February 18, 2013

Environmental Threats Emerge at the "Walden Pond of the West"

The full version of this story originally appeared in E&E on Feb. 14, 2013. [As N.D. drilling boom spreads, so do worries about Roosevelt's 'cradle of conservation' -- by Scott Streater, E&E reporter.] Copyright 2013, Environment and Energy Publishing LLC. Excerpted with permission.

Photo by David Nix/digitalimageryphotos.smugmug.com

The rolling hills, crested buttes and cottonwood trees surrounding the Elkhorn Ranch in the western North Dakota badlands look very much the same as when a young Theodore Roosevelt first settled there in 1884.

Roosevelt moved to the ranch to heal after his first wife and mother both died on Valentine's Day 1884 -- exactly 129 years ago today. Though he lived at the ranch only a short time, and the log house and scores of cattle that once grazed there are long gone, this ranch is where Roosevelt first developed the conservation ethic that defined his term as the nation's 26th president and earned him the title the "Conservationist President."

Indeed, the Elkhorn Ranch, which is now part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, is often referred to as the "cradle of conservation" and the "Walden Pond of the West."

Photo by David Nix/digitalimageryphotos.smugmug.com

But today the solitude and natural splendor of the 218-acre ranch and the entire national park are under increasing threat, park officials say, by rapidly expanding shale oil development in North Dakota's booming Bakken Shale play. Proposals to build a gravel pit and bridge within view of the park, both of which are related to the oil boom, also pose major risks.

So far, the vast majority of the development has occurred on private lands to the north of Billings County, where the 70,000-acre national park is located. But within the next decade or so it's estimated the state could house as many as 40,000 wells with much of the development moving farther south and southeast across the badlands -- and onto and around public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.

Flaring from about two dozen drilling rigs already can be seen at night from the Buck Hill observation area in the Roosevelt National Park's south unit and from various vantage points along Scenic Drive in the park's north unit, according to Vickie Naylor, superintendent of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

But the drilling rigs themselves may be the least of the park's concerns.

A Montana business owner has proposed digging a gravel pit on an adjacent lot across the Little Missouri River and within the viewshed of the ranch to support anticipated oil development in the region. Even more troubling to park officials, Billings County leaders want to build a $15 million bridge that, depending on several routes under review, could cross the Little Missouri River within the viewshed of the Elkhorn Ranch. The Federal Highway Administration is reviewing the project, and the agency is expected to release a draft environmental impact statement this spring.

These proposals were among the reasons the National Trust for Historic Preservation last summer added the Elkhorn Ranch to its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The [T]rust produces the annual list to raise awareness about threats to the nation's most historic treasures.

Credit: Photo by David Nix/digitalimageryphotos.smugmug.com

"By and large we are not against oil and gas development, that's not what we're trying to say," [said Jenny Buddenborg, senior field officer in the National Trust's Denver field office]. "But we think there are certainly areas that are so important to our culture and our history that they can and should be avoided. There are hundreds of acres elsewhere that can be exploited or explored. There are other places."

She said the National Trust for Historic Preservation is holding a strategy session next week in Bismarck with other conservation groups, including the Dakota Resource Council and the Badlands Conservation Alliance, to try to determine what strategy would best work to protect the ranch and national park.

"We are trying to find solutions that will stem this incompatible development," she said.

Meanwhile, the Park Service does what it can to protect the natural resources at the ranch and national park by carefully monitoring drilling activity and projects on a case-by-case basis.

"We are trying to preserve the Elkhorn Ranch itself and the [natural] value that Theodore Roosevelt cherished, such as the quiet, the solitude, the night skies," said Naylor, the park superintendent. "Roosevelt wrote about the sound of the wind in the trees, the birds. But it makes it difficult when so much activity is going on around us."

By: Scott Streater, E&E reporter

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