud says, "and it's going to get developed."

There's pressure on President Obama to declare the surrounding area a national monument, an executive order tool often used by Roosevelt and more recently by Bill Clinton. If that should happen, Arthaud says, the locals would raise hell and do everything in their power to reverse it.

John McChesney is the director of the Rural West Project of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.

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John McChesney